01/22/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Teens, College Students and Body Image

Many of us had or have female friends with a habit of devaluing their bodies out loud. How many times have we, as women, heard the following comments or been asked the following questions?

1. Do these jeans make my butt look fat?

2. I look so fat in that photo. I hate that photo.

3. That dress is my size but I'm not my size.

4. I feel so fat around her.

5. I'm gross.

It pains me when I hear teens, young women and older women making these comments. It is the younger females I counsel who are the most outspoken in their confusion about how to respond to these comments and questions. They can't possibly say "I agree. You have gained weight." On the other hand, they tell me that when they tell their friends that they look great, that doesn't seem to work and doesn't soothe their friends' concerns.

Now, a new study has come to my attention which helps to explain what is going on with female undergraduates and how they perceive their bodies. Listen up, as you will probably be able to relate to this. This study looked at the data for 75 pairs of female friends at a small undergraduate university in Eastern Canada. Generally, college undergraduates, as we know, are between the ages of 18 and 21. The study found that the young women's body image was greatly influenced by how they believed their friends and peers judged their bodies.

This study was conducted by Dr. Louise Wasylkiw and Molly Williamson and was published in the journal Sex Roles. The researchers found the following results:

1. Actual body weight was unrelated to body image concerns if the young women felt pressure to be thin.

2. When the female friends focused on exercise talk, the females reported liking their bodies less.


3. The young women's body image concerns were influenced by what they thought their friends thought of their bodies rather than by what their friends actually thought of their bodies.

So, the takeaway messages here are very concerning. Young women often rely on perception rather than reality when deciding how their friends think of them and how they think of themselves. Also, even exercise talk between young women can have a negative effect on body satisfaction. I must say that the results of this study resonate with me as both a psychologist and with my memories of being a young college undergraduate. I remember how the young women at my table used to check out each other's meals. I perceived that we were judging each other based on the calorie count of our respective meals, but perhaps this was an erroneous perception, not a reality. I also remember how we used to sit around the dinner table and talk about how frequently or infrequently we had gone to the gym that week.

I want to leave you with a positive takeaway message despite the concerning results of this study. Perhaps young women who have so much influence over each other can be persuaded to use it positively once they are made aware of the impact of their behavior, talk and presence. I remember being a college senior and complaining to a friend that I couldn't exercise because I had too much work to do. Her response has remained with me to this day and is a tremendous motivator. She said in the most upbeat and encouraging way that it was just as important for me to take care of my body as my work responsibilities. I love her for this and am deeply indebted to her.