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LANDWERLIN, L. A. (2001). The Effect of Being Weighed on the Body Image of College Freshmen. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 4. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 26, 2023 .

The Effect of Being Weighed on the Body Image of College Freshmen

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
This experiment contained 65 female psychology undergraduates. They were divided into 2 groups: Group 1 (n=31) was surveyed before they were weighed and group 2 (n=34) was surveyed after they were weighed. As hypothesized, group 2 had a lower body image than group 1. It was also hypothesized that the women would under-report their weight, this was also shown to be true. There were significant differences between the two groups on several items including: total body image score, satisfaction regarding weight, weight gain and beliefs about their own beauty. It was also found that women who attended single sex schools had a lower body image than those who attended a co-ed school.

For most college women body image is an every day issue. As the amount of concern with body image has increased so has the amount of research done on the topic. A good body image is a valuable thing to have, where as a negative body image can be detrimental to a woman. There has been much research on defining body image, identifying barriers to a positive body image and ways to conquer a negative body image. A negative body image does not just end with dissatisfaction with the body, it can effect every aspect of a woman’s life as described by Garner (1997). Garner defines body image as more than just how a woman feels about her body, he says it is a woman’s mental representation of herself. Body image is influenced by our feelings, behaviors, thoughts, self-esteem, and the world around us. Garner also says that body image is not just effected by what a woman sees in a mirror, but also by positive and negative experiences with family and friends, emotional factors, anxiety, and different cultural factors. He has reported that the intense pressure of women to conform to the ultra thin beauty ideals of the media has lead to dramatically low body images in women and an epidemic of eating disorders. He also reported that in a 1997 Psychology Today survey 24% of women would trade three years of their life and 15% would trade five or more years of their life if they could be their ideal weight. This demonstrates what a drastic effect body image and specifically weight can have on women. In another article it is shown how weight has a direct effect on body image and mood of girls. Rierdan and Koff (1997) conducted an experiment with sixth grade girls to find out how a girls weight affected her body image and they hypothesized that girl’s with a higher weight would have more depressive symptoms. The girls were administered a questionnaire (measuring depression levels and body satisfaction levels) and after completing the questionnaire they were weighed and measured by the school nurse. Prior to being weighed by the nurse the girls were asked to write down what they thought their height and weight were. It was found that girls with a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) were more dissatisfied with their bodies. It was also found that concern and dissatisfaction with weight are associated with symptoms of depression. It would have been interesting if this were a longitudinal study and had followed these girls for a longer period of time, at least until after puberty and ideally into college. If their negative body image and depressive symptoms were present in sixth grade, they should be even more present after puberty. This is predicted because the main source of a negative body image comes from the shape and size of the body and women’s bodies change both shape and size during puberty. So one could conclude that if a sixth grader is dissatisfied with the way her body looks before puberty she could be more dissatisfied with her body after puberty. There were body image concerns in sixth graders that lead to depressive symptoms, so it is not surprising that Harris (1995) found there to be a direct relationship between body image and psychosocial development of college women, which could have been shown had Rierdan and Koff followed their sixth graders through college. Harris hypothesized body image was correlated to the psychosocial development of college women. Women who were more psychosocially active tended to engage in activities that required more energy and stamina. This left the women who were not psychosocially active not engaging in those activities, thereby slowing down development for those women. The participants in Harris’ experiment were given a packet of questionnaires to fill out all concerning, self-esteem, body image, eating attitudes, and desire for thinness. Harris found a positive correlation was found between body image and self-esteem. The correlation between body image and self esteem was found by both Harris, in college students, and by Reirdan and Koff, in sixth graders. Costin (1996) says women experience their body in the way they have learned to. So it is not surprising that the college women in Harris’ study had body image problems since Reirdan and Koff found that women learn to dislike themselves in sixth grade. They have learned what is acceptable and what is not and if women deem themselves to be in an unacceptable category the have learned to dislike themselves. Current culture standards are indirectly teaching women to have body image problems. In the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of mental disorders, (4th ed., 1994), body image disturbance for Anorexia Nervosa is defined as a “disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight”. The current study concentrated on only part of the definition of anorexia nervosa from the DSM IV. It looked at the “undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation”. Much of the current research has been on the effect of body image on mood, or the effect of the media on women’s body image. There are studies on external influences on body image, but few on the effect of being weighed and body image. Just standing on a scale can cause anxiety for women. For some the anxiety could be caused by the number they see on the scale reminding them of the number they would ideally like to see on the scale. Some women even avoid going to the doctor because they do not want to be weighed (Hirschmann & Munter, 1995). We hypothesized that women will report a lower body image after being weighed. More specifically, we hypothesized that the women in group 2 (weighed before the questionnaire) will have a lower body image than the women in group 1 (weighed after the questionnaire). We believed that after seeing the number on the scale women would become more self-critical of themselves and of their bodies, thereby reporting a lower body image. It was also hypothesized that women would under-report their weight before they are weighed, as shown in a study by Cash, Counts, Hangen and Hufine (1989). In that study women who reported themselves as a lower weight, also visually perceived themselves to be at a higher weight than what they were (i.e. women who reported themselves to be 130 pounds were actually 135 pounds, but when asked to pick which body looked like theirs from a chart they picked a body that was larger than a 135 body). We also believed that the control group would also under-report their weight, but would not report a lower body image because they were being weighed after they complete the questionnaire. This is believed to be true because both groups filled out the demographic questionnaire at the same time they signed their informed consent form. They filled in their weight before anyone was weighed or before any questionnaire was given.

