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Social Influences on Body Dissatisfaction and Anxiety

Katy Jaramillo

19 April 2009




There have many explanations for the development of eating disorders in individuals and the growing prevalence of eating disorders in the United States and other nations. Some attribute eating disorders to a need for control, a response to familial pressure to be successful, or a biological or genetic predisposition to conditions such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder that can be expressed through eating disorders. However, it is clear that eating disorders, while sometimes triggered by a single factor, are actually caused by the interaction of influences of biology, family, peer groups, environment, and cultural and societal factors. Cultural and societal factors may not explain individual cases, but the new environment in America, depicted in the media and in daily life, is clearly leading to increasing prevalence of eating disorders, both in numbers and in groups of peoples affected. The new ideals of feminine beauty and thinness in American culture serve to foster thin ideals in young boys and girls, which follow them into adulthood. The new ideals of society create the perfect conditions for eating disorders to grow and prosper. But just how much do social influences impact body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety in the population?

Media and Body Dissatisfaction

The media plays a huge role in the consciousness and subconscious of a population. Its influence begins at a very young age, and helps to shape ideas about the world and how it works. When the media shows images relating thinness to beauty and success, young children internalize the message without realizing it, which leads to a susceptibility to body dissatisfaction in the future. One study, conducted by the University of South Florida, measured the media’s influence over eight to eleven year-olds. They reported on correlations between the Multidimensional Media Influence Scale (MMIS) and the Eating Disorder Inventory Body Dissatisfaction subscale. Factor analysis was conducted on a series of questions to determine which would be the best for third through fifth graders to answer and which were most indicative of actual attitudes towards the body and the media, with an original sixty items being reduced to twenty-nine items (Cusumano 2000). The questionnaires were then given to one hundred eighty-two children, and their answers were analyzed for three factors: internalization, awareness, and media pressure. The results were that the MMIS scores predicted 30% of the variance of girls’ scores on the body dissatisfaction (Cusumano 2000). The MMIS scores of females had a 0.55 correlation to the scores on the EDI-BD, while males’ scores on both tests had a correlation of 0.27 (Cusumano 2000). Overall, the study found that females were affected more than males, but that there were strong correlations for both sexes.

Another study examined the effects of the media images on the body images and appearance anxiety of young women. Thirty-nine female university students were exposed to advertisements, twelve with body-related products, twelve with non-body-related products. Each group of twelve contained six images with idealized body images, and half did not. Pre-exposure and post-exposure appearance anxiety and body shame were recorded. Appearance anxiety increased after viewing the advertisements, and there was no main effect for type of advertisement (body-related vs. non-body-related products) (Monro 2005). There was also an increase in appearance anxiety when high levels of self-objectification existed in the advertisements (Monro 2005). The only main effect seen for body shame was a decrease over time, but it was clear that media advertisements with images of the idealized body cause a significant increase in body anxiety in young women. Since the average American sees over 1500 advertisements every day, this is a very disturbing finding (Hesse-Biber). Young women are being inundated with images that increase appearance anxiety.

These two studies serve to illuminate the relationship between attitudes towards one’s own body and appearance, and the media. The media reflects societal ideals, and with society’s ideal body slowly thinning, more children and young adults will internalize the message that thinness is beauty and it will lead to happiness.

Other Social Factors

Peer Influence

A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders acknowledged the significant influence the media had in causing body dissatisfaction, but wanted to examine other aspects of the social environment that might have the same effect (Wasilenko 2007). The researchers decided to look at peer influence on weight-conscious behaviors, and they chose to measure this by exercise time. Forty-five female undergraduates were observed in their exercise behaviors relative to whom they were exercising with. There were three groups: subjects paired with physically fit peers, subjects paired with physically unfit peers, and subjects exercising alone (the control group) (Wasilenko 2007). The researchers found that “exposure to a fit peer had undermining effects on women’s body satisfaction and exercise duration,” whereas the unfit peer caused an increase in time spent exercising relative to the control group, but no increase in the subject’s body satisfaction (Wasilenko 2007). The results of this study are significant and warrant further research, since exercise duration is an objective measure of observable behavior, not a subjective self-report like many other studies regarding body satisfaction.

Self Influence

Exercise is a very common and socially accepted ritual to prevent weight gain and promote fitness. However, other common rituals, like body-checking, can result in increased body awareness, and thus, increased body anxiety and dissatisfaction. Body-checking is a term referring to observing, examining, and critiquing the body, often to relieve anxiety, and it can become almost like a compulsion. A study on Social Physique Anxiety, another term for body-related anxiety, examined the relationship between body checking cognitions (BCCS), body checking behaviors (BCQ) and social physique anxiety (SPA) (Haase 2007). The BCCS referred to thoughts to verify current appearance, reassurance of no changes to appearance, and the beliefs that checking was a way to maintain and control the body image and size (Haase 2007). The BCQ referred to behaviors related to these thoughts, such as checking the whole body, or focusing on certain parts (Haase 2007).


