American college students are much more likely to worry about the way they look and to spend time obsessing over their bodies than their German counterparts, according to a new study.
"Cross-cultural differences in the value placed on appearances and resulting sociocultural pressures are the most likely explanation," says lead author Antje Bohne of Harvard Medical School.
Despite these differences in body image, the American students were no more likely to have severe enough body dissatisfaction to meet criteria for a psychological disorder, Bohne and colleagues say.
The study included detailed questionnaires administered to 101 American college students and 133 German students.
The study results are published in the November/December issue of the journal Psychosomatics.
Three-quarters of the American students reported being concerned with the appearance of parts of their body, compared with fewer than half of the German students. Nearly 30 percent of the American students also reported being preoccupied with this concern, compared with 15 percent of the Germans.
Four of the American students and seven of the German students appeared to suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, which is defined as excessive concern with an imagined or slight defect in appearance that leads to significant distress or functional impairment. Penis size and breast size are two of the concerns sometimes cited by sufferers of body dysmorphic disorder.
"Although Americans were more likely to develop body image concerns and to be preoccupied with them than their German counterparts, in many cases, these symptoms were not severe enough to cause significant distress or impairment in daily functioning," the researchers say.
They note, however, that their data suggests an association between poor body image and low self-esteem as well as symptoms of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"Our findings are consistent with prior findings that Americans are more likely to be concerned with their appearance and to place greater value on physical attractiveness in their judgment of others than do individuals from other cultures, such as Asians or Germans," Bohne and colleagues say.