Fearing the naked truth. The teenage body cult

Por: K. Schmitt e U. Hanke.

Athens 2004: Pre-olympic Congress

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Enhancing body awareness and body acceptance of teenagers has received growing attention in health education. Instigated by massive media power, teenage students increasingly are becoming the object of fashion trends that not only aim at influencing their future attitudes as consumers but also try to overtly influence certain body styles or physical appearances that can only be obtained by abiding to strict regimes of diet or fitness workouts. From the point of view of educational values, this situation needs specific attention from and discussion by educators. The main aim of educating and emancipating teenagers should be to make teenagers aware of social coercion and the negative and inhibiting influences, which they hitherto have not been able to reflect upon. In addition to this, students should be introduced to a discussion of the difference between an aesthetic versus a natural perspective and relationship to one’s own body.


In Germany, the number of public spas offering mixed and "ladies only" wellness installations has grown extensively and the health promoting effect of sauna baths is generally acknowledged. In spite of this, teenagers are only represented by a marginal number. It was hypothesized that teenagers who have a low self-esteem with regard to their physical attractiveness and low values of body acceptance will try to avoid visiting a public "ladies only" sauna where even bathing suits are not permitted, while those accepting to attend the sauna as part of the P.E. class would show higher values in those variables. 49 comprehensive school girl students aged between 15 and 18 (M=15.7) were asked if they wanted to volunteer to participate in a swimming and sauna excursion to the local public spa as part of their P.E. class, organized by a female P.E. major. 20 out of the 49 girls agreed to participate, thus constituting the treatment group, while the others served as control group. In a ’pre/post’ test design using a slightly modified version of Paulus’ (1982) three-dimensional questionnaire on body-acceptance, physical attractiveness and aesthetics, both groups were interviewed and asked additional questions on reasons for accepting or refusing attendance. On top of this, those not attending were asked under which contextual situations they might be motivated to attend.


In two of the three dimensions, the results showed significant differences between the groups. Surprisingly, visiting a public sauna bath just once was sufficient for the girls to create significant before/after differences in the dimensions of body acceptance and body aesthetics. In addition to this, some unexpected reasons for avoidance were revealed when analyzing additional qualitative interviews with those girls refusing to participate.


The results of this study may motivate P.E. teachers to include such experiences as part of their health or wellness education and as a starting point for reflecting on physical beauty standards propagated by mass media.


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