Co-Ed Settings Skew Body Image

When it comes to eating, women are less apt to graze under the male gaze. That's because they feel heavier than other women when men are around.

A study of 101 female college students found that women at coeducational schools significantly underestimate the body size of their peers. Women at single-sex schools are far more accurate in their estimates.

This error may have dire consequences. Catherine Sanderson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Amherst College, found that women who erroneously believe their peers are thinner than they themselves are have higher rates of eating disorders.

Students at co-ed Amherst College and all-female Smith College answered questions about their ideal body size, their estimate of the average woman's height and weight, and how often they thought the average woman exercises. They also answered questions about their own eating habits.

Sanderson's findings, presented to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, show that only the women attending co-ed Amherst wrongly perceived their peers to be thinner than they themselves were. Among this group, "the thinnest women are the only ones who feel 'normal,' " says Sanderson.

Sanderson attributes this to social discourse. She speculates that women want to emphasize their femininity and fitness when men are around, so they talk more about skipped meals or long workouts but don't mention embarrassing binges or lapses in their exercise regimens. As a result, women wrongly assume that their peers eat less, weigh less and exercise more than they actually do.

Women at Amherst who believed they were heavier than average were more likely to display signs of eating disorders, while women with the same belief at Smith did not have a higher rate of exhibiting such signs.

Previous work by Sanderson suggests that if women are told they are misjudging other women's weight, disordered eating may decline.

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