Participants Sixty-five female undergraduate psychology students from Loyola University New Orleans were recruited through convenience sampling. The participants’ ages ranged from 17 to 20. All participants were members of the psychology learning communities and some were given the opportunity to receive extra credit for participating in the study. Participants were divided into two groups: 31 participants in Group 1 and 34 participants in Group 2. Group 1 was weighed after they filled out the questionnaire and Group 2 was weighed before they filled out the questionnaire.

MaterialsThe materials included a four page packet (see Appendix A). The first two pages were the informed consent forms; one was for our records the other was for the participant. The next page was a demographic questionnaire that asked 6 questions regarding the participant’s age, height, weight, and athletic practices. The last page was a questionnaire about their body image. There were 15 yes or no questions, asking about their self-esteem, body image, use of scales, dieting behaviors, and views about their body, some of the items were taken from the questionnaire on body image from the “Something fishy website on eating disorders”. The questionnaire was filled out with a writing instrument supplied by the participant.

Design and Procedure This was an experimental difference oriented study. There was one independent variable (IV) with two levels. The IV was the act of being weighed. The two levels of the IV were: IV1-being weighed after filling out the body image questionnaire, and IV2-being weighed before filling out the body image questionnaire. The dependent variable (DV) was the body image of the women. The body image of the participants was measured by the scores on the body image questionnaire, where each question was worth one point and the higher the points, the lower the body image. All but two questions (9 and 15) gave one point for a ‘yes’ answer, the two that did not were worth one point for a ‘no’ answer. (see Appendix A). The 50 women were randomly assigned to either group 1 or group 2. One researcher was assigned to each group. Once groups were assigned, group one was taken into one room and group 2 was taken into another. Both groups were given informed consent forms and given a brief overview of the experiment. They were told that they were free to leave the experiment at any time. Once informed consent forms were turned into the researchers group one was given the questionnaire on body image. Upon completing the questionnaire each participant was taken into another room to be weighed and measured by the researcher. While group 1 was filling out the body image questionnaire, group 2 was being weighed by the researcher. When group 2 was finished being weighed they were then given the same body image questionnaire as group 1. To weigh the participants one woman at a time was taken into the room with the scale, so other women would not see or hear the other participants’ weight. For group 2 after being weighed the participants were asked to go to a separate room so they would not be able to inform the other women about the scales. Also, groups 1 and 2 were not in contact with each other during the experiment so they would not be able to let the other group know what was happening to them. After all weighing, measuring and questioning were done participants were debriefed. The participants were told what the goal of the experiment was about and why they were not informed about the scales beforehand. The participants had the opportunity to ask the researchers questions. Then the researcher gave a brief discussion on body image, which included telling the participants why they were not informed of the scale beforehand. If there were no additional questions the participants were thanked and free to leave. Information was also given on the Loyola University New Orleans Counseling Center and the De Paul Tulane Eating Disorders Clinic if the participants wanted to further discuss their body images with a professional.

The means for the body image of the two groups was found by running an independent sample t-test. Group 1, who was weighed after they completed the questionnaire, had a lower total body image score than group 2, t(63)=3.34, p=.001. There was also a difference between the participants that attended a co-ed high school versus those that attended a single sex high school t(63)=2.05, p=.045. There was also a significant difference between group 1 and group 2 on their responses to individual questions. Question 9 showed a difference between the two groups, X2(1, N=65)=11.11, p=.001. Question 3 had significant differenced between the groups, X2 (1, N=65)= 8.06, p=.005. Question 15 also showed a difference between the 2 groups X2(1, N=65)=4.25, P=.04. There was also a difference between groups on question 6, X2(1, N=65)=7.49, p=.006. Question 11 also produced a difference between groups 1 and 2, X2(1, N=65)=4.94, p=.026. The participants’ reported weight was subtracted from their actual weight giving us the amount in which the participants underestimated their weight. The mean for underestimation of weight was 6.97 pounds (SD=7.01). The maximum was 32.50 lbs. (where the participant underestimated their weight by 32.50 lbs.) and the minimum was +5 (where the participant over estimated their weight by 5 pounds), giving us a range of 37.50 pounds.

