This study explored the relationship between body image and substance use and attitudes among middle school students. We found significant gender differences and a pattern of substance use risk for more acculturated Latino students. In keeping with previous research, girls reported poorer body image than boys, regardless of the dimension measured. Furthermore, gender differences were found in the relationship between body image and drug use and norms. Effects varied for boys and girls according to the aspect of body image measured. Disliking one’s looks appears to be more of a risk factor for boys than for girls. Boys may turn to substance use to compensate for their perceived unattractiveness. Certainly, the pervasive media images, such as in the alcohol advertising geared toward males, associate substance use with a variety of positive traits, including male attractiveness, especially toward the other gender. Some boys may believe or hope that substance use can enhance their image. Alternatively, these boys may simply use substances to ease their discomfort with their appearance during social interactions.
For girls, on the other hand, weight-related body image appears to be a more salient predictor of substance use. Not surprisingly, the substance associated with body image for girls is cigarettes, which are commonly believed to control weight. This finding supports the notion that some girls may use substances as a weight-control strategy. Although boys who viewed themselves as too thin reported greater lifetime cigarette use and weaker antidrug norms, their concerns may be less about weight than about size or build. By smoking these boys may believe they project a tough, masculine image, sufficient to compensate for what they perceive to be lacking physically in stature or musculature. These results are consistent with previous research suggesting that weight-related concerns are more common among girls and size/build concerns are more common among boys. Future studies, however, should incorporate clearly distinct measures of weight-related and size/build-related body image.
Analyses of ethnicity/acculturation revealed significant differences in body image. Latinos disliked their looks more than other ethnic groups, and less acculturated Latino boys reported the highest levels of dissatisfaction with their looks. The choice of body image measure may explain this finding. Students may have interpreted “looks” broadly, defining it in terms of personal style (e.g., clothing or hairstyle) in addition to, or rather than, physical features. If so, less acculturated Latinos would be expected to have less familiarity with mainstream American styles. Even if familiar with mainstream styles, they may not have the resources to incorporate such styles into their self-presentation. A recent Latino/a immigrant boy, for instance, is unlikely to be able to simply buy a new wardrobe upon arrival to dress similarly to and receive approval from his or her American peers. Furthermore, he may not want to modify his looks but, nonetheless, have negative feelings about them as a consequence of teasing or harassment by peers. Even more acculturated Latinos may be subject to ridicule based on the devaluing of stereotypical “Latino looks” in mainstream American society. Although in this study Latinos form the majority ethnic group in most of their schools, which arguably might insulate them from such treatment, they are vulnerable to discrimination based on appearance as members of a minority ethnic group.
Counter to some prior research, less, rather than more, acculturation was associated with poorer body image. Relatively large proportions of less acculturated Latinos, especially boys, described themselves as too thin. Since these youth report low levels of acculturation, it is unlikely that their negative body perceptions are the result of the internalization of White body ideals via acculturation. However, as these youth attempt to reconcile two different cultures, they may experience acculturation stress (49
). Their poor body image may reflect feelings of being in between 2 cultures and, therefore, an outsider to both.
Further research should explore the sources of poor body image among both more and less acculturated Latinos. Historically, the research on Latinos and other ethnic minorities has assumed that the source is acculturation to Western culture. Although results from this study do not rule out this possibility, they suggest that other sources of poor body image, including discrimination and acculturation stress, may exist for Latinos.
Despite their vulnerability to poor body image as a group, Latinos showed within group variation in the effects of body image on substance use. Here, more acculturated Latino boys with poor body image appear to be at greatest risk for substance use and weak antidrug norms. More acculturated Latina girls who think they are too fat also appear to be at risk. These boys and girls appear to be vulnerable to mainstream body ideals: The boys do not want to be thin and the girls do not want to be fat. At the same time, as acculturated youth, these boys and girls are vulnerable to the less conservative mainstream substance use norms. Consequently, they may view substance use as an acceptable avenue for dealing with their body image problem.
