Adolescent girls are among the most vulnerable for issues that relate to body image. They are assaulted with unrealistic images and unachievable ideals from virtually every media outlet. Teen girls struggle to find their identity at a time when appearance often determines their social circle and affects their self-esteem. In fact, research shows that teen girls worry more about their bodies than they do about academics, family life, or any other stressors. Young women who develop unhealthy eating behaviors can find themselves in a lifelong battle of physical and mental distress. Eating and food issues can lead to other negative psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, or even suicidal ideation.
Kathryn E. Rayner of the Centre for Emotional Health of the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University in Australia recently led a study to explore how peer relationships affect eating and body image issues in young women. Social acceptance is critical to teens, so Rayner theorized that perhaps young women select their friends based on eating and body image similarities, or perhaps they shape their own perceptions and behaviors based on the friends in their social circle. Rayner examined selection versus socialization in a sample of 1,197 teen girls from nine separate high schools in Australia. The adolescents were assessed for bulimic and dieting patterns, body satisfaction, and peer relations over a period of three years.
The results of the study revealed some interesting trends. First, the participants tended to choose friends with similar body satisfaction/dissatisfaction levels and bulimic behaviors. However, they did not choose girls with similar dieting and eating patterns. The girls also chose to engage in friendships that were bidirectional and avoided one-sided friendships. Rayner discovered that the girls who dieted the least had more people who wanted to befriend them, while those with more depressed mood and overt dieting behaviors had fewer peers soliciting their friendship. Additionally, the girls in the study, although they selected girls with dissimilar behaviors from their own, did not change their own actions to model those of their friends. Rayner believes the results of her study shed new light on some of the factors that influence eating, dieting, and body image in girls at risk. She added, “These findings represent important building blocks in facilitating the formation of more effective prevention and intervention strategies.”
Rayner, K. E., Schniering, C. A., Rapee, R. M., Taylor, A., Hutchinson, D. M. (2012). Adolescent girls’ friendship networks, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating: Examining selection and socialization processes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029304
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