Friends Share, Even Body-Image Woes

Two friends getting drinks.
Female friends getting drinks. (Image credit: Kzenon, Shutterstock)

Women, beware: Your friends' chatter could influence how you feel about your body more than your actual size and shape does.

A new study finds that a young woman's perceptions of how her friends feel about their bodies influence her own body image. In fact, women seem to mirror one another's perceived body concerns, researchers reported online today (Nov. 5) in the journal Sex Roles.

Previous research has found that friends are important influencers of women's body image beliefs, especially for young women. For example, if a woman believes her friends diet frequently, she's more likely to strive for thinness herself, according to one 2008 study detailed in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Psychologists Louise Wasylkiw and Molly Williamson of Canada's Mount Alison University wanted to know how accurate these perceptions are, and whether they matter more than friends' true body beliefs. They asked 75 pairs of undergraduate female friends how often they talked to one another about weight loss, exercise, appearance and food or eating. They also asked the women about their own body image, and whether they felt pressure from their friends to be thin. In addition, participants indicated their "body-checking behaviors," such as how often they checked their reflections in store windows to make sure they looked okay, or whether they regularly pinch fat on certain body parts to check thinness. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad for You]

Though most of the women in the study (69 percent) were of normal weight, 79 percent of the respondents wanted to be thinner than they currently were. Only 7 percent wanted to be larger than their current body size.

The feeling of pressure to be thin was more important for body image than actual weight or shape, the researchers found. More pressure from friends was linked with more body image concerns. Talking about exercise with friends, however, was related to less dissatisfaction with one's body.

Importantly, women tended to assume that their friends were like them. They believed that their friends' concerns about their own bodies were similar to their own, and they thought their friends checked out their own bodies at a similar rate as they did. These perceptions mattered more to a woman's body image than her friends' actual reported body concerns.

"Although these perceptions are somewhat grounded in reality, i.e. close to the truth, they are more influential than reality," the researchers wrote in the journal article.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.