Self-esteem problems more likely for girls in mixed school environments

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:

Girls who attend co-ed schools are more likely to suffer body confidence and self-esteem issues than girls at single-sex schools, according to a new study.

Research by the University of Bristol has found that “the presence of the opposite sex may inflate appearance concerns and lower self-esteem” among teenage girls.

As concern grows about society’s obsession with losing weight and the resulting impact on young women, academics from the university’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences set out to research the impact that different school environments have on teenage girls’ confidence and self-worth.

The researchers asked more than 200 girls aged between 13 and 15 about their attitudes to weight and body image.

Half of the girls were pupils at a single sex school in West Sussex and half were students at a co-ed school in the same area. The two schools were similar in terms of socioeconomic background and both required pupils to wear uniform.

Just under half of girls at both schools (46 per cent) reported that they were trying to lose weight, 23 per cent by dieting and 41 per cent through exercise. Nine per cent said that their peers had encouraged them to lose weight.

However, despite 79 per cent of all the girls questioned having a healthy Body Mass Index, 26 per cent of the girls at the co-ed school said they were dieting to lose weight, compared to 19 per cent of the girls at the single-sex school.

The study, entitled Girls Feeling Good at School and published in the Journal of Adolescence, also reported that even though girls at both schools were aware and accepting of the so-called “thin ideal” portrayed in the media, girls at the co-ed school were more likely to experience self-esteem issues.

Writing in the academic paper, authors Victoria Cribb and Anne Haase said: “As society continues to advocate an unrealistically thin body shape, awareness and internalisation of appearance and its consequent impact upon self-esteem has become increasingly of concern, particularly in adolescent girls.”

They added: “The lower contribution of internalisation to poor self-esteem in a single-sex school adds weight to the argument of the benefit of this type of school environment for encouraging improved self-esteem, psychological and social wellbeing in adolescent girls.

“Furthermore, it is likely that within this type of school environment, peer friendship groups and support from parents and friends may not be diluted by the effects of mixed gender, for example pressure to appear a certain way in front of boys.”


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