Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Eating Pathology and Social Comparison in College Females

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Eating Pathology and Social Comparison in College Females

Article excerpt

Eating pathology is any symptom of an eating disorder (either Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa) that includes extreme caloric restriction, self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, and misuse of laxatives, diuretics, and diet pills (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The disordered eating and body dissatisfaction literature focuses on the negative impact of media images that perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty. Though the images in media provide women with a great deal of information about the definition of beauty, they are not the lone source of this information. Most women also gain information about their physical appearance through comparison with peers (Rodin, Silberstein, & Striegel-Moore, 1984). Burckle, Ryckman, Gold, Thornton, and Audesse (1999) report that 18.6% of female college students score outside the normal range on the Eating Attitudes Test, a questionnaire assessing unhealthy beliefs about food and weight. They also note that 3.8% of female college students meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) for bulimia nervosa and a significantly larger percentage exhibit disordered eating behaviors and attitudes that are detrimental to overall health and well-being. The prevalence of disordered eating is not surprising in a culture where dieting is viewed as a rite of passage and negative attitudes about weight and shape reflect a "normative discontent" that many women share (Rodin et al., 1984).

Some researchers argue that people have a natural desire to compare their opinions, abilities, and other aspects of the self (Festinger, 1954). Social comparison is the primary source of information about the self and it occurs both in the presence and absence of objective criteria (Marsh & Parker, 1984; Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). Morrison, Kalin, and Morrison (2004) found that people make social comparisons about general appearance, weight, and eating habits. A person's conception of his or her body image is based not only on one's own views but also how he or she thinks that others view it (Davidson & McCabe, 2005).

As females have a greater social orientation than males, they may be especially susceptible to making appearance-related social comparisons (Davidson & McCabe, 2005; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Females receive more social messages about how they should look, have more unrealistic standards for comparisons, and are judged more on appearance. Comparisons made on appearance generally are upward, which means that the person one is comparing herself to is perceived as being more attractive (Morrison et al., 2004). Repeated upward comparisons are associated with body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, decreased self-confidence, depression, and anxiety (Markham, Thompson & Bowling, 2005; Thornton & Maurice, 1999). Upward comparisons based on appearance provide motivation for change, but more often, they increase feelings of discontent (Thompson et al., 1999). Self-ideal discrepancy theory purports that this discontent occurs because upward comparisons create a gap between the self and the self-ideal (Cash & Syzmanski, 1995), which may explain the maintenance of a negative body image. Daily upward comparisons of appearance reinforce a negative evaluation of one's body (Evans, 2003; Thompson et al., 1999).

Females engage in appearance-related social comparison many times each day with both peers (particularistic targets) and women in the media Lindner, Hughes, & Fahy EATING PATHOLOGY & SOCIAL 447 and society (universalistic targets). College campuses provide unique environments for appearance-related social comparison; young women are surrounded by others of approximately the same age with whom they interact either indirectly through passing each other on campus or directly through classes or socializing. In middle and high-school environments, opportunities abound for young females to make appearance-related social comparisons; college represents a different social environment than primary or secondary schools and many acknowledge that emerging adulthood is a distinct developmental period (Arnett, 2000). …

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