Why are Friends Similarly Weight-Conscious?

BY: Addie Humphrey

DATE: November 28, 2016

Whether talking about underage drinking or bullying, the media often cite peer pressure as the root cause of teen behavior. As many parents know first-hand, independence and peer relationships are especially important during adolescence. Moreover, groups of tweens and teens are identified by certain behaviors that typify their members (e.g., groups who like computer games, groups who do drugs, groups who are into protecting the environment). It is not too surprising that individuals within peer groups are also similar in their body image concerns and disordered eating behaviors.1 Why they are similar is an open question. One theory has to do with socialization. Socialization means that over time, peers mutually influence each other and become more similar in their eating behaviors and weight-consciousness. A second theory focuses on selection, which refers to our tendency to seek out friends who are like us. This theory contends that individuals who have body image concerns seek out and befriend others who also have body image concerns.

Which process accounts for the similarity of weight-consciousness within peer groups? Is it socialization, selection, or both? Prior research on this topic has had mixed findings. Two studies found selection to be the main contributor,3,4 whereas two other studies found socialization to be more important.5,6 The research team of O’Connor, Burt, Van Huysee, and Klump2 at Michigan State studied female twin pairs ages 8 – 14 using a co-twin control design to understand why peer groups are similar in weight concerns. By comparing twins, O’Connor et al. found that girls who display more disordered eating (due to genetic and/or shared environmental factors) appear to “select into” or seek out weight-conscious peer groups, rather than socialization within these peer groups leading to increased disordered eating. That does not mean that socialization does not occur, but it does reveal a tendency that we know operates in many areas of our lives—namely that we affiliate with individuals who are like us on many dimensions.

So, peer pressure does still matter, but it definitely does not act alone. In this digital age, parents often feel as if they have fewer opportunities to get to know members of their children’s peer groups. Results of this study underscore how important it is to continue to monitor who your children are interacting with. We would add that this is important both in their day-to-day face-to-face interactions and also in their digital interactions as selection factors may also influence who we choose to interact with on social media.


  1. Paxton, S. J., Schutz, H. K., Wertheim, E. H., & Muir, S. L. (1999). Friendship clique and peer influences on body image concerns, dietary restraint, extreme weight-loss behaviors, and binge eating in adolescent girls. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108, 255–266. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.108.2.255
  1. O’Connor, S. M., Burt, S. A., VanHuysse, J. L., & Klump, K. L. (2016). What drives the association between weight-conscious peer groups and disordered eating? Disentangling genetic and environmental selection from pure socialization effects. Journal of Abnormal Psychology125(3), 356. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000132
  1. Meyer, C., & Waller, G. (2001). Social convergence of disturbed eating attitudes in young adult women. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 189, 114 –119. http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1097/00005053-200102000-00007
  1. Rayner, K. E., Schniering, C. A., Rapee, R. M., Taylor, A., & Hutchinson, D. M. (2013). Adolescent girls’ friendship networks, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating: Examining selection and socialization processes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 93–104. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029304
  1. Crandall, C. S. (1988). Social contagion of binge eating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 588–598. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.55.4.588
  1. Zalta, A. K., & Keel, P. K. (2006). Peer influence on bulimic symptoms in college students. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 185–189. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.115.1.185