Science Says Your Body Image Is Heavily Influenced by Your Friends

Your close orbit has a profound effect on your self-esteem.

We already know that the type of people you hang out with can have an outsize influence on everything from your outlook on life to your behavior to even your levels of success. After all, as the motivational speaker Jim Rohn once famously said, "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." Now, a new study published in the journal Body Image has found that those in your close orbit have a profound effect on yet another thing: how you feel about your own body.

To arrive at their conclusion, the researchers asked 92 female college-age students to keep a daily diary for one week that recorded their interactions with people who were really preoccupied with their bodies and people who were not. Participants also reflected on how these interactions influenced how much they valued their own bodies. The results indicated that those who interacted with people who were very body conscious had a negative impact on participants in both categories.

"Our research suggests that social context has a meaningful impact on how we feel about our bodies in general and on a given day," said Kathryn Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo. "Specifically, when others around us are not focused on their body, it can be helpful to our own body image."

The findings are important because they indicate that choosing the right people to be friends with can help women achieve better self-esteem, and perhaps decrease the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

"Body dissatisfaction is ubiquitous and can take a huge toll on our mood, self-esteem, relationships, and even the activities we pursue," said Allison Kelly, a psychology professor in clinical psychology at Waterloo and co-author of the study. "It's important to realize that the people we spend time with actually influence our body image. If we are able to spend more time with people who are not preoccupied with their bodies, we can actually feel much better about our own bodies."

Previous studies have shown that when someone in a relationship truly commits to losing weight, their partner tends to lose weight as well, even if they don't actively decide to do so. It's a phenomenon psychologists call "the ripple effect." This study shows that the ripple effect extends beyond our romantic relationships, and has the potential to change not only the life of one individual but also how we collectively think of body positivity.

"If more women try to focus less on their weight/shape, there may be a ripple effect shifting societal norms for women's body image in a positive direction," Miller said. "It's also important for women to know that they have an opportunity to positively impact those around them through how they relate to their own bodies."

The study is limited not only in its size but also in the fact that it chose to focus exclusively on women, even though the The National Eating Disorders Association reports that one in three people struggling with an eating disorder in the U.S. is male, and hospitalization and treatment for male patients suffering from eating disorders increased by 53 percent between 1999 and 2009.

But, given the previous studies on the ripple effect in heterosexual relationships, it's not unlikely that the impact of the people around you on your body image is powerful regardless of your gender.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more