Why don’t I look like that? Social comparisons and eating disorders

Crystal Gaulton
2 October 2014

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/RapidEye

Did you know? Many social psychologists have studies the effects that social comparisons, culture, and media have on rates of eating disorders.Have you ever looked at another person and asked yourself, “Why don’t I look like that?” If you answered yes, then you’ve made a social comparison. The social comparison theory was developed in 1954 by Leon Festinger, who described it as the desire you feel to evaluate yourself by direct comparisons to other people around you.

Social comparisons can be about anything, including your body image, which is how you feel about your physical appearance. In particular, the pressure to obtain the “perfect” body portrayed in the media can contribute to eating disorders.

Eating disorders

The American Psychiatric Association has defined three main types of eating disorders:

Anorexia nervosa involves excessive dieting that leads to severe weight loss fuelled by a pathological fear of becoming, and which results from a distorted body image.

Bulimia nervosa involves frequent episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate behaviours, such as self-induced vomiting, to avoid weight gain.

Binge-eating disorder involves recurring episodes of eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time followed by feelings of lack of control, embarrassment, guilt, or disgust.

There are also other eating disorders (such as chewing food and spitting it out) that are called “eating disorders not otherwise specified”, and which do not completely fit the criteria for the main three types.

Culture and media

Did you know? Many celebrities have spoken out about their struggles with eating disorders, including Kesha, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Elton John, and Russell Brand. Culture refers to how a society’s way of life and beliefs shape how people think and act. For example, European and North American cultures are often described as individualistic, with great emphasis placed on people’s individual goals. By contrast, Asian cultures are often described as collectivist, with more emphasis placed on the group’s needs before the individual’s.

One of the elements of culture that provides the most opportunities for social comparisons is the media. It is everywhere, it demands to be heard, and it wants to convey messages on all sorts of topics, including appearances.

The problem with the media is that it tends to portray men and women in a very unrealistic way, thereby promoting unobtainable goals. Both men’s and women’s images are regularly photoshopped, airbrushed, and manipulated by computer-generated imagery (CGI). Women are frequently portrayed as thin, sexual objects, while men are frequently portrayed as bulky and muscular. Prime examples include images of Britney Spears and Andy Roddick. Traditionally, the media has manipulated women’s bodies much more than men’s, but this gap has been closing.

Media’s impact on body image

An article published in 2002 sought to evaluate the impact of television on body image and rates of eating disorders. Researchers studied two groups of adolescent Fijian girls from the remote province of Nadroga, where television was only introduced in 1995. At the time, both dieting and eating disorders were extremely rare in Nadroga, with only one previously reported case of anorexia nervosa.

By 1998, the situation in Nadroga had changed significantly. Three years after television was introduced, 74% of adolescent girls expressed increased dissatisfaction with their bodies or weight, 15% had tried self-induced vomiting to control their weight, and 4.6% had started binge eating.

Television and body image

The Fijian girls who were studied in 1998 made some striking statements suggesting that they adopted dysfunctional eating patterns after they began comparing their appearances to those of the fictional characters on television. For example:

“... I think all those actors and actresses that they show on TV, they have a good figure and so I, I would like to be like them... since the characters [on Beverly Hills 90210] are slimbuilt, [my friends] come and tell me that they would also like to look like that. So they, they change their mood, their hairstyles, so that they can be like those characters... so in order to be like them, I have to work on myself, exercising and my eating habits should change”

“...it's good to watch [TV] because... it's encouraged me that what I'm doing is right; when I see the sexy ladies on the television, well, I want to be like them, too.”

“...[TV viewing] affects me because sometimes I feel fat…”

Did you know? Men are more likely than women to have a disorder called muscle dysmorphia. It is considered the opposite of anorexia nervosa, because those who have it feel like they are not big enough. Although the introduction of television to Nadroga provided a unique opportunity to study the media’s influence on body image and rates of eating disorders, it is impossible to determine the exact extent to which television caused the changes observed by the researchers. Other cultural, social, and environmental factors could have also played a role. Today, it be extremely difficult to find another region without access to television and nearly impossible to evaluate the influence of television while controlling for all other cultural influences.

Magazines may also affect men’s and women’s levels of body satisfaction. Women’s magazines stress the need to lose weight as fast as possible, especially after a pregnancy (what a lovely way to say “Congratulations!”). Meanwhile, men’s magazines emphasize the need to gain muscle and gain it fast.

