Predicting Disordered Eating Intentions among Incoming College Freshman: An Analysis of Social Norms and Body Esteem

By Giles, Steven M.; Helme, Donald et al. | Communication Studies, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Predicting Disordered Eating Intentions among Incoming College Freshman: An Analysis of Social Norms and Body Esteem


Giles, Steven M., Helme, Donald, Krcmar, Marina, Communication Studies


The purpose of this study was to explore the relationship between parental influence, peer norms, body esteem, and disordered eating intentions in a sample of incoming college freshmen women. A total of 427 incoming female college freshmen from a private university in the southeastern United States were surveyed as part of a larger study. Results indicated that body esteem moderated the relationship between parent thinness norms, parent encouragement norms, parent communicative norms, peer acceptability norms, and peer prevalence norms on disordered eating intentions. There was no significant interaction between body esteem and peer thinness norms. These results suggest that efforts to prevent disordered eating among college students should include strategies for changing normative influence, both from parents and peers.

Keywords: Body Esteem; Disordered Eating; Parent Norms; Peer Norms

Approximately 3.7% of American women will suffer from anorexia in their lifetime and 4.2% will suffer from bulimia (Spearing, 2000). The problem is much greater when one considers the prevalence of subclinical forms of eating disorders, or those that do not meet diagnostic criteria, especially among adolescent girls and college students. Subclinical levels of eating disorders are estimated to affect 10% of the population (Garfinkel, 1995) with as many as 22% of female college students reporting engaging in bulimic or anorexic behavior that does not meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Text Revision (4th ed. [DSM-TV-TR]; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) criteria for a diagnosis (Harrison & Cantor, 1997).

Sociocultural norms contribute to the prevalence of subclinical forms of eating disorders by promoting an unrealistic thin ideal (Battle & Brownell, 1996; Harrison & Cantor, 1997). Cultural standards that equate thinness with beauty are associated with body disparagement and dissatisfaction and may lead to "normative discontent," especially among females (Mann et al., 1997; Wiederman & Pryor, 2000). This is particularly problematic when one considers that for college women body image dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, and excessive weight concerns are risk factors for full-syndrome eating disorders (Killen et al., 1993; Taylor et al., 1998). Parents also may negatively impact their child's eating behavior by modeling the importance of thinness through dieting and weight concerns (Levine, Smolak, Moodey, Shuman, & Hessen, 1994; Smolak, Levine, & Schermer, 1999). For instance, disordered eating has been associated with fathers' preference of thin body types (Ogden & Chanana, 1998). Mussell, Binford, and Fulkerson (2000) argue that children of obese parents or parents who are overly concerned about weight are at an increased risk for developing eating disorders. These findings suggest that parents may create expectations for their children in regard to thinness and these expectations may, in turn, contribute to disordered eating behavior in their children.

A substantial literature recognizes that disordered eating behavior and attitudes are affected by both external factors, such as social influences, and internal factors such as self-esteem. It seems clear that these factors may act together as a process, resulting in disordered eating behavior and attitudes; however, research to date has not explored the nature of this process. Specifically, it is likely that there is a relationship between young women's peer and parent norms for disordered eating and her own disordered eating behavior. Additionally, cultural standards for thinness have been associated with negative "self-evaluations of one's body or appearance," also known as body esteem (Mendelson, Mendelson, & White, 2001). The purpose of this study is to explore the specific relationship between parental influence, peer norms, body esteem, and disordered eating behaviors in a sample of incoming college freshman women, who for reasons mentioned above, may be at an increased risk for developing subclinical levels of eating disorders. …

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