Body image is a significant concern for young people. For example, a national survey of young people in Australia consistently finds that body image is among the top concerns for youth aged 15 to 19. In 2020, 45.9% of girls and 15.7% of boys indicated that they were very concerned
or extremely concerned
about their body image (Tiller et al., 2021
). Importantly, body dissatisfaction is associated with a range of negative psychological outcomes (including low self-esteem and depression; Paxton et al., 2006
) and is one of the most robust modifiable risk factors for the development of clinical eating disorders (Jacobi et al., 2004
). Eating disorders themselves are associated with heightened morbidity and mortality (e.g., Arcelus et al., 2011
; Swinbourne & Touyz, 2007
). Given the severity, scope, and impact of these problems, the current research sought to contribute to a better understanding of the factors associated with risk and resilience in the development of body dissatisfaction.
The most prominent models explaining body dissatisfaction center on sociocultural pressures related to appearance. For example, the Tripartite Influence Model (e.g., Thompson et al., 1999
) suggests that two main pathways leading to the development of body dissatisfaction are the internalization of societal appearance ideals (i.e., the extent to which individuals take on the societal norms as personally meaningful beliefs) and appearance-based social comparisons (i.e., the extent to which individuals compare their own appearance to someone else’s appearance). There is substantial empirical support for the relevance of these two factors in correlational (e.g., Keery et al., 2004
), longitudinal (Rodgers et al., 2015
), and experimental (e.g., Dittmar & Howard, 2004
; Tiggemann & McGill, 2004
) research. These sociocultural models have been highly influential in the field, providing valuable insights into the factors that contribute to body dissatisfaction. What is missing from these models, however, is an indication of why some people are more likely to internalize societal norms and why some people are more likely to make appearance-based comparisons than are others. Identifying early risk factors is an important part of being able to intervene and prevent the development of body dissatisfaction.
A known early risk factor for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating is early childhood adversity, which can include exposure to a variety of negative circumstances early in life. Early adversity is associated with a range of negative mental and physical health outcomes, including depression, substance abuse, and heart disease (e.g., Taylor et al., 2011
). In the context of disordered eating, most of the research has focused on childhood abuse. For example, a meta-analysis found that individuals who had been sexually abused in childhood had higher levels of eating pathology than did individuals who had not been sexually abused (Smolak & Murnen, 2002
). Prospective studies have also shown that experiencing childhood maltreatment predicted the occurrence of eating disorders and disordered eating later in life (Johnson et al., 2002
). Other studies have conceptualized early adversity more broadly (including adverse family environments), also showing elevated risk of disordered eating (e.g., Kinzl et al., 1994
; Smyth et al., 2008
). In fact, there is some evidence that adverse family environments (including factors such as neglect, conflict, and lack of support) have a stronger association with eating disorders than does childhood sexual abuse (Rind et al., 1998
). Thus, a broad range of adverse experiences appear to be relevant in the context of disordered eating.
Although previous research has established a connection between early adversity and later body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, less is known about why or how early adverse experiences impact body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. The Identity Disruption Model (Vartanian & Hayward 2017
; Vartanian et al., 2018
) was developed in an attempt fill this gap in the literature by explaining how negative early life experiences could be connected to later body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. The Identity Disruption Model posits that negative early life experiences disrupt normal identity development, resulting in a less clearly defined sense of self. Early adversity might disrupt the sense of self because these early experiences are invalidating, or perhaps because individuals are deprived of experiences (such as positive interactions with caregivers) that contribute to identity development (e.g., Carlson et al., 1997
). Individuals who lack a clear sense of self seek external sources to help define themselves (Campbell, 1990
). Given the potency of appearance ideals in some societies, cultural ideals of attractiveness can provide an external source by which people can define themselves. Indeed, internalizing these cultural ideals is related to a greater tendency to define one’s self in terms of one’s physical appearance (Vartanian, Hayward, & Carter, in press
). Thus, individuals who lack a clear sense of their own identity should be more susceptible to sociocultural factors (i.e., internalization and appearance comparisons), and consequently more likely to develop body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.
