Social comparison, negative body image, and disordered eating behavior: The moderating role of coping style

Abstract: Comparing one's body to those of individuals perceived as more attractive is common among college women, and has been associated with increases in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Not all college women are vulnerable to the negative influence of these upward body comparisons; however, little is known about characteristics that may distinguish more vulnerable women. Coping styles, which represent individuals' responses to negative events, are a key area of opportunity for better understanding the relationship between body comparison and weight-related experiences in this population. College women (n= 628) completed an electronic assessment of demographics, upward body comparison, body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behavior, and coping styles. Controlling for reported BMI, positive reframing coping style moderated the relationship between upward body-focused comparison and body dissatisfaction (p = 0.02), such that women who engaged in more (vs. less) positive reframing showed a weakened relationship between upward body-focused comparison and body dissatisfaction. Controlling for BMI and body dissatisfaction, both self-blaming (p = 0.02) and self-distracting (p = 0.009) styles also moderated the relationship between upward body-focused comparison and disordered eating behaviors, such that women who more (vs. less) strongly endorsed self-blaming and self-distracting styles appeared more susceptible to the negative influence of upward body comparison. These findings underscore the importance of upward body comparison for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating among college women, and highlight coping style as a key factor in these relationships. Increased attention to upward body comparison and coping style may improve quality of life and contribute to the prevention of disordered eating in this vulnerable population.


Alex’s Notes: It would be a safe bet to assume that most persons (probably everyone) have made social comparisons with others who are perceived to have “better” physical features. The current study authors call this “upward comparisons.” We previously discussed how these comparisons differ between men and women during exercise, with women feeling significantly tenser when fitness model posters and mirrors are around them. These upward comparisons speak the mind of a person’s subconscious, indicating that they not only failed to achieve some accepted standard of attractiveness, but also that they believe achieving this standard is possible – even though it is for the most part unrealistic.

As mentioned in the linked article above, the women with mirrors and posters did have a good degree of individual variation. While upward comparisons can lead to feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction, these feelings are usually transient and disappear after the “better” person is out of sight and out of mind. Much of this, however, is reliant upon one’s coping style – the method for managing negative situations and emotions. With a focus on college women, the present study examined relations between upward body comparison, coping styles, body image, and disordered eating behavior.

Female students taking introductory psychology (n = 628) at a large, private university in the Northeastern United States completed an electronic assessment of body image, eating behaviors, social functioning, and coping styles. The average age was 19 years, and the average BMI was 22.89 kg/m2, ranging from 15.51 to 49.09 kg/m2. The majority were Caucasian (60%), followed by Asian (21%), Hispanic (8%), and African American (7%). Although the BMIs were calculated from self-reported height and weight, it appears that the majority of women are in a healthy weight range, with an unknown number of outliers that are underweight, overweight, or obese. In addition to the demographic questionnaire, the women were provided with four other scales:

  • Upward body-focused social comparison (SCBUP) – acts as the upward comparison scale with two items (i.e., “When it comes to my body, I compare myself with others whose bodies I think are better than mine,” and “When I feel negatively about my body, I think of others whose bodies are BETTER than mine”).
  • Body Image Quality of Life Inventory (BIQLI) – 19-item scale quantifies the influence of body image on a respondent's functioning and quality of life in various domains.
  • Eating Disorders Examination Questionnaire (EDE-Q) – participants indicate the frequency of key behavioral features of eating disorders (e.g., binge eating, definite fear of weight gain) in terms of number of episodes or number of days on which the behavior occurred.
  • Brief COPE – 28-item inventory assesses typical coping style on 14 dimensions. The present study focused on active coping (i.e. focusing efforts on making the situation better), venting (i.e., expressing unpleasant feelings), positive reframing (i.e., taking a positive perspective on a negative event), self-distraction (i.e., focusing on other interests or responsibilities), and self-blame (i.e., focusing on one's own flaws or mistakes).

The scores for every single scale and subscale had ranges at the minimum and maximum suggesting that the scales were able to differentiate between the women who associated with certain tendencies. The average upward body comparison score was just above the midpoint or the scale. Interestingly, upward comparison scores were not significantly associated with BMI, suggesting that a women’s weight does not necessarily predict the degree of comparisons made. On the other hand, upward body comparisons were associated with a lower BIQLI and greater EDE-Q.

Of note, 201 women (32%) indicated disordered eating behaviors at or above the clinical threshold for the EDE-Q, 109 women (28%) had binge eating behavior over the past month, and 21 women (3%) reported self-induced vomiting.

Does coping style play a role?

Venting was not associated with any other scale outcome. Both positive reframing and active coping showed a significant association with BIQLI, suggesting that these coping styles were protective against body dissatisfaction. Self-distraction, on the other hand, was significantly associated with the EDE-Q and all its sub-domains except for binges and restraint. Self-blame was significantly associated with every other scale and sub-scale. Specifically, it was associated with greater SCBUP, lower BIQLI, and greater EDE-Q and all sub-domains.

Bottom line

This study provides further support in favor of the connection between social comparisons and lower quality of life. Moreover, it suggests that working on a positive reframing coping style may help offset the negative effects upward comparisons have, whereas falling into guilt and self-blame will only make matters worse.


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