March 18th, 2010
11:01 AM ET

Teen girls size up schoolmates to decide whether to diet

By Madison Park
CNNhealth.com writer/producer

Girls not only look at their friends, but eye their schoolmates and peers to determine their feelings about body weight, according to research published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

A girl attending a school where the average body mass index is high is less likely to diet.  A girl attending a school where the average BMI is low, would be more likely to try to lose weight.

The study's lead author, Anna Mueller, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and her co-authors used info from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.  The data had a sample of U.S. adolescents in grades 7-12 in 132 middle and high schools in 80 communities.

"Social contexts in schools play an important role in shaping girls’ decisions to practice weight control," according to the research.

Rather than fashion spreads, actresses and models,  comparing themselves with their peers seems to be more important, Mueller said.

"The idea of normal weight is locally defined," she said.  "Adolescent culture is a unique thing. Within the school, because they spend so much time there, peer relationships there are so important, because the developmental stage of adolescence is so powerful. The school culture can be important above and beyond the family influence and the media influences."

This study has bigger implications, Mueller wrote.

"For girls’ body image, this suggests that it may be important when designing programs to address girls’ body image issues in a way that helps girls curtail the desire to socially compare with other schoolmates."

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Mitsy

    This is pretty much what I've been saying for years now. Where I live in the rural mid-west, a very big percentage of teenage girls are 200+ pounds. Many appear to have no shame because I see how they act, how they dress, and the "peers" they hang out with – who I might add are just as large as they are. The peer pressure to maintain a semi-healthy weight is not there anymore. Over 30 years ago when I was in school, there was maybe 1-2 girls in my high school class who were a bit overweight. They paled in comparison to the obese teenagers I see now and what's even more troubling is that the parents of "most" of these teens are also extremely overweight. The thought process is not there. When I can't fit into my size 12 jeans, it's diet time for me. I will never be a size 6, but I do care about how I look and that seems to be more than I can say about the average overweight teen I see walking around like they don't have a care in the world.

    March 18, 2010 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jonathan Ryan Tung

    And this is a surprise how? It should be plainly obvious that one's surroundings will affect one's behavior. To say that anyone's lifestyle is at least in part a function of his or her immediate peers is so obvious as to merit a gawked laugh of disbelief that anyone would pay the money for such a study.

    Lastly, good luck in designing programs that will eliminate the desire on girls's parts to compare with other schoolmates. That's pretty much here to stay so long as human beings are around.

    March 18, 2010 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Heidi

    Mitsy – It's called fake bravado, they do care. And yes there has been an increase in teenage obesity, but to keep it real, the teenage obesity number is approx 15-20%. Which should not be surprising, considering how many facets of our life are automated and online. Plus the increase in fast, unhealthy food is astronomical. The adults in the these teens life need to play a more supportive and active role.

    March 18, 2010 at 14:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Megan

    I agree with this! I can relate to this article because I am a teen girl. I look at my friends every day, some of them are smaller than me, some are bigger. I dont care about other peoples body and if they are skinnier than me. I know that if i take care of myself that i will stay physically fit. Eat the rite foods, exercise, and get enough sleep!

    March 18, 2010 at 18:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. skinny chick

    Of course women and girls compare themselves to their peers on a daily basis. Our current culture specifies that women should wear very tight fitting clothes with a low neckline. This leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination (which is what today's men absolutely love) and leaves women sizing each other up. Not just in weight, women and men have constant visual access to every woman's breast size and shape and girls and women are comparing themselves in that way too. That's why breast augmentation is wildly popular. I went to school with people who really took care of themselves so the pressure to stay thin was intense. My mother's constant dieting and ads throughout the media to diet left me with a permanent need to be very very thin. I feel bad about myself as other women in my work environment flaunt their figure and breasts. It's a type of arms race in which women who want to be asked out need to look as good as or better than their peers. That can lead to a painful, daily ritual to keep weight off and constant shame about breast size. Is it our new tight-clothes society or the fact that men now freely choose women based on physical features alone ("no fat chicks")? When women are reduced to physical trophies, it just leads to misery. Women need to be healthy and found desireable for more than just their physical features. Otheriwise, we may as well go back to choosing men based entirely on our perceived earning capacity and milk them for all their worth.

    March 18, 2010 at 18:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jessie G

    I find it ironic that Skinny Chick says "Women need to be healthy and found desireable for more than just their physical features" yet she defines herself here by her skinniness. Isn't that a physical feature? Hmmmm........Interesting.

