Introduction Images of young girls struggling with profound sadness and toxic eating ideologies flood modern culture, from the film industry to social media. It appears as though depression and eating disorders have become famous for being some of the leading struggles of adolescent females in contemporary society. Unlike falsehoods spread throughout popular psychology without any basis in fact, the concept that depression and eating disorders are significantly damaging the lives of countless girls is both accurate and concerning. The prevalence of these illnesses among female youth is unprecedented. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, over nineteen percent of adolescent females in the United States suffered from depression, while just under six percent of adolescent males had depression ( “Major Depression Among Adolescents,” n.d.). The National Institute of Mental Health also reported that adolescent females had twice the rate of eating disorders as adolescent males (“Eating Disorders Among Children,” n.d.). Not only are these illnesses a major issue on their own, but also their high comorbidity rates only work to worsen the chances of young girls having positive adaptive outcomes later in life. Empirical research agrees and confirms that these illnesses are a huge problem for young girls; however, many researchers have proposed different theories regarding the main risk factors. Numerous empirical studies and vast bodies of research have attempted to determine the underlying etiologies behind depression and eating disorders and how to prevent them, yet there is still significant ambiguity in regards to the main factors contributing to these disorders. While research has been successful in finding risk factors for each disorder separately, modern literature has overlooked the fact that the high comorbidity between these disorders in adolescent females suggests that the disorders may be stemming from a shared etiology: a prime example of an understudied multifinality in developmental psychopathology. While past researchers have proposed separate theories to account for the high rates of these mental illnesses in adolescent females, a great deal of depression and eating disorders in adolescent females may stem from the pressure to meet unrealistic body ideals and the heightened sexualization of women. These risk factors are diffused through modern media and then reiterated through the proximal processes of everyday life.Evolving ResearchIn the past, there have been a number of theories that psychologists have used to explain the difference in rates of depression and eating disorders among female adolescents. These theories typically focused on depression or on eating disorders instead of studying factors that help to explain both. While this research has been helpful in some regard, the analysis of current research creates a more comprehensive and coherent view of the etiologies behind these disorders. For example, one of the more commonly accepted models for depression in the past has been the gender intensification theory. This model attributes the main causes of depressive symptoms in adolescent females to the pressure for boys and girls to adhere more closely to society based gender roles and attitudes as they reach puberty (Priess, Lindberg, & Hyde, 2009). During puberty, girls and boys start to be presented with differentiated pressures and they are socialized to handle these pressures in different ways. It was assumed that the masculine archetype predisposed boys to less depressive symptoms as boys become socialized to be more independent and adventurous, while girls are influenced to find their self worth in interpersonal relationships (Stice & Bearman, 2001). This theory complements the fact that women are more often socialized to ruminate while men are more likely to engage in active based coping like planning. The hypothesis behind the gender intensification theory states that it is not the presence of feminine attributes that leads to depression but the lack of masculine attributes (Petersen, Sarigiani, & Kennedy, 1991). However, Petersen et al. (1991) found that, while boys do become more masculine, girls start to exhibit traits from both gender archetypes. Priess et al. (2009) has findings that also support the idea that modern girls are being encouraged to take on more masculine traits. If girls are exhibiting attributes from both archetypes, then, according to the gender intensification theory, they should not be experiencing higher rates of depression. In large part, research has not been able to find enough evidence to support the gender intensification theory (Petersen et al., 1991; Priess et al., 2009; Stice & Bearman 2001). While it is not the intensification of gender subscription that leads to depression in females, the theory may not be completely wrong; girls do have to face a substantially different set of pressures than boys, and the difference in these pressures may be what is leading to the higher prevalence of depression in girls. It is not so much the nature of the girls but rather the nature of the stressors that have a greater impact. In summation, being feminine is not the cause of the increased depression rates in females just like being masculine is not the cause of decreased depression rates in males; but, females, regardless of expressed femininity or masculinity, are predisposed to deal with gender specific, serious life stressors that can contribute to the development of depression during adolescence. While not specifically addressed in the gender intensification theory, this