We live in a society obsessed with weight, and it seems that the more we worry, the more we gain. Young women are particularly prone to weight concern, which is problematic because weight is widely recognized as a part of a person’s self-concept. This means that if a women is unhappy with her weight, she may then feel inadequate, or unhappy with herself. But there’s more to it than that. It turns out that the people who surround us may actually have a significant impact on our weight too. Research has now revealed the link between social networks and physical health. In particular, an accepting social environment has actually been shown to aid weight loss.
Little is known, however, about how women perceive messages from their social networks about weight. A weight-acceptance message is a positive message that reassures you that your weight is acceptable. But as we all know, communication about weight is a tricky matter, and sometimes a well-intentioned message is not taken as such. In a new study by Logel et al. (2014), the researchers tested whether perceived weight-acceptance messages (as opposed to weight-loss pressure or dismissive messages) helped young women maintain a healthy weight over time by reducing weight concern. This study contributes to the growing body of research that tests the assumption that weight concern is the only element that effects weight loss or maintenance.
The researchers observed 187 university-age women, and data was collected 3 times over a 9-month period. In the study, the researchers recorded the participants’ level of weight concerns and Body Mass Indexes (BMI) over time. The participants were then asked whether or not they received particular messages about weight from a close friend, parent, or romantic partner. These messages were then totaled, and the accumulated perceived messages were compared to changes in weight concern and BMI over time.
Consistent with research showing that many young women worry about weight, 93.3% of the participants indicated that they had expressed weight concern to at least one close other during that time period. But weight concern alone did not predict BMI change over time. As predicted, women with especially high weight concern tended to maintain their weight when they received more weight-acceptance messages. When participants only perceived minimal acceptance messages about weight in response to their concerns, they tended to gain weight. Furthermore, perceived weight-loss pressure also caused women to gain weight over time.
On the surface, this study suggests that social context does have a significant effect on weight concern, and ultimately weight change or maintenance. If we look deeper, though, this issue is more urgent than it appears. For a woman who exists in a social network that criticizes her weight, her own weight concern may actually reflect her fear of social rejection. (And remember that a whopping 93.3% of participants in the study expressed some form of weight concern.) This should not only make you think about the people who surround you, but also about how you talk with them about weight.
Regardless of whether your friends need to lose a few pounds, your job (as a member of their social network) is simply to embrace their weight and accept them as the utterly perfect beings that they are. You possess the power to liberate the women in your life from the fear of social rejection and give them the freedom to create their own weight-management goals. Just think of how different the world would be, if all women had allies like that.
Logel, C., Stinson, D. A., Gunn, G. R., Wood, J. V., Holmes, J. G., & Cameron, J. J. (2014). A little acceptance is good for your health: Interpersonal messages and weight change over time. Personal Relationships, , n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/pere.12050
“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”
― Simone de Beauvoir