    March 18, 2010 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ash

    I personally don't see this as any surprise. i am a ninth grader and all i ever hear from overweight girls is "I don't need to lose weight, I'm not as big as THAT girl". that is the issue. we shouldn't compare ourselves to someone thinner or bigger to make out what we should look like. we don't all have the same body type and we shouldn't all look the same. variety is the spice of life. we all have our own special look about us. i'm not encouraging anyone to let themselves go. i'm just saying that pushing yourself to look leaf thin or not trying to get in shape because of the bigger girl next to you are illogical. don't allow what others do influence what you do yourself.

    March 18, 2010 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. AtlantaLady

    I agree totally with Mitsy. My experience as a tweener and teen were the same, so much so that I lost 40 pounds between ages 14 and 16. I remember myself as a high school freshman, feeling ashamed that I couldn't buy my clothes in the juniors department where my friends all shopped. That shame made me become active and start eating right, and I've been working out and eating right ever since – 38 years and counting. Today, I have a niece who is quite large and she and her peers seem to relish having "muffin tops" hanging out of their jeans. It's really distressing. She has asthma because she is so heavy, and I'm certain she will end up with diabetes before long, cause her father (my brother) did after he let his weight get out of control years ago.

    March 19, 2010 at 00:46 | Report abuse | Reply

    @skinny chick

    No I don't want to date a fat chick. I don't want to date an unambitious air head either. It's not one or the other, it's looking for a balance of good qualities.

    March 19, 2010 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Leslie


    I agree with you - I also live in a rural midwest town, and the obesity rate is certainly more than 15 – 20% here. There seems to be a relationship between generational poverty and obesity.

    March 19, 2010 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Nic

    This study really isn't anything new. It's already been proven that self image is directly affected by your social circle.
    If your friends are heavy you have a higher risk of becoming heavier (which I have actually seen affect). If your friends try to maintain a healthy weight, you will likely be affected by seeing their good habits and will probably be encouraged to participate in a healthy lifestyle.
    I suppose the only real point that they made, is that a teens social circle makes more of an impact on self image than media and the like.

    March 19, 2010 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Chris

    My concern with this article is that it does not address the issue of causality. The article states that schools with a low BMI average yeilds less common practices of dieting than those schools with higher levels of BMI's. Of course these results are the way they are; it is extremely plausible that the whole reason that these schools have low BMI's is because dieting is a common practice and vice versa, schools with high average BMI's are because dieting is not a common practice. The question that was expressed was do girls with above school average BMI's diet because of they are comparing themselves with the other more fit girls in the school. It seems like the study, in order to focus on the specific causality as described, should have measured the difference in dieting frequency's amongst above average BMI's compared to those that are at or below the average BMI. This study would have better served the question of causality; are overweight girls comparing themselves to the "average" girl?

    March 19, 2010 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Franz

    Bravo, Skinny Chick. My guy pals lament about women who want them for their perceived cash value and I retort with your sentiment. But, then again, women of all types are so beautiful, we can't help but desire you 🙂

    March 19, 2010 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. MA

    This shouldn't need a study to prove, it's pretty common knowledge that adolescent girls (and full grown women!) compare themselves to others.

    March 19, 2010 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Rovy

    skinny chick, women do choose men based entirely on earning capacity and security. From age 16-24, they choose men based purely on emotional measures (lust, hotness, charm, good looks, etc.) but by the time women are 30 and have worked for a solid 5 years, they realize the true allure of a man who can give them the peace of mind to:
    1. Support children
    2. roof over their heads
    3. retire worry free

    These concerns don't matter to a high school/college girl, but after a few years in the work force, reality hits and the truth of the matter is that love/romance is fleeting but bills and taxes are forever. The mantra for women over 30 is "married for love the first time, 2nd time I'm marrying for money."

    March 19, 2010 at 11:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Chiefy

    With a 13 yr. old daughter trying to figure out her place in this world, I am all too familiar with the daily struggle to instill healthy eating/sleeping/exercise habits. I've had to cut down tremendously on packaged foods, since my daughter hasn't been able to learn to limit her intake of junk. I've been tireless in my efforts to set good example of balance, e.g. cutting up a brownie into 4 pieces, and eating them over the course of at least 4 days, while eating lots of fruit, fish, veggies, etc. At this stage, she's constantly rebelling, knowing full well that what I'm trying to teach her is positive behavior, but the thought of me controlling her eating habits is not acceptable for her at this time. I refuse to give up, but it's exhausting! As for Skinny Chick's comments on clothing, I definitely agree that there's too much skin out there, and of course that's a battle for us parents as well. Let's face it, at their age we didn't think that boys usually look at us with a part of their body that isn't inside their skull, but now we do. I sort of wish there could be a return to an environment like the one that Sidney Poitier created in "To Sir with Love" where boys and girls were taught to treat each other wish respect. What do we have now? Scantily clad girls, big and small, photographing themselves in various states of undress, sending the images to boys, those boys sending them over cyberspace to the world, and both sexes addressing each other with profanity, etc. engaging in dangerous behaviors when they're not old enough to vote, or drive for that matter. And why oh why can't we have nice role models in entertainment? They could make a big difference!

