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Emerging Adults’ Body Image and Identity Formation: The role of Gender and Self-Esteem

Conference contribution
Authors Maria Wängqvist
Johanna Kling
Ann Frisén
Published in In M. Wängqvist (chair) "A feeling of being at home in one's body" Bringing the body into research on identity development. Symposium conducted at the 7th conference on Emerging Adulthood, Miami, FL, USA.
Publication year 2015
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Subject categories Psychology


Experiences related to the physical body have a crucial impact on many aspects of people’s psychosocial well-being and adjustment (Cash & Smolak, 2011). Erikson (1968) stated that identity is “located” both in the core of the individual and in the core of their society. Individuals’ identity formation is thus influenced both by their individual characteristics such as physiological and cognitive development, and the characteristics of their society. Because identity formation is an essential task during emerging adulthood, and Western society today is particularly appearance-focused, body dissatisfaction may hinder a healthy transition into adulthood (Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2006). While the importance of the physical body in identity development long has been theoretically inferred (e.g., Erikson, 1968, Arnett, 2000), research investigating these associations is scarce and needs significant development (Daniels & Gillen, 2015). For example, there has been a lack in investigations of how body image (i.e., one’s body- or appearance-related perceptions, thoughts and feelings; Grogan, 1999) is related to identity formation (Daniels & Gillen, 2015). Therefore, the present study aimed to examine how different aspects of body image are related to identity synthesis and identity confusion in emerging adulthood. The participants in this study were 545 Swedish emerging adults (303 women and 242 men) with a mean age of 24.4 years (SD = .52). Body image was assessed using the Body Esteem Scale for Adolescents and Adults (BESAA; Mendelson et al., 2001) with three subscales: BE-Appearance (appearance-based body esteem), BE-Weight (Weight-based body esteem), and BE-Attribution (beliefs about how others view one’s body and appearance). Identity formation was measured using the 12-item identity subscale from the Erikson Psychosocial Stage Inventory (EPSI; Rosenthal, Gurney, & Moore, 1981; Schwartz, Zamboanga, Wang, & Olthuis, 2009) and divided into identity synthesis and identity diffusion. Self-esteem was assessed using the Single-Item Self-Esteem Scale (SISE; Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski, 2001). Results indicated that high appearance-based body esteem (BE-Appearance) predicted high identity synthesis and low identity confusion. Also, high scores concerning beliefs about how others view one’s body and appearance (BE-Attribution) predicted high identity synthesis, but was not related to identity confusion. Weight-based body esteem (BE-Weigh) did not predict identity synthesis or identity confusion. The analyses did not suggest that gender moderated the relationship between body image and identity formation. Furthermore, analyses revealed significant predictive relationship between BE-Appearance and identity synthesis and confusion, as well as between BE-Attribution and identity synthesis, even when including self-esteem as a predictor. However, when including self-esteem as a predictor, the effects of BE-Appearance and BE-Attribution became reduced, indicating a partial mediating effect of self-esteem. The results are discussed in relation to theory that has suggested that appearance is a more salient aspect of women’s identity than men’s and we propose that future studies might investigate how the associations between body image and identity are related to different identity domains and contents. It is concluded that associations between emerging adults’ body image and identity formation go beyond what may be explained by their associations to self-esteem.

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