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09/23/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Girls Who Stay In Elementary School Longer Have Better Body Image, Study Finds

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New research suggests that a girl's body image might be affected by the type of school she goes to -- but only temporarily. Girls who attend an elementary school that continues through sixth grade have a better body image than those who leave elementary school after fifth grade and begin middle school the next year.

The study was a collaboration between researchers at Macalester College; Stephen J. Sullivan, a teacher at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York; and Sullivan's two daughters, Jacklyn and Christine Sullivan. When Jacklyn and Christine came up with the idea, they were high school students with a hunch that if you push kids into middle school at a younger age, they may pick up social cues about their bodies earlier than they would have if they had waited to join the older students.

"When Steve and his daughters first pitched the idea, it just made so much sense that who is in your ambient environment could matter," Jaine Strauss, professor of psychology at Macalester College and an author of the study, told The Huffington Post.

Elementary schools provide a "buffer" for young girls' body insecurities

In their cross-sectional research, Strauss and her co-authors surveyed 1,536 girls in fifth through eighth grade from seven public school systems. The students were divided among schools the researchers classified as junior high schools (seventh and eighth grades), middle schools (sixth through eighth grades) and extended middle schools (fifth through eight grades). For five years beginning in 2005, the students provided basic demographic information, along with answers to questions for well-validated metrics of body image, such as the Eating Disorder Inventory, the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire and the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale.

After controlling for body mass index, race and family income, the results were telling: Girls in junior high reported less body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, thin-ideal internalization, body surveillance and body shame than girls in middle school or extended middle school. Additionally, body image worsened with each successive grade level, a finding in line with previous research. But delayed entry into that middle tier of education provided kids with what Strauss called "a buffer for their well-being."

"What we really found was that whatever grade they entered education with the older kids, that's where we saw the problems," Strauss said. "So fifth graders in extended middle school looked a lot like sixth graders in regular middle school."

Watching older girls in school can make younger girls look at their own bodies more critically

The study didn't look into why this was the case, but Strauss has a few hypotheses. One possibility is that simply interacting with older kids can speed up the body insecurity process -- exposure to older girls bullying each other or the way older girls approach eating in the cafeteria can shift a younger girl's perspective about her own body. Another possibility is that the middle school health curriculum may differ in how students are taught to look at weight management and dieting.

"I don't think we want this paper to suggest that we should do away with middle schools," Strauss said. "I think what we really want to do is ask: Are our kids served best by having all of the enriched educational opportunity that a middle school provides? Or are they served best by being kept in an elementary school where they're protected a little longer from some of these pernicious ideas about their bodies? It's really a balancing act."

But no matter where you send your daughter to school, her body image will take a hit in eighth grade

The unfortunate discovery the researchers made was that that aforementioned "buffer" completely diminished by eighth grade, a year in which there was no significant association between school type and body experience. Girls in eighth grade seemed to feel bad about their bodies regardless of the type of school they attended in the years preceding. By that time, nearly all of the girls in the study had reached puberty, an age at which many experience their first brush with objectification via social interactions or media consumption.

One way to look at this finding, according to Strauss, is to say, "If all we've done is delay the body insecurity process, what's all of the fuss about?"

"But the other way to think about it is, if I said to you, 'You have a choice. You're going to be miserable by eighth grade. You could also be miserable in fifth, sixth and seventh grade, or you can wait and just be miserable in eighth grade.' Wouldn't you think there might be some advantage to opting to just be miserable in eighth grade?" Strauss said. "Our sense of it is that even if it's inevitable, having a couple of extra years where you have a bit of immunity to it might just be a good thing."

Wherever you decide to send your daughter to school, be cautious when talking about bodies with her

Strauss noted that even though this study only looked at girls, similar effects may well be happening for boys. She also stressed the importance of using these findings to explore why body image takes a hit in middle school and beyond. Identifying the source of these insecurities may provide some insight on how to prevent them in the first place. Until then, Strauss cautions against integrating younger girls with older girls in all school types if it can be helped.

According to Strauss, it may be possible to have a middle school that provides insulation to younger girls so that they may enjoy the advantages of attending middle school, like flexible scheduling and more exploratory, non-academic classes. The first step, she said, is for parents and educators to be careful about how they talk to kids about their bodies. Emphasizing weight loss and diet, even in a healthy manner, can send the wrong message to vulnerable girls.

"Bodies are one of those things that we talk a lot about," she said. "We see them all of the time -- they're very visible. So how we as a society think about our bodies and how we talk about our bodies communicates a lot to kids."

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