notion may also hold validity in regards to eating disorders. Fortunately, the research continues to evolve in this area. Due to the foundations from past research, more contemporary studies have been able to hone in on some of the more likely risk factors regarding these illnesses. The Pressure of Body IdealsAn analysis of more current research reveals that body ideals portrayed in mass media lead to various real and perceived pressures that put girls at a high risk for developing both eating disorders and depression. Nearly everywhere a young girl looks, from television, to magazines, she is inundated with pictures and videos of other women who portray unrealistic body standards. While these ideals are biologically unattainable to the vast majority of females, the assumption of modern society is that anyone should be able to fit these standards (Stice & Bearman, 2001). Not only does this increase the chances that girls will develop body dissatisfaction, but also it predisposes them to have negative feelings such as shame and guilt due to a perceived loss of control over their lives (Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson, & Grayson, 1999; Stice & Bearman, 2001). One of the most common pressures placed on a young girl is to be thin: a lie stating that having a lower body weight leads to happiness. However, studies show that body weight is not directly correlated to depression (Stice & Bearman, 2001). In actuality, it is the internalizing of these body ideals, the perceived pressure to conform to them, and the resulting body dissatisfaction that leads to both depression and eating disorder symptoms in adolescent females (Stice & Bearman, 2001). Constantly faced with out of reach ideals, girls become subjected to a chronic strain over which they have little control. For some girls this can lend itself to extreme dieting and other eating disorder symptoms (Stice & Bearman, 2001). When mediated by rumination this chronic strain frequently predicts depression in adolescent females (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1999). Body image is linked directly to self esteem (Moreh & O’Lawrence, 2016); this predicts that the worse view one has of their own body the lower self esteem they have and the more likely it is that they will develop mental illness. All of these factors, support the theory that the body ideals portrayed in media are contributing to the high rates of depression and eating disorders among young girls. The reason media’s portrayal of certain unrealistic body images is worse for females is because media promotes a body image ideal for men and boys that researchers argue is more realistic than that proposed for women and girls. While puberty often brings girls farther away from the body ideal, it brings boys toward it (Moreh & O’Lawrence, 2016).The development of breasts and other fat deposits on various parts of the female body bring her away from the thin ideal, while the increase in height, the maturation of muscle, the growth of facial hair, and the development of a lower voice bring the male closer to the masculine ideal (Moreh & O’Lawrence, 2016). Girls and boys are both subject to physiological changes during adolescence that are under the scrutiny of societal standards, yet society has chosen standards that are more fitting for males than for females. This creates a difference in the amount of stress and tension females and males face in regards to fitting these media promoted body ideals. Clearly, females are under far more pressure. X-Rated Media and the Sexualization of Girls Another example of a huge risk factor discussed in many contemporary studies for both depression and eating disorders is the over sexualization of females in x-rated media. The growing amount of x-rated media seen by adolescents may be perpetuating overly sexualized views of the role of girls in society. According to Brown & L’Engle (2009), about two-thirds of boys and one-third of girls see some type of sexually explicit media every year, with the internet being the main source of content for boys and x-rated movies being the main source of content for girls (Brown & L’Engle, 2009). The exposure to these types of content not only works to perpetuate the unrealistic body ideals for women as discussed in the last section, but it can contribute to women viewing themselves through a lense of sexuality, in which they judge their self worth off of other’s sexual interest in them and their ability to be perceived as sexually attractive (Flood, 2009). The objectification theory states that girls are subjected to cultural messages of sexualization in such a way that makes girls internalize these messages and then view themselves from an objectified viewpoint (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996) . In this view, girls consider themselves satisfactory only when they believe that they meet societal standards in regards to being sexually attractive. Studies of this type of self objectification in adolescent girls has shown that girls have lower self esteem the more they objectify themselves (Tolman, Impett, Tracy, and Michael, 2006). Because adolescence is a crucial period regarding the formation of one’s identity, adolescent females are more vulnerable to the sexual images of women they see in theaters, in magazines, and in a plethora of other media outlets than they would be at other periods in their lives (Strasburger & Wilson, 2002). In other words, girls are being socialized to find their self worth in their capacity to be sexually appealing; they are predisposed to seeing themselves as