By Allison Cabana
It’s those pink walls that really take me back. Sitting in my childhood bedroom, staring at those walls, I remember exactly how it felt to live here. I was dreaming of getting a date, whispering to my friends on the phone, and stressing out about homework. But what I remember most is my big sister. Dani was my idol. Hers was the bedroom across the hall, and as a kid I wanted nothing more than to be just like her. What can I say? She was (and still is) one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Only a few years older and a few grades above me in school, she was somehow always light-years ahead of me in sophistication. Her clothes fit a little bit tighter (and she filled them out in a way my body refused to do); she shaved her legs and wore a bra; and her eyeliner was always a little bit darker than I could seem to pull off. I wanted her clothes to look the same on me as they did on her. When her friends teased my friends and me, for looking young or not being quite as hip as they were, I felt bad about myself. Why couldn’t I just look and dress like them? A few years couldn’t make that big of a difference…could it?
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one to compare myself to my older counterparts as a teenager, and to be honest, sometimes, I still do it now with the slightly-older people in my life. And, I wasn’t the only one to wonder if other girls felt that way too. Could comparing myself to older girls have had something to do with feeling bad about my body and my appearance? Researchers Jaine Strauss and colleagues decided to investigate just that. They did a study that explored the relationship between girls’ school environment (i.e., who they go to school with and see everyday while they’re there) and their body satisfaction. They were wondering (much like I was): could the grade levels that girls go to school with have anything to do with the level of body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls? Is there a relationship between hanging around older girls and body image? After all, we know that body image changes as girls enter adolescence and become older teenagers.
So, the researchers categorized fifth and sixth graders as the ‘younger girls’ and seventh and eighth graders the ‘older girls.’ Then, they looked at three types of school groupings: 1) Grades K-6 in the same school, and Grades 7-8 in another school; 2) Grades K-5 in the same school, and Grades 6-8 in another school; and 3) Grades K-4 in one school, and Grades 5-8 in another school. The girls who participated in the study filled out a survey that measured their body satisfaction. There are a lot of different ways to measure ‘body satisfaction’ (basically, how much you like the body you’re in). The researchers chose to ask about things like wanting to be thin, idolizing super skinny folks (like the models in magazines), disliking your body, and “body objectification” (an idea that a person’s worth is connected to the way their body looks).
Lo and behold, this research confirmed just what I had wondered before! The researchers found that the younger girls who were grouped with the seventh and eighth graders in the same school had lower body satisfaction than the girls who were in school with younger grades (K-4). As we all know, girls’ body image tends to become more negative as they get older, so the researchers think being in a social context with older girls may expose the younger girls to a more negative context sooner. It seems like hanging out with my older sister and feeling bad about my body and appearance afterward is a part of a pretty common dynamic that happens when adolescent girls hang around older girls.
Now, I know that reading about other girls feeling similar to us can’t stop us from feeling some type of way when we get that urge to compare ourselves to those ‘cool older girls,’ but if we think also about all the good things we learn from those older girls, maybe we can re-imagine what this research says. I certainly did. As much as my older sister and her friends sometimes made me wonder if I looked trendy enough, they also taught me about periods and tampons, and gave me the confidence to go for varsity my freshman year and say yes to that person who asked me on my first date (and then have fun on it)! I remember feeling bad about my body sometimes, but when I think about it (and this research), I know that the older girls were in the same boat with me—it wasn’t their fault at all. What this research tells me is that girls, young and a little older, are keen learners. We’re perceptive and ambitious. Society often tries to teach us that what matters most about us is how we look—no wonder this is what we take away from hanging out with older girls. But just because we’ve all been taught this doesn’t mean we have to keep believing it! Now it’s time to change the script. We, along with those folks slightly younger and slightly older than we are (and every other age!), can uplift ourselves and each other to tell the appearance-obsessed society that we’re more than what we look like. Hanging out with those slightly older girls, together, we can write our own script that disrupts the idea of what women are ‘supposed’ to look like and that tells the world that our appearances aren’t the most important things about us. Because only when people are valued for more than just the way they look will we all be free.
 Strauss, J., Sullivan, J. M., Sullivan, C. E., Sullivan, S.J., & Wittenburg, C. E. (2014). Contextualizing the “Student body”: Is exposure to older students associated with body dissatisfaction in female early adolescents? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39(2), 171-181.
 There have been many studies on this, but for just a few examples: Lindberg, S. M., Hyde, J. S., & McKinley, N. M. (2006). A measure of objectified body consciousness for preadolescent and adolescent youth. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 65–76. ; and Bearman, S. K., Martinez, E., Stice, E., & Presnell, K., (2006). The skinny on body dissatisfaction: A longitudinal study of adolescent girls and boys. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 217–229.