The results of the study found significant correlations between social physique anxiety and the cognitions and behaviors associated with appearance anxiety and dissatisfaction (Haase 2007). While having body-related anxiety is most likely the cause of these correlations, the obsessive thoughts and resulting compulsive checking will result in a self-perpetuating cycle of body anxiety. The compulsions to self check will temporarily relieve the stress, quickly forming a habit that will be detrimental to the emotional health and self-esteem of the individual. This research is important because it shows very strong correlations between thoughts and behaviors associated with body anxiety and common in eating disorders.

Time Influence

Social factors not only influence thoughts and behaviors that can lead to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, they also play a role in the remission of former eating disorder patients. A study that examined differences between remitted and non-remitted anorexia patients used regression equations to predict the degree to which certain factors reduced the chances for remission. Remission, in this study, “indicates that behavioral eating-related symptoms are no longer present for at least a brief period of time” (Yackobovitch-Gavan 2008). Five factors that reduce the chances of remission were identified, and the results were as follows:   

(1)  Number of hospitalizations (each additional hospitalization reduces the chance for remission by a factor of 2.35)

(2)  Duration of ambulatory treatment for AN after the first hospitalization, (an increase of 1 year in treatment time reduces the chance of remission by a factor of 1.72)

(3)  Past EDFHI-vegetarianism (which reduces the chance of remission by a factor of 10.53)

(4)  Anxiety: STAI-Trait (an increase of one scoring unit on the STAI-Trait reduces the chance of remission by a factor of 1.15)

(5)  Childhood sexual abuse (which reduces the chance of remission by a factor of 15.38).

(Yackobovitch-Gavan 2008)

These five factors identified by the analyses have 91.5% predictive power for non-remission in patients being treated for anorexia. This shows how many different factors, such as treatment, anxiety, or past abuse all contribute to perpetuating an eating disorder. These external, social, and environmental factors are all predictive of non-remission, and therefore most likely played a role in originating the eating problems in the first place.

Cultural Factors

Eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are not exclusive to the United States, although many believe that Westernization and the spread of the American thin ideal contribute to eating disorders outside the country. A study in Sydney, Australia, reviewed theoretical and empirical literature on cultural aspects of anorexia nervosa and found eating disorder occurrences cannot be solely attributed to Western ideals because that would negate any influence the home culture had on the individual (Rieger 2000). However, cultures that positively valued weight loss, even cultures with no fat phobia, are a “defining characteristic of anorexia nervosa” (Rieger 2000).

Another study conducted outside the United States dealt with the thin idealization in Mexican girls, ages twelve to fifteen. Thirty-seven girls were given a variety of tests to measure their awareness of the thin ideal, their own body dissatisfaction, and their risk for eating disorders (Austin 2008). The results showed a moderately high correlation between awareness of the thin ideal and body dissatisfaction for the girls (Austin 2008). However, internalization of the thin ideal had a significantly high correlation to body dissatisfaction (Austin 2008). This study is very important in that it shows not only the degree to which culture affects young people’s body images, it also shows the interaction between the culture and the individual. Body dissatisfaction was clearly linked with awareness of a thin ideal, but internalization of the thin ideal causes an increase in body dissatisfaction that results in higher susceptibility to eating disorders.


Body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety play a large role in thoughts and attitudes that can lead to dieting disorders and eating disorders. These negative attitudes do not arise solely from biology—social influences are what teach children and young adults about the values of thinness, and social influences are a large source of the pressure and subsequent internalization of the desire to be thin.

Numerous studies do show that social influences have a strong impact on body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety: social influences such as the media, peer influence, familial influence, and histories of treatment and sexual abuse. All these factors play a role in creating negative body images, and all increase the risk of developing eating disorders. Therefore, to decrease the prevalence of eating disorders in the population, the social messages and ideals must change.


Works Cited

Austin, J.L. & Smith, J.E. (2008). Thin Idealization in Mexican Girls: A Test of the Sociocultural Model of Eating Disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 41(5), 448-457. Retrieved from International Journal of Eating Disorders Database.

Cusumano, D.L. & Thompson, K. J. (2000). Media Influence and Body Image in 8-11-Year-Old Boys and Girls: A Preliminary Report on the Multidimensional Media Influence Scale. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29, 37-44. Retrieved from International Journal of Eating Disorders Database.

Haase, A. M. et al. (2007). Understanding the Link Between Body Checking Cognitions and Behaviors: The Role of Social Physique Anxiety. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(3), 241-246. doi: 10.1002/eat

Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2007). The Cult of Thinness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Monro, F. & Huon, G. (2005). Media-Portrayed Idealized Images, Body Shame, and Appearance Anxiety. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38, 85-90. Retrieved from International Journal of Eating Disorders Database.

Rieger, E. et al. (2000). Cross-Cultural Research on Anorexia Nervosa: Assumptions regarding the Role of Body Weight. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29, 205-215. Retrieved from International Journal of Eating Disorders Database.

Wasilenko, K.A, Kulik, J.A. & Wanic, R.A. (2007). Effects of Social Comparisons with Peers on Women’s Body Satisfaction and Exercise Behavior. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(8), 740-745. doi: 10.1002/eat

Yackobovitch-Gavan, M. et al. (2008). An Integrative Model of Factors Influencing the Course of Anorexia Nervosa Over Time. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 42(4), 306-317. Retrieved from International Journal of Eating Disorders 2009.



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