Body Talk

Examining How Personality and Social Factors Influence Eating and Exercise Behavior

The Impact of Men on Women's Eating

Do women eat less in front of desirable men?

Let me start with an apology ... I agreed (with great excitement!) to write this Body Talk blog! Then, my semester started, and each time I started to do an entry, multiple tasks (students with exam questions, papers to grade, book deadlines from my editor) simply intruded. So, here is my new plan: each week I will do a new blog entry that summarizes classic or current research on body imagine, and then links that research to real-world events and experiences. I hope this approach proves to be easier for me to manage, and will be of interest to many readers!

I'm going to start with one of my favorite studies (and one of the favorites of many of my students), which was conducted by Mori, Chaiken, Pliner (1987). In this study, female college students came into the psychology lab to participate in a study in which they were asked to have a conversation with a male student. Before the conversation, the women read a background sheet about the partner, which either made him/her seem desirable (interested in travel, athletics, photography, wanted to go to law school, and single) or undesirable (no interests other than watching TV, no plans other than making money). They were then asked to have a 20-minute conversation, and as the experimenter left the room, she gestured to a bowl of candy (M & Ms) and said "oh, these were left over from a party -- help yourself". Researchers then measured how many candies the subjects ate under the two conditions: when the women were talking with the desirable partner and when they were talking with the undesirable partner.

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I bet you can guess what they found: Women ate significantly more M & Ms if their partner was undesirable than if their partner was desirable!  This study is a classic example of how women deliberately present an image to men in certain situations -- and specifically that when women want to appear attractive, they don't eat much.

When I talk about this study in class, women almostly always know what I'm talking about -- they recognize their own self-presentation regarding food in many situations, from only drinking diet soda, to only eating salads on dates!

And this tendency to use light eating as a way of presenting one's self as attractive and desirable starts early, in part due to the consistent pressures on women, and even girls, to present themselves as thin (which apparently includes not ever really feeling hungry and certainly not liking chocolate).  I remember that as a high school student, in a year and a half of dating my first real boyfriend I basically never consumed food in front of him!

I'll talk in a future blog entry about the hazards of this type of self-presentation on women's perceptions (and misperceptions) of eating, exercise, and body image norms.

Catherine Sanderson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Amherst College.

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