A new study discovers young women’s body perceptions are influenced by how they believe their friends — or peers — judge their body.
Dr. Louise Wasylkiw and Molly Williamson discuss their findings on the role of friends in young women’s body concerns in the journal Sex Roles.
Experts have known that friends influence how girls and women view and judge their own body weight, shape and size.
In the study, researchers sought to learn how much of a young woman’s body concerns are shaped by her perceptions of peers’ concerns with their own body versus her peers’ actual body concerns.
For the investigation researchers analyzed data for 75 pairs of female friends from a small undergraduate university in Eastern Canada. They asked the women how often they talked to their friend about four different weight issues: weight loss, exercise, appearance and food/eating. They also assessed the women’s body image and whether they felt pressure from their friends on weight issues.
Researchers found that the more women felt under pressure to be thin, the more likely they were to have body image concerns, irrespective of their actual weight and shape.
Surprisingly, body talk between friends that focused on exercise was related to lower body dissatisfaction. Investigators found that women perceived their friends’ body-checking behaviors to be similar to their own.
In addition, women’s body concerns were mirrored by their perceptions of what their friends’ body image concerns were, suggesting that perceptions of friends’, and not friends’ actual thoughts, predicted their own body concerns.
The finding that perception is more important than reality is a take-home message to health promoter’s and for individuals.
“Our research demonstrates that friends influence each other through at least three processes: perceived pressure to be thin; body-related talk; and perceptions,” write Wasylkiw and Williamson. “Although these perceptions are somewhat grounded in reality, i.e., close to the truth, they are more influential than reality.”