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iDEVELOP: understanding the link between body-awareness and body-image in early adolescence

Minding your body: changes across puberty

We are conducting an important project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), that  looks at how pre- and post-puberty girls perceive themselves and their body. Our aim is to improve understanding of what interventions may help girls to maintain a healthy body image through the many changes that occur during puberty.

As you know, poor body image is an issue of enormous public concern. It is a contributory factor in poor mental wellbeing, eating disorders, obesity, low aspirations and a range of risky behaviours, especially among women and girls. We invite schools and students in the South-West Greater London area to take part in this exciting and important research project.

Past research from our lab has shown that the ways in which people think about their external appearance is influenced by their ability to perceive their body from within, an ability known as interoception. One can think of interoception as being ‘mindful’ of one’s internal bodily state, such as being aware of one’s heart, hunger and thirst. In short, what ours and other labs have found is that the better people can perceive such internal signals from the body, the less emphasis they put into how the look. Conversely, people who do not have an accurate access to their internal bodily states, they tend to be more dissatisfied with their body image, independently of their body-weight and other factors. And it seems that this interoceptive ability plays a role in eating disorders.

What will we do? In our study we plan to investigate, for the first time, the relationship between interoception and body image in young girls before they enter puberty, approximately at the age of 10 years old. We seek to maintain a relationship with their parents and follow the girls on to post-puberty.

Why is this important? The onset of puberty is accompanied by physical, psychological and social changes, and consequently can lead to body image problems if adolescents do not adapt well to these changes. The adolescence self must adjust to both internal and external changes. There has, however been insufficient research into interventions that may enable adolescents to adjust well. By testing body-awareness before and after the onset of puberty we aim to improve our understanding of how interoception may help girls to maintain a healthy body image through the many changes that occur during puberty.

What would taking part involve for the school? If your schools chooses to be involved in our project, the session will take approximately 20-30 minutes (per child). We would require a (ideally quiet) room to conduct this research with each child individually. Here we will ask the child to focus on her heartbeats while we record their actual cardiac response. The child will then complete a computerised task in which she can shrink or enlarge a body while answering some questions, such as: “how do you feel your body looks like?” or “how do you think your body really looks like?”.

What will the students gain from taking part? Your pupils will engage in two engaging tasks which will encourage them to reflect upon their awareness of their bodily state. It will also provide them with the opportunity to discuss any further ideas that they have about body image and how it is affected by others, such as their peers, and the many changes that occur during puberty and adolescence.

What advantages are there for your school in taking part? We will give participating school book tokens (£50) for your library or classrooms. After completion of the testing, Prof Tsakiris would be delighted to visit your school to talk to your students or staff about any aspect of our work that would be interesting to them. We will, of course, provide you with a summary of our research findings at the end of the study.

What if a pupil, or the parent, does not wish the child to take part? We will provide parental information sheets to be sent home, so that parents provide consent about the participation of their child. Whilst visiting, we will follow all safeguarding procedures, as set out in your school policies. Importantly, each pupil eligible to participate will be provided with information on the project and personally asked if they are happy to take part.

Are there any risks? We do not anticipate any risks associated with this study. All participants will be told at the beginning of the study that they have the right to withdraw and can do this at any time (without any reason). In the unlikely scenario that a child feels uncomfortable or unsafe in any way, we will immediately stop testing. At the end of the study, participants will be debriefed and given the opportunity to ask questions to ensure that the participants are aware of the full aims of the research.

Is the data confidential? We take the utmost precaution to ensure that data is anonymous and confidential. At no point will we ask the school for a list of children’s full first or surnames. A unique ID code will be generated for each child. One file will contain a link between the child’s personal information (her initials, the month and year of birth, her gender and ethnicity) and her unique numeric identified code. This file will be stored in a password protected computer file on a password protected memory stick in a locked cabinet. Once the analysis is complete, the information that links the children’s personal information with their ID codes will be disposed of securely.

Is this study approved? Yes, this study has been reviewed and approved by the Royal Holloway Research Ethics Committee.

Who can I contact? If you agree to take part in this research or have any question, please email manos.tsakiris @, the principal investigator (see also Manos Tsakiris TEDx Talk online). 

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