Friendships and Body Image Among Adolescent Girls

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
July/August 2005 Volume 16, Number 4
©2005 Gürze Books

Girls seem particularly vulnerable to negative body image and dieting during adolescence, a time characterized by preoccupation with image and concern about social acceptance. One area that is still poorly understood is the extent to which social relationships with friends and peers is associated with adolescent girls’ body image and dieting, according to a team at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.

Peter Wilson, PhD and Bibi Gerner, MPsych recently studied a group of high school girls to determine whether poorer friendship could predict weight concerns and dietary restraint (Int J Eat Disord 37:313). They used questionnaires given to 131 girls who were sophomores and juniors in high school. The researchers asked specifically about perceived social support, friendship, intimacy and perceived impact of thinness on male and female friendships. Another section of the questionnaire sought information on individual beliefs and concerns about body image, and signs of body dissatisfaction and restrained eating.

Beliefs about thinness

The authors found that beliefs about the impact of thinness on male friendships predicted body image concern, body dissatisfaction, and restrained eating. Beliefs about female friendships were only predictive of restrained eating. These relationships remained even after controlling for body mass index.

There was partial support for the hypothesis that poorer friendship factors would predict the belief that being thinner improves friendships. Poor acceptance by friends was a significant predictor, regardless of actual body size. However, perceived social support and friendship intimacy were not predictive. Although heavier girls were more likely to believe that being thinner would improve their friendships (irrespective of how well their current friendships were functioning), they did not experience poorer acceptance by peers, or poorer social support or friendship intimacy. Thus, despite the stereotypes, this finding suggested that thinness is not a precondition for popularity or a necessity for having close and supportive friendships.

Because body shape is perceived as an important component of attractiveness to boys, it was not surprising that the girls would believe thinness is particularly influential in attaining successful friendships with boys. Results also underscored greater endorsement of beliefs that thinness improved popularity and acceptance and less endorsement of beliefs that thinness improved levels of friendship support and intimacy. Thus, the girls viewed thinness as an important contributor to peer status but were less likely to believe it would improve the quality of their friendships.

Although the results of this study suggest that sociocultural risk factors affect disturbed eating, and underlines the importance of perceived peer affiliation on adolescent girls’ body image concerns, the extent to which deficient social relationships play a part in the development of eating disorders remains poorly understood according to the authors.

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