objects, which lowers their self esteem; and, they are particularly vulnerable to subscribing to the ideologies surrounding the sexualization of women that they see in modern media. These stressors can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and lack of control that can predispose girls to depression, and these same stressors can lead to the perceived need to drastically change themselves, which can predispose girls to eating disorders. In some unfortunate cases, this predisposes girls to develop both illnesses.This yearning to be sexually attractive can take up an appreciable amount of a girl’s focus, which takes time away from engaging in healthy activities like pursuing their own desires and achievements and leads to impaired performance in everyday life. The desire to be sexually appealing can fragment a girl’s consciousness, leaving her with less cognitive resources to focus on other important activities in life (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). The result can lead to deteriorating performance in school, specifically in classrooms with males present (Rutti, 1997) and in sports (Fredrickson & Harrison, 2005). The impairments in these areas of life not only lower self confidence, but also they can fuel insecurity. This insecurity in and of itself is a risk for falling even farther into the trap of believing that self-worth stems from how one is viewed as a sexual object. Therefore, the sexualization of women in modern society both acts as a damaging risk factor for adolescent females and it can take away crucial protective factors against depression and eating disorders. Additionally, researchers believe that the impact of boys watching explicit content may be changing the proximal interactions between female and male adolescents in a way that contributes to the development of mental illness in females. Explicit content, that often promotes less progressive, more stereotypical gender notions, may be influencing boys to see and treat girls in ways that are not conducive to female health ( Brown & L’Engle, 2009; Flood, 2009). In more drastic cases, this change in interaction that comes in adolescence can look like sexual harassment, a huge risk factor for both depression and eating disorders (Brown & L’Engle, 2009). Studies show that the higher a man is at risk for being sexually aggressive the more likely he is to seek out sexually violent content and be influenced by it (Flood, 2009; Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2000). Studies still need to examine if this relationship is present in younger males. If it is, this means that pornogrpahy and other sexually violent content has inadvertently given certain boys a platform to actualize their aggressive predispositions. In less extreme situations, the shift in male perspective is the objectification of women. This objectification can lead to males feeling as though they have the liberty to make derogatory comments about women and expect more from them in regards to sexual acts (Brown & L’Engle, 2009). The knowledge that many boys watch pornography can further sexual insecurities in the bedroom, indicating that when girls do engage in sexual activity they are more and more prone to have negative experiences (Flood, 2009). Just the fact that boys watch pornography can make females feel less desirable (Flood, 2009). The shift in perspective that comes from exposure to sexually graphic media manifests itself in the proximal interaction between boys and girls. This leads to the reiteration of the sexualization of women, the increase of negative sexual experiences, and the perpetuation of unequal gender ideologies that all indirectly contribute to the development of depression and eating disorders.Conclusion A synthesis of modern literature supports the idea that the high rates of eating disorders and depression in adolescent females may stem from a shared etiology. Previous research attempted to create separate models for these illnesses. While past theories, like the gender intensification theory, were not completely accurate, they built a basis for further research that has lead to the study of many important risk factors associated with these illnesses. Modern literature points to the idea that the pressure to meet unrealistic body ideals and the heightened sexualization of women are some of the leading factors linked to the high rates of both of these disorders. These ideals and expectations placed on girls are the portrayed through modern media, such as films and pornography, and perpetuated through the proximal processes of everyday lives, such as the interaction between adolescent boys and girls. The strong impact that media has on adolescents gives great insight on potential treatment for these disorders. Although it may be quite challenging, monitoring the amount of unrealistic and sexualized images adolescent females are exposed to may help mitigate and prevent depression and eating disorders. Further, more comprehensive research needs to be conducted to test the extent to which these images have an influence on these illnesses. Future study of depression and eating disorders needs to include both female and male participants to gather information on other potential moderators that contribute to the differences in how these risk factors impact each gender. Although there is a great deal to be done in regards to further research, current studies point to the concept that depression and eating disorders stem from the same physical and sexual pressures placed on adolescent females.
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