Does Competitiveness Influence the Association Between Appearance-Related Factors and Disordered Eating?

BY: Abby Liles

DATE: September 16, 2016

A study published in Body Image and conducted by Ms. Jenna Schleien and Dr. Anna Bardone-Cone at UNC – Chapel Hill evaluated whether competitiveness in college women influenced the association between appearance-related factors and disordered eating. Existing research supported certain appearance-related factors, such as desire to be thin and evaluation of one’s appearance, as predictors for disordered eating (Stice et al. 1998). However, since not all individuals with high desire to be thin or who base one’s sense of self and worth on physical appearance develop disordered eating characteristics, the researchers introduced the factor of competitiveness. Previous research indicated that general competitiveness among peers is a greater indicator of dieting than parental or media influences (Huon et. al, 1999).

In this study, appearance-related factors were divided into thin-ideal internalization and appearance contingent self-worth. Thin-ideal internalization assessed culturally influenced ideals of thinness and attractiveness; individuals who report high thin-ideal internalization promote desires to be thin and the behaviors that help them attain this goal. Appearance contingent self-worth, on the other hand, assessed whether individuals believe their self-worth and sense of self relies on appearance. Disordered eating was assessed with dieting and excessive exercise in the 28 days before completing the study. The influence of competitiveness was measured by a general desire to compete with others in a broad sense (e.g., a sample item is “I compete with others even if they are not competing with me”). The researchers hypothesized that among the females who reported high thin-ideal internalization or appearance contingent self-worth, those who were also highly competitive would display the highest levels of disordered eating characteristics.

A baseline sample of 441 female undergraduate students between 17 and 24 years old responded to questionnaires that assessed competitiveness, appearance-related factors, and disordered eating characteristics. One year after the initial questionnaire, a total of 237 females from the original sample responded to a shorter version of this survey.

Results indicated that a strong personal desire to be thin, combined with high competitiveness, was associated with high levels of disordered eating behaviors (both dieting and excessive exercise). On the other hand, high appearance contingent self-worth and high competitiveness did not interact to identify levels of dieting or excessive exercise. The results for participants between the baseline survey and one year later indicated that these factors did not interact to predict change in disordered eating. A possible explanation as to why appearance contingent self-worth may have not yielded the same results is that it focuses on appearance more (e.g., hair color, skin, attractiveness, and shape), while thin- ideal internalization focuses solely on thinness as a drive to engage in behaviors to change one’s body. Since previous research indicated strong desire to be thin served as a predictor for disordered eating, thin-ideal internalization is likely a stronger driving factor than appearance contingent self-worth in engaging in disordered eating behaviors.

Overall, this study suggests that when thin-ideal internalization is combined with high competitiveness, this increases the likelihood of young women engaging in harmful dieting and exercise practices more so than women who are not highly competitive. A limitation of this study was the lack of racial diversity among the sample, as 73.2% of participants were Caucasian/White, meaning that it is uncertain if these results would apply across different races and ethnicities. However, knowing combined risk factors can help promote future research geared towards studying competitiveness further (e.g., comparing desire to compete with others with desire to improve upon personal goals), as well including the factor of perfectionism along with competitiveness.



Huon, G., Angela Hayne, A., Gunewardene, A., Strong, K., Lunn, N., Piira, T., & Lim, J. (1999). Accounting for differences in dieting status: Steps in the refinement of a model.” International Journal of Eating Disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders 26(4) 420-433. Web.

Schleien, J., & Bardone-Cone, A. (2016). Competitiveness as a moderator of the relation between appearance-related factors and disordered eating behaviors. Body Image 17, 30-37. Web.

Stice, E., Mazotti, L., Krebs, M., & Martin, S. (1998). Predictors of adolescent dieting and behaviors: A longitudinal study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 12(3). (195-205). Web.

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