January 21, 2008           

AMHERST, Mass. – Both American and British girls develop a host of unhealthy misperceptions about their bodies as early as their adolescent years, but young women from England who believe their figures are not ideal are more likely to experience symptoms of bulimia, new research by Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson and collaborators from the London School of Economics (including Amherst Class of 2000 graduate Jenny Mutterperl Wallier) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst has found. The team’s findings, which appear in the current issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, underscore the disturbing pervasiveness of body image issues among younger and younger women, as well as the moderating affect of culture on disordered eating among similar Western societies.

In the study, 272 female students from two private, single-sex secondary schools in the United States and one private, single-sex secondary school in England answered questions about their drive to be thin, their reasons for exercising and why they think others want to exercise. They were asked to assess their own bodies, their ideal size and the actual and ideal sizes of the typical girl at their schools.

When comparing their own bodies to those of their classmates, participants in the study from both countries believed their peers to be thinner than they actually were and to have thinner, more ideal figures than their own. Yet there was a difference in how such thinking manifested itself. Feeling heavier than classmates in terms of actual and ideal body size in both sets of girls was associated with a drive to be thin, a symptom associated with anorexia. In British girls, but not American girls, such misperceptions were also associated with symptoms of bulimia—such as going on eating binges where they felt they could not stop.
“In addition to revealing the dangerous impact that culture and social norms have on girls today, this research shows that the perceived gap between a woman’s actual and ideal body size that we’ve seen repeatedly in samples of college women occurs even in high school girls,” said Sanderson, who recently began blogging about how personality and social factors influence eating and exercise behavior for the magazine Psychology Today. “I hope both findings can be of value for high school educators who are working on preventing eating disorders, because this perception gap is clearly associated with anorexia and bulimia.” She added that more open discussion about thinness and body image issues among girls would go a long way toward preventing problems for them in the future. “There is tremendous pressure on women to try to meet false norms, and it makes them feel alienated from their culture,” she explained. “It’s very important to tell women about these misperceptions. Simply knowing about them helps women engage in behavior to try to combat them.”

Founded in 1821, Amherst is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1,600 students from most of the 50 states and more than 30 other countries. Considered one of the nation’s best educational institutions, Amherst awards the B.A. degree in 34 fields of study.