    March 19, 2010 at 11:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. AtlantaLady

    Chris, I was one of those overweight girls. Who *else* would I have been comparing myself to if not the "fit" girls? There were only 2 or 3 other heavy girls besides me. What was I gonna do, compare my body size to theirs and be happy that I wasn't *as* heavy as they? No way! The slender girls were my peers as far as I was concerned. The fit girls didn't diet, they didn't have to. It was never even discussed in casual conversation. Ever. I was the only one in that group who ever consciously monitored her food intake and frequency or put herself on a diet.

    March 19, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Mama Ellen

    With all respect to Anna Mueller, this is not exactly news. Teens have ALWAYS looked to their peers in order to figure out how to look, act, and think. It's pure developmental psychology. Their over-riding quest is to FIT IN. But in today's society, the model they all ascribe to is found not in the gym or at the Prom but in the pages of People Magazine and the latest reality show featuring teenagers or young adults. So it's ridiculous to speculate that the media is not involved. The media and its continuous promotion of underweight girls is at the core. No question in my mind anyway.

    March 20, 2010 at 22:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Annali

    I can believe this. I am in the teenage range and see how this is true. I live in the eastern coast and see how tons of girls are concerned about this. I don't necessarily like how I am, but there are some girls who are so influenced by their peers to lose weight it is scary. They are so skinny and athletic and popular. Usually the popular girls are skinny, demeaning, and making the 'losers' feel bad. There is a ton of this going on in my district/area. Body image is important to us, and we need a good image in order to feel good. But dieting doesn't work. Oy vey to everything in the teenage world.

    March 21, 2010 at 11:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. ikjkjkj

    I'm in high school. Girls do this yes, but so do boys. Not saying boys are comparing themselves in terms of being over weight but boys do compare their body immage as well. They compare muscles and their height and a lot of other things, do they not? Mitsy, the mid-west has nothing to do with it. I live in the north-east & we have the problems too. Not everyone is overweight but theres still some. It's this society & this country that isn't keeping themsleves healthy. In my school we have "fittness fridays" which was created so in gym classes no matter what you are currently learning or playing in class, you dontt participate in on fridays and instead you do a workout, its the over weight kids that this was created for and meanwhile its the over weight kids getting excused by the nurse from running or what ever cardio workout were doing that day. Then you have the kids who are maybe a little chubbier or some that are overweight and are trying. My point not everyone doesn't care & not everyone does.

    March 23, 2010 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. lauriesgym

    I am a personal trainer, and while I was never severely overweight, I was overfat. I had more fat on my body than muscle, and thought I was in good shape because I could still fit in a size 9. But i would run up 2 flights of steps to my apartment and be totally out of breath. That was in my early 30s. I decided to get it together at that point. I pretty much attribute it to a healthy eating "plan". Not any fad diet. I just decided to start eating fresh veggies...and I came from a family who poured their veggies from a can! It's no wonder I didn't like them all that much when I was growing up! Also I remember punishment was staying in your room and not being allowed out to play. Now it must be punishment to go outside instesd of stying in you room playing videos and computer games. Ahh how things have changed. I also try to get a protein with every meal..and never skip breakfast! I am 48yrs old 135lbs and in the best shape of my whole life!! I believe if you educate yourself about what is REALLY in the foods we eat, and read labels you can certainly make healthier choices. Do it for the health beefits, looking good is just the added benefit!!

    March 24, 2010 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Pendleton

    How has being a parent changed you?

    April 13, 2010 at 08:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. RAVEministries

    Girls define beauty through comparing themselves to friends, schoolmates and celebrities in the media. They always wish they had more of this or wish they had less of that. True beauty is found inside a person, the person God created us to be. By comparing ourselves to other we only see the glass half empty. We will never truly be satisfied with how we look if we cease to compare our body to others. We can find peace in our own image when we find comfort in knowing that the way God created us is the best version of who we are.

    November 7, 2010 at 19:01 | Report abuse | Reply

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