A number of studies have provided support for the Identity Disruption Model, showing that early adversity is associated with low self-concept clarity, low self-concept clarity is associated with greater internalization and appearance comparisons, which are in turn associated with greater body dissatisfaction and disordered eating (e.g., Vartanian et al., 2016
; Vartanian & Hayward, 2020
). These associations have been found whether early adversity is operationalized in terms of abuse experiences (e.g., sexual abuse, physical abuse) or in terms of disruptive family environments (Vartanian et al., 2018
). Although consistent evidence has been found in support for the Identity Disruption Model, almost all of the studies assessing the various components of the model have included samples of young adults. The only study to date to assess components of this model in adolescents is a study that found a negative correlation between self-concept clarity and internalization of cultural appearance norms among adolescent boys (Humphreys & Paxton, 2004
). It is important to examine the core components of this model among adolescents because adolescence is a developmental period during which individuals begin to form their own identities (Kroger et al., 2010
), and is also a period during which internalization of the thin ideal, body-related comparison, and body dissatisfaction are likely to emerge (e.g., Rapee et al., 2019
; Sands & Wardle, 2003
; Schutz et al., 2002
Another important consideration is the potential for gender differences in the constructs and pathways outlined in the Identity Disruption Model. It is fairly well-established that boys tend to show lower levels of body dissatisfaction than do girls (Prnjak et al., 2021
), and there is also evidence of gender differences in internalization of cultural ideals and appearance-based comparisons (e.g., Palmeroni et al., 2021
). However, there is some evidence (at least among adults) that the associations among variables in the Identity Disruption Model do not differ for men and for women (Vartanian et al., 2018
). Given the lack of research on these processes among adolescents, it is worth exploring the Identity Disruption Model among both boys and girls.
The Present Research
The Identity Disruption Model posits that early adversity is associated with lower self-concept clarity, which in turn increases vulnerability to sociocultural appearance factors and body dissatisfaction, but this model has not previously been tested among adolescents. The aim of the current research was to test the Identity Disruption Model among two separate samples of adolescents. In Study 1, adolescents were recruited through social media and completed measures of early adversity, self-concept clarity, internalization of cultural appearance norms, appearance comparisons, and body dissatisfaction. In Study 2, adolescents were recruited from schools and completed the same measures as in Study 1, except that the appearance comparison measure was specifically oriented toward comparisons on social media. Following from the Identity Disruption Model, it was predicted that early adversity would be associated with lower self-concept clarity, that lower self-concept clarity would be associated with greater internalization and appearance-comparison tendency, which in turn would be associated with greater body dissatisfaction. No firm predictions were made about any gender differences in the associations among variables in the model.
Body dissatisfaction is a significant concern among adolescent girls and boys, and thus it is important to identity risk factors that can lead to the development of body dissatisfaction. The Identity Disruption Model (Vartanian et al., 2018
; Vartanian & Hayward 2017
) was developed to explain how early risk factors (childhood adversity, low self-concept clarity) can explain why some people are more susceptible to sociocultural appearance pressures than are others. This model extends pervious sociocultural models of body dissatisfaction (such as the Tripartite Influence Model; Thompson et al., 1999
) by focusing on earlier risk factors. Although the model has garnered empirical support in the literature, the model had not previously been tested among adolescents. Testing the model among adolescents is important because adolescence is the developmental period during which individuals begin to form their own identities (Kroger et al., 2010
), and is also a period during which internalization of the thin ideal, body-related comparison, and body dissatisfaction are likely to emerge (e.g., Sands & Wardle, 2003
; Schutz et al., 2002
). Thus, the aim of the present studies was to provide evidence for the utility of the Identity Disruption Model in predicting body dissatisfaction among adolescents.
Across two separate samples of adolescents with varying ages (the Study 2 sample had a mean age that was almost 2 years younger than that of the Study 1 sample), results showed that early adversity predicted lower self-concept clarity, lower self-concept clarity was associated with greater internalization of appearance ideals and greater appearance comparisons, which were in turn associated with greater body dissatisfaction. These findings are consistent with other research demonstrating these pathways among young adults (e.g., Vartanian et al., 2018
), and show that the model has relevance among adolescents as well. By demonstrating that the Identity Disruption Model predicts body dissatisfaction among adolescents, this research points to a potential target of early prevention efforts to reduce the burden of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Reducing the prevalence of early adversity should of course be of primary concern, but building resilience among those who do experience early adversity is also an important objective, and self-concept clarity might be a useful target in that respect.
A notable strength of the present study was the inclusion of boys and girls in both samples. The vast majority of research on body image has focused on girls and young women. Although the prevalence of body dissatisfaction is generally higher among girls than among boys (Tiller et al., 2021
), there is growing recognition that body image issues are significant concerns for boys as well (Nagata et al., 2021
; Pope et al., 2000
). It is important for research to examine whether the processes linked to body dissatisfaction are similar for boys and girls. Most studies testing the Identity Disruption Model have been limited to female samples, but one study with adolescent boys did find an association between self-concept clarity and internalization (Humphreys & Thompson, 2004
), and another study found that the full Identity Disruption Model held for women and for men alike (Vartanian et al., 2018
). The current studies add to this evidence base by demonstrating that the paths in the model did not differ for adolescent girls and boys (except that the path between comparisons and body dissatisfaction in Study 2 was weaker, but still significant, for boys than it was for girls). These findings suggest that experiences with early adversity are just as likely to contribute to low self-concept clarity and increase the risk of body dissatisfaction for boys and girls. These results also suggest that interventions based on the Identity Disruption Model could be relevant to both genders, making them easier to implement on a broad scale.
