Friends Influence Bulimic Behavior and Body Image but Not Dieting in Teen Girls

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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  • Darla

    August 14th, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    I am so happy to read that more thought and research is being put into understanding the behavior of teen girls, as well as looking for ways that we can prevent some of that destructive behavior that many of them fall into at this age. The way that we look plays a huge role in our development, learning who we are and sadly our ability to make friends with other people. I think that sometimes parents forget just how much influence others have over us and the decisions that we make, so it is imperative that we know who our children are hanging out with and how they are feeling about themselves. We have to do all that we can to nurture their self esteem and not allow them to be aorund those kids who are going to tear them down and encourage them to make unhealthy decisions.

  • lori

    August 14th, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    How is it that they can degrade your self image and yet that still not encourage these girls to diet?
    Wouldn’t you say that a lot of this that goes on would be the very things that could start young girls on this pattern of unhealthy associations between dieting, food and their bodies?
    I would have to think that a lot that they see and hear at this age would be the exact things that will set them up for these unhealthy relationships in the future.

  • Burt

    August 14th, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    Its pathetic how humans tend to find friends based on their body type, even if it is a subconscious decision. A friend should be chosen based on character and behavior not by physical appearance. Just goes on to show how much of a slave we have all become to the wrong importance given to physical appearance!

  • Virginia

    August 15th, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    girls are so mean to each other, it’s no wonder that this constant barrage of comments can make many young girls feel so ashamed of their bodies and give them a constant desire to change who they are

  • ashley

    August 15th, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    “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.”
    I wonder why this is.Maybe the girls who diet the least are more into sports and other activities and hence more friends?

    “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.”
    Hmm, I would have thought otherwise.Years ago we tended to ape each other when it came to eating patterns.Maybe it is the different cultural and geographical aspects that are the reason for the difference?

  • Ryan P

    August 15th, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    In some of these little cliques it’s almost as if bulimia becomes contagious. One girl starts, has some success with dropping some pounds quickly, others girls want to know what she’s doing to lose the weight, and then there goes three or four more of them hopping on that bandwagon.

  • jackie

    August 16th, 2012 at 4:40 AM

    With an eating disorder, many girls don’t share anything about it at all because at their core most of them are ashamed of that behavior. They don’t want their friends or families to know what they are doing, because they are always thinking that if they were somehow stronger or better that they wouldn’t have to resort to doing this. So then it all becomes this sick kind of control issue, but most of the time many are so far gone into the disorder by that time that they have lost control over any of the decisions that they are making. This is what has become habitual, routine to them, so it makes it even harder to stop and go back to a normal and healthy pattern of eating.

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