Television, movies, magazines and other media often get the blame for body dissatisfaction among teenage girls, by promoting an idea that skinny equals beautiful. But a new study found that girls might actually feel the biggest pressure to be thin from comparing themselves with their peers.
Researchers from Texas A&M International University recruited 237 Hispanic girls, ages 10 to 17, and asked them to name their three favorite TV shows and to rate the attractiveness of the female actresses in those shows, to measure their exposure to the Hollywood beauty ideal.
The researchers evaluated the girls' body weight and height, social media use and peer competition, or feelings of inferiority in response to other girls. The participants also were asked how they felt about their bodies, whether they had any symptoms of an eating disorder and how satisfied they were with their lives. These evaluations were repeated in 101 of the girls six months later.
TV exposure and social media use did not predict eating disorder symptoms nor did these factors predict body dissatisfaction, the researchers said. Peer competition, meanwhile, seemed to significantly influence body dissatisfaction and, in the long term, predict eating disorder symptoms, the team said.
"Our results suggest that only peer competition, not television or social media use, predict negative outcomes for body image," the study's authors conclude in a paper that appeared this month in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. "This suggests that peer competition is more salient to body and eating issues in teenage girls."
In another finding study, both peer competition and social media use predicted lower levels of satisfaction with life. The authors wrote that "social media use may provide a new arena for peer competition, even if it does not directly influence negative body outcomes."
Indeed, previous research has shown that social media sites like Facebook can be a dangerous medium for social comparison. In a study presented last year, people with lots of Facebook friends had lower self-esteem and felt worse about their place in life and their achievements if they'd just viewed their friends' status updates, compared with people who had not recently surfed the site. But for people with just a few Facebook friends, viewing status updates wasn't a problem.
Other research out last year suggested that genetics might influence body satisfaction in young women. In that study, which drew from a large survey of twins in Michigan, 343 female twins ages 12 to 22 answered questions about how much they wanted to look like women they saw on television, in magazines and in advertisements.
The researchers then compared how identical and fraternal twin pairs answered the questions. Because siblings are raised in very similar environments, the difference between fraternal twins, who share about half of their genes, and identical twins, who share all of their genes, would suggest a genetic underpinning to body dissatisfaction. The researchers found that the more similar the genes, the more similar the answers.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.