Abraham Lincoln once said, “A friend is someone who has the same enemies as you have.” Body dissatisfaction, particularly dissatisfaction with weight, is a well-known risk factor for disordered eating. Another potent risk factor is feedback from peers. Several studies have shown that perceived pressure to be thin and weight criticism from friends predicted increased disordered eating in girls and boys.

A group of researchers headed by Dr. Pamela Keel at Florida State University, Tallahassee, set out to test the effect of peer feedback upon body dissatisfaction and eating pathology (Int J Eat Disord. 2013; 45:982). The researchers hypothesized that the relationship between body dissatisfaction and eating pathology would be stronger when friends commented about an individual’s diet and weight more frequently. They also sought to understand if men and women were similarly affected by comments from their peers, and the effect upon body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.

The sample included 1,468 women and 592 men (mean age: 29 years), who were invited to participate in a study of health and eating behaviors. Participants completed self-report surveys that included demographic variables, self-reported height and weight (used to calculate body mass index, or BMI [kg/m2]), and the frequency of friends’ comments. Participants were asked, “How often do your close friends comment on your weight or eating?” The possible responses ranged from Never” to “Always,” and were scored on a scale from 1 to 5. Participants were also asked about their satisfaction with their current weight, using a Likert scale re-coded to range from 1 to 5, with higher scores indicating greater dissatisfaction.

Differences between genders emerged

When the analysis was completed, the researchers found that the roles of body dissatisfaction and friends’ comments were independent predictors of eating pathology in both women and men. Women and men differed significantly on all variables except age. Men had significantly higher BMIs than women, but BMIs fell into the normal range among all participants. Women endorsed significantly greater body dissatisfactions and higher bulimia and drive for thinness scores compared to men. Finally, the women with body dissatisfaction indicated they were significantly more likely to receive comments on their weight and diet from close friends. This was not the case for men with body dissatisfaction.

The researchers also theorized that women who experience higher levels of disordered eating and more body dissatisfaction might be more likely to choose peers who make frequent comments, to seek more comments from their peers, and/or to be more aware of comments made by peers about eating and weight. Thus, comments about weight and diet may have a synergistic effect on women. Among the men participating in the study, Dr. Keel and colleagues found significant positive associations between the frequency of comments by friends and both bulimia and drive for thinness scores