The Making of “Fat Girls” and “Skinny Boys”: How Social Similarity Influences Weight-Related Perceptions and Behaviors

Rachel Behler, Cornell University
Chan Suh, Cornell University
Matthew Brashears, Cornell University
Yongren Shi, Cornell University

Research on obesity has focused on the influence of direct connections, but has overlooked the impact of the people who surround us but are not tied directly to us. These people who we see but do not know function as additional vectors of influence by supporting and enforcing, or opposing and subverting, gendered norms about body weight, exercise and eating. Additionally, we contend that the influence of these socially similar others is stronger when weight-related norms are weaker. Drawing on social network analysis and comparative reference group theories, we employ a novel methodological approach that assesses the influence of similar others within the social environments. Using data from the Add Health, we find support for the influence of similar others on one’s weight-related perceptions and behaviors, even after controlling for the influence of friends. This relationship, contrary to naïve expectations, is significantly stronger for males than females.

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Presented in Session 123: Adolescent Risk Behaviors and Health