No effects of body image on substance use were found among less acculturated Latinos. This absence of effects may seem surprising in light of the bivariate results showing that less acculturated Latinos on average had the poorest body image. For this group low acculturation may operate initially as a protective factor against substance use but not body image. Later, as acculturation progresses in this group, youth with poor body image may become more vulnerable to substance use. Other research on youth substance use has shown that low acculturation can protect against substance use (47
). This study also produced evidence of this effect. In many of the regression equations with all cases, the coefficients of the less acculturated Latino dummy term indicated more desirable outcomes relative to Whites, while the coefficients of the more acculturated Latino dummy term indicated relatively less desirable outcomes. These results suggest that less acculturated Latinos with poor body image may simply deal with their problem in a way other than through substance use. Future research should explore how poor body image relates to other risks for less acculturated Latinos.
The question remains as to why few effects on drug use and drug norms were found for body image in White or other non-Latino youth. The few effects that did appear for these groups were due to weight-related body image. No effects appeared for disliking one’s looks. More acculturated Latino youth may be more susceptible than youth from other ethnic groups to disliking their looks. In the Southwest, Latinos constitute the predominant minority group and are, therefore, an easy target for stereotyping. More acculturated Latino youth are likely to be well acquainted with the stereotypes about them, and their body image and coping may suffer as a result. Furthermore, these youth may have difficulty separating race/ethnicity from mainstream body ideals. They may associate having the ideal body with being White. If so, they may experience even greater frustration in attempting to achieve the already nearly impossible mainstream body ideals, and may, consequently, consume substances to cope. Future research should explore how the experience of minority status may influence body image.
More acculturated Latinos constituted the largest group in the sample. It is possible that the findings were influenced by their dominance in the sample. Lack of power may explain the absence of some effects for other groups. However, comparisons of coefficients across groups revealed differences in magnitude and direction for many effects, suggesting that the relationship between body image and substance use varies across groups.
One incongruent finding was that more acculturated Latina girls who disliked their looks actually reported less substance use, specifically, less cigarette use. Although more acculturated Latina girls may view cigarettes as acceptable for weight control, they may not view them as globally acceptable for use. Alternatively, more acculturated Latina girls who dislike their looks may not feel capable of living up to the media’s images of female smokers, who are commonly presented as White in addition to beautiful, thin, sexy, and rich. Or, perhaps these girls do see themselves in the media images and they like their looks because they smoke.
The absence of any effect of body image on marijuana use merits attention. The overall low rates of marijuana use in the sample may serve as one explanation. Another possibility is that relative to alcohol and cigarettes, there are fewer media images of marijuana to give students ideas about what it means to be a marijuana smoker. Is she good looking like the Virginia Slims model? Is he as attractive as the man in the bar in the beer commercial? Without an image to associate with marijuana use, students may be less likely to believe that use can influence one’s appearance as perceived by others and therefore less likely to rely on use as an image-enhancing strategy. Similarly, marijuana lacks the weight-control characteristics that cigarettes possess; in fact, marijuana is commonly known as an appetite stimulant, and therefore, youth who believe they are too fat may avoid marijuana use for fear of its negative impact on weight. It is still possible, however, that some youth with poor body image could use marijuana to offset their negative feelings or enhance their image as a “partier” or “risk taker,” and it is not clear from the results here why no such use appeared. Further study is needed to understand whether and how a relationship between body image and marijuana use exists.
This study yields several implications for prevention, particularly for Latino youth. Substance use prevention programs should address body image as motivation for use and take into account the gender differences in substance-specific use as a function of body image. The relationship between cigarette use and weight control and between alcohol use and machismo, for example, could form part of the discussions about youth’s decisions about substance use. Similarly, the myths perpetuated in peer and media culture that associate substance use with desirable physical and personality characteristics also could be addressed.
Other programs besides those that focus on drug prevention, such as body image or nutrition programs, could also intervene. They could address the connections between body image, dieting, and substance use. For less acculturated Latinos in particular, these programs also could address acculturation stress and the possible relationships between body image and other risks. Finally, cultural diversity and campus environment programs that typically address tolerance of differences could help to counter negative ethnic stereotypes and foster acceptance of cultural differences in appearance.
This study helped fill gaps in the research literature on the body image of Latino boys and girls across levels of acculturation. It also offered information on the relationship between body image and substance use for youth of all ethnic backgrounds. Continued study is needed to better understand the possible diverse sources of poor body image across ethnic groups and the pathways from body image to substance use.