Going to School With Older Kids Gives Girls Body-Image Issues

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Photo: Heide Benser/Corbis

If you’re a fifth-grader in the United States, chances are you’re in one of three different situations, depending on the grade-grouping system your school district uses. If your district has middle schools, you’re sitting at the top of the totem pole in a K–5 elementary school; if it has junior high schools, you’re near the top of a K–6 elementary school; and if it has extended middle schools, you’re at the bottom of a 5–8 middle school, looking up.

new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly suggests that these distinctions matter, that young girls in school with older ones take some pretty unhealthy body-image and health cues from them.

For the study, the researchers had more than 1,500 fifth-through-eighth-graders from the northeast fill out forms asking for their basic demographic and physical characteristics, and then gave them several surveys designed to help gauge their body-image and eating issues. The researchers thought that being exposed to older, more physically developed kids might have a negative impact on younger, less-developed ones, and sure enough, it did: All things being equal, kids in school with more older students had more body-image and eating issues.

There are some obvious moves that can be made to counteract this. “[S]pending more time in elementary school might confer some protective advantage,” the researchers write — kids in “districts that delay exposure to older students until seventh grade … fare better than students in districts using MS and EMS grade groupings.” For instance, “fifth graders who were largely insulated from older students reported more positive body experiences than those who interacted more fully with older schoolmates.”

I’m guessing most parents wouldn’t mind keeping their girls insulated from older kids a bit longer, anyway.