Another noteworthy finding from this research is the fact that the Identity Disruption Model was relevant to both general appearance comparisons (replicating previous research) and appearance comparisons on social media. This adds to the generalizability of the model, but also indicates the importance of social media as a forum for engaging in appearance comparisons among adolescents. Adolescents spend around two hours on social media each day (e.g., Fardouly et al., 2022
; Statistica, 2019
), and primarily engage with appearance-based media (e.g., Instagram, TikTok), providing them with ample opportunities to engage in appearance comparisons. If low self-concept clarity increases the likelihood that they will compare themselves to the people they see on social media, then this can accumulate overtime, increasing the risk of body dissatisfaction. Indeed, experimental research suggests that those low in self-concept clarity are more likely to make appearance comparisons when viewing thin-ideal social media images, which in turn increases their state body dissatisfaction (Carter & Vartanian, 2022
). Thus, it may be particularly important for adolescents with low self-concept clarity to reduce their opportunities to make comparisons to attractive others on social media by unfollowing accounts that posts such content (e.g., beauty or fitness influencers) in order to protect their body image.
There are some limitations to the present research that point to opportunities for future research. First, the data from the current studies are cross-sectional, limiting any inferences that can be drawn about causal associations or temporal sequencing among the variables in the model. Longitudinal studies, particularly among children and early-adolescents, would be important to establish the developmental trajectory of the proposed pathways. Experimental studies (e.g., studies manipulating the level of self-concept clarity) could be useful for examining the causal impact of self-concept clarity on sociocultural factors (such as the likelihood of engaging in appearance-based social comparisons). Studies using ecological momentary assessment could also be useful for establishing the connection between self-concept clarity and body dissatisfaction in everyday life.
Second, the measure of early adversity only captured general negative experience in the household one grew up in (and, in the case of Study 1, was limited to a single item asking about how chaotic and disorganized the household was). Previous studies have shown that the Identity Disruption Model also holds when early adversity is operationalized in terms of reports of childhood abuse (sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect; e.g., Hayward et al., 2020
; Vartanian et al., 2018
), suggesting that the findings are not limited to disruptive family environments and could apply to more severe forms of early adversity. It would be worthwhile for future research to consider other types of adversity (e.g., peer bullying, poverty) that could impact self-concept clarity and, consequently, place adolescents at risk for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. It would also be worth exploring whether there are differences between boys and girls in how strongly different types of adversity are linked to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. A more systematic investigation of these issues would be a valuable goal for future research.
The Identity Disruption Model can also potentially be applied to other forms of psychological maladjustment or problematic behavior. At its core, this model indicates that early adverse life experiences result in disrupted personal identity. This disrupted identity then provides a risk factor for disordered eating because the sociocultural appearance norms and pressures provide individuals with an (unhealthy) avenue for self-definition. Individuals with disrupted identity could also face difficulties in domains that are unrelated to body image (e.g., depression, substance abuse, internet addiction; Israelashvili et al., 2012
; Smith et al., 1996
). Indeed, a recent study found that self-concept clarity mediated the association between early adversity and symptoms of depression and anxiety (Hayward et al., 2020
). Thus, the Identity Disruption Model provides a theoretical framework that could be broadly applicable for understanding psychopathology. It may well be that there are different mechanisms accounting for the connection between identity disruption and psychopathology (e.g., sociocultural appearance factors should be relevant to body dissatisfaction but not, say, to substance abuse), and future research specifically delineating the unique and/or common pathways to psychopathology would be a valuable contribution to the literature.
There are also a number of potential practical implications of the Identity Disruption Model that are worth considering. First, identifying early risk factors can indicate points of early intervention for vulnerable groups. Prevention programs that target high-risk individuals tend to elicit the largest effects (e.g., Stice & Shaw, 2004
). Thus, targeting prevention programs at individuals who experience early adversity or who have low self-concept clarity could be beneficial, particularly if these issues are identified early. Second, the model also points to potential interventions, such as interventions designed to boost self-concept clarity as a means of reducing the negative impact of sociocultural appearance pressures. For example, adapting expressive-writing interventions (Lepore & Smyth, 2002
) to incorporate reflection on (non-appearance-related) self-defining characteristics might help solidify the sense of self. By increasing self-concept clarity, and encouraging individuals to define themselves by means other than their appearance, such interventions could reduce the impact of sociocultural pressures and, consequently, reduce the risk of body dissatisfaction. If the Identity Disruption Model is shown to be relevant to other forms of psychopathology, then these types of interventions could have far wider benefits as well.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.