The Role of Peer Pressure in the Development of Eating Disorders

Peer pressure increases the likelihood of young women developing eating disorders through social pressures to be thin, desire for approval from friends, and indirect competition within peer groups.

Social Pressures to be Thin

The pressure of society increases the likelihood of young women to develop eating disorders. In the words of Deanna Linville, an associate professor of counseling psychology and human services at the University of Oregon, eating disorders among young women aged 11-17 are associated with “criticisms of appearance and interpersonal pressure to be thin” (Linville et al. 746). More simply put, young women are persuaded to look a certain way by society and their peers. This is illustrated in a study performed by Lauren Shomaker, associate professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University, and Wyndol Furman, of the University of Denver Department of Psychology, which found the pressure to be thin “increased during the transition from adolescence to young adulthood whereas body dissatisfaction decreased and then increased again over the study period” (Linville et al. 749). Individuals are most naive during their adolescent and young adult years, as they are most impressionable during this age, which is why they are increasingly more likely to develop disordered eating habits. Further, a research review organized by psychology professors Kristen Culbert at the University of Nevada, Sarah Racine at McGill University, and Kelly Klump at Michigan State University concluded that cases of eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia have increased along with the appreciation of thinness in Western cultures (Culbert et al. 1145). The United States is strongly influenced by European (or Western) cultures, which regard thinness as a trait of beauty.

Since American culture values appearance, society idolizes thin women and criticizes those who are not. According to the Healthy Teen Project, a center for eating disorder recovery located in Los Altos, California, being shamed for weight and physical appearance are compelling factors in the development of eating disorders. Prior to the start of their eating disorder, many teenagers reported being criticized for their appearance by their peers (“Adolescent Eating Disorders such as Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorders Are Treatable”). These criticisms concerning weight and physical appearance result in many feeling pressured to lose weight and get thin; eating disorders are one of these coping methods.

Desire for Approval From Friends

The feelings and actions of young women are greatly impacted by the desire for friends’ approval. As the psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Children’s National Medical Center Eleanor Mackey puts it, weight control behaviors are highly influenced by the perceptions of their peers (Squires). As portrayed by this view, those who are surrounded by critical peers often take part in weight control behaviors, including eating disorders. In the words of Linda Buchan, a registered psychologist at Calgary Counseling Centre, “Some kids will go through a phase of starving themselves because their friends are doing it” (Holden). To fit in with their friends, some young women will develop eating disorders, whether it be because their friends or doing it, or simply as an attempt to appear more attractive. Many of Buchan’s clients who struggle with eating disorders began doing so in high school, where they learned it from their peers (Holden). Young women already have relatively low self-esteem during their teenage years. The desire to please their friends only makes matters worse.

One of the reasons for these low levels of self-esteem is body dissatisfaction, which is the negative personal assessment of one’s body involving weight and shape (Joseph and Shiffrar). A study led by Dr. Pamela Keel of Florida State University’s Department of Psychology found that women who had lower body satisfaction often received remarks from friends regarding their weight and diet. The researchers also concluded that women who undergo eating disorders at a greater extent were more likely to “choose peers who make frequent comments” concerning their weight (“The Effect of Peers on Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Pathology”). Body dissatisfaction, which is affected by remarks from peers, prompts young women to develop eating disorders. Ultimately, young women whose friends tend to criticize their weight and appearance are endangered to develop low levels of body satisfaction, which leads to eating disorders.

Competition Within Peer Groups

Young women in America, teenagers especially, have a tendency to be extremely competitive toward one another. Results from a study designed and analyzed by Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University, suggest that competition between peers predicts negative outcomes (Ferguson et al.). In the class of these outcomes is low body satisfaction, which is associated with eating disorder development. In the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Texas A&M International University contends when evaluating body image, young women attend to competition issues (Munoz et al. 480). Competing with other girls they feel to be “prettier” or “better looking” makes teenage girls feel inferior. When combined with the pressures of fitting in, these feelings of inferiority may prompt young women to refer to extreme, unhealthy measures such as eating disorders to rebuild themselves.

Adding to the tension that already exists among young females are young men. Results of an experimental study led by Monica Munoz, associate professor and director of the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at Texas A&M International University, indicate women and girls are less satisfied with their bodies when competitive females and desirable males are present (Munoz et al. 480). When a “desirable male” is present, natural instincts force young women to compete with each other to an even greater extent. This high level of competition that occurs in the presence of young men causes young women to feel insecure, and dissatisfied with their body shape and weight. To manage these feelings, many will find themselves developing eating disorders. Because of the indivisible and increasing connection between peer pressure and eating disorders among young women, efforts must be made to improve body satisfaction to minimize the likelihood of eating disorder development in the United States.

Works Cited

“Adolescent Eating Disorders such as Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorders Are

Treatable.” The Healthy Teen Project,

www.healthyteenproject.com/adolescent-eating-disorders-ca.

Culbert, Kristen M., et al. “Research Review: What We Have Learned about the Causes of

Eating Disorders – a Synthesis of Sociocultural, Psychological, and Biological Research.”

Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, vol. 56, no. 11, Nov. 2015, pp. 1141–1164.

EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jcpp.12441.

Ferguson, Christopher J., et al. “Concurrent and Prospective Analyses of Peer, Television and

Social Media Influences on Body Dissatisfaction, Eating Disorder Symptoms and Life

Satisfaction in Adolescent Girls.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 43, no. 1, 2013,

pp. 1–14., doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9898-9.

Holden, Lindsay. “Peer Pressure Can Hurt Healthy Eating Habits.” Calgary Herald, 14 Aug.

2012, www.calgaryherald.com/health/Peer+pressure+hurt+healthy+eating+

habits/7089849/story.html.

Joseph, Christina, and Maggie Shiffrar . “Eating Disorders .” Maggie Shiffrar, Ph.D. – Visual

Cognition Lab, May 2011, nwkpsych.rutgers.edu/roar/EatingDisorders.html.

Linville, Deanna et al. “Predictive Effects of Mother and Peer Influences on Increases in

Adolescent Eating Disorder Risk Factors and Symptoms: A 3-year Longitudinal Study”

International Journal of Eating Disorders vol. 44,8 (2011): 745-51.

Munoz, Monica E., et al. “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Peer Competition, Television Influences

and Body Image Dissatisfaction.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 5 Nov. 2011, pp. 458–483., doi:10.1037/e634112013-396.

Squires, Sally. “Peer Pressure Can Carry Great Weight in Girls’ Eating and Exercise Habits.” The

Washington Post, WP Company, 15 July 2008,

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/14/AR2008071401436_2.htm

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“The Effect of Peers on Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Pathology.” Eating Disorders Review,

vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 2013, p. 12. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid,cpid,url&custid=s11761

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