Another study looked at the impact of men being portrayed as big, muscular heroes. After viewing 16 different advertisements that pictured idealized male models, male participants’ satisfaction with their own bodies decreased. Men who accept the media’s ideal image of what men should look like feel less manly and may resort to disordered eating such as binge eating to bulk up and become more manly.

Of course, there are also genetic and other environmental factors that contribute to a person’s chances of developing an eating disorder. But as eating disorders become more prevalent and affect increasingly younger girls and boys, it is increasingly clear that a weight-obsessed culture is having a negative impact.

What can be done?

Did you know? Each year, the average American adolescent will see over 5,260 advertisements mentioning attractiveness.Education is one potential solution. A study conducted on college women had them attend two preventative sessions. One focused on exploring the thin ideal, where it comes from, and its negative consequences. The other session focused on healthy eating patterns and weight control. The researchers found that those in the preventative sessions had a better body image than those who were in the control group and did not attend any sessions.

* * *

The issue of eating disorders is one that has only begun to attract significant attention in recent years, so preventative programs are still being tested on both men and women. But using education to break down what is wrong with the idealized bodies portrayed in the media is something that researchers are strongly recommending So please, be healthy, love yourself, and reach out for help if you need it! We all have only one life to live, so let's not spend it hurting ourselves.

Learn more!

Online resources

Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls (2002)

A. E. Becker, R. A. Burwell, S. E. Gilman, D. B. Herzog and P. Hamburg. The British Journal of Psychiatry 180, 509-514

A study of body image and eating disorders among Fijian girls living in a remote province, before and after the introduction of television.

Eating disorders on the rise in Canada, as sufferers wait for treatment (2013)

CTV News My Health

A news report (text and video) on eating disorders in Canada.

Prevention programs for body image and eating disorders on University campuses: A review of large, controlled interventions (2008)

Z. Yager and J. A. O’Dea. Health Promotion International 23(2), 173-189.

A study of the effectiveness of 27 different “health promotion and health education programs to improve body dissatisfaction, dieting and disordered eating and exercise behaviors of male and female college students.”

Women are dying to be thin (2013)

Rader Programs

An infographic with facts about body image, eating disorders, and cultural influences.

Other resources

F. Festinger. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7, 117-140.

The article that first proposed the social comparison theory. An extract of the article is available online. A subscription is required to view the full text.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

The definitive reference for psychological disorders, including eating disorders, used in the United States. An outline of the manual is available online. A subscription is required to view the full text.

A. L. Baird and F. G. Grieve. (2006). Exposure to male models in advertisements leads to a decrease in men’s body satisfaction. North American Journal of Psychology 8(1), 115-122.

A study showing that men’s satisfaction with their own bodies decreased after viewing advertisements featuring male models. An abstract of the article is available online.

S. Griffiths, S. B. Murray and S. Touyz. (2014). Extending the Masculinity Hypothesis: An Investigation of Gender Role Conformity, Body Dissatisfaction, and Disordered Eating in Young Heterosexual Men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity.

A discussion of the link between gender roles and eating disorders among men. An abstract of the article is available online. A subscription is required to view the full text.

J. A. Matusek, S. J. Wendt SJ and C. V. Wiseman. (2004). Dissonance thin ideal and didactic healthy behaviour eating disorder prevention programs: Results from a controlled trial. International Journal of Eating Disorders 36(4), 376-388.

A study of the link between negative body image, low self-esteem, and eating disorders among college-age women in the United States. An abstract of the article is available online. A subscription is required to view the full text.

E. Stice, C. B. Becker and S. Yokum. (2013). Eating disorder prevention: Current evidence-base and future directions. International Journal of Eating Disorders 46(5),478-485.

A study of the effectiveness of different kinds of programs for preventing eating disorders. An abstract of the article is available online. A subscription is required to view the full text.

Crystal Gaulton

I am currently completing my Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Psychology at Memorial University in Newfoundland.  When I'm not studying I love hanging out with my boyfriend, hand-painting glasses, exercising, and playing volleyball.  After my studies my aspiration is to become a doctor and help the mentally ill live the best quality of life they possibly can!  Growing up I had a lot of questions as to why or how something happened and science answered most of those questions!

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