The present study predicted that the participants who were weighed before they completed the questionnaire would have a lower body image than the group that was weighed after completing the questionnaire. Based on the results of the significant t-tests and chi squares we were able to conclude that being weighed did have a negative effect on the body image of college women. The group that was weighed before they completed the questionnaire scored significantly higher than the group the completed the survey after being weighed, and a higher score is indicative of a lower body image. Upon further analysis of the questionnaire, there were five individual questions that showed a significant difference between the two groups, they were questions 3,6,9, 11 and 15. The DSM-IV(1994) stated that “the undue influence of weight or shape on self evaluation” was one of the criteria for the diagnosis of an eating disorder. Our findings show that the participants experience of being weighed had an adverse influence on their self evaluation. The group that was weighed before completing the questionnaire had a lower body image than the group that was weighed after completing the questionnaire, showing their experience of being weighed had an undue influence on their body image. The individual questions that produced a significant difference between the two groups all dealt with weight except for question 15, which was about beauty. For questions 3, 6, 9 and 11 the questions measured how often they compare their weight and appearance to others, if they believe they will instantly gain weight by eating too much, their satisfaction with the number on the scale and their desire to keep losing after reaching their goal weight. It is believed that questions 3,6,9,and 11 had significant findings because they were all dealing with weight, and all of the participants were weighed immediately before answering them so their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their weight on their minds. We also found, just as Cash, Counts, Hangen and Hufine (1989) did, that women under-reported their weight. Of the 65 participants we found that all but 6 under-reported their weight (5 over reported by less than 5 pounds and one person correctly reported their weight). On average the women underestimated their weight by 6.97 pounds. Other findings showed that there was a difference between the scores of women who went to co-ed high schools as compared to those who went to single sex high schools. Those who attended a single sex school had a lower body image than the participants who attended a co-ed school. The cause of this is unknown, but it is suspected that this is due to the fact that there was more focus on the woman’s body in a school full of women and the women were taught to dislike and criticize their body, as shown in a study by Costin (1996). This study could have produced more significant findings had it surveyed more women and used a more diverse group of participants. A more diverse group would include a wider age range of the participants from various geographical locations with varying ethnic backgrounds. Also, if the participants were run at the same time in the day there would have been fewer weight fluctuations. For instance, a participant who was run at four in the afternoon would weigh more than if she were weighed at eight in the morning, because she would have consumed 2 meals and liquids throughout the day and the food and water would add to her weight. Also, running a test-retest on the participants would rule out other possible influences on the difference in scores. The group that was weighed first this time would be weighed second in the retest, and the group that was weighed second would be weighed first. This would further illustrate the hypotheses by showing that the group that had a high body image before now has a lower body image because they were exposed to another level of the IV. Also, more research could be done in single sex schools to see what is causing the significant difference scores between the students in single sex schools and students in co-ed schools. And if the cause can be found, then something can be done to change it so that women who attended single sex schools will have a better chance at developing a positive body image. The information contained in this study and others like it can be used to help prevent body image problems in women. By letting people know that focusing on weight has a negative effect on women’s body image maybe less focus will be put on weight in the future. Doctors and nurses can use this information to help treat their women patients better. If the woman is weighed and told her weight by the doctor or nurse their body image will be affected. If their body image is affected then they might not be as open and confident in dealing with their doctors as they could be. The simple act of either weighing them backwards and not telling them their weight could affect their overall health not just their body image. In addition, if the media and society could take their focus off of the number on the scale and instead focus on overall health, then women would not be so focused on their weight. If women keep hearing that they need to be a certain weight, or that for X height they should weigh X pounds, they will continue to focus on that. The numbers that are advertised do not hold true for all women, a woman who has a higher muscle mass will weigh more than a woman who does not. The two women may look identical, but the one with the muscle mass will weigh more. So, the woman with muscles will not be the ideal weight for her height, and may feel inferior to the woman who is her ideal weight. If the focus could be changed to making women want to be health and feel good about themselves, then weight would not be an issue, because women would not care what the scale reads if they know they are healthy and feel good about themselves.

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. Cash, T., Counts, B., Hangen, J., & Hufine, C. (1989). How much do you weigh?: determinants of validity of self-reported body weight. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 69, 248-251.

Costin, C. (1996). The eating disorder sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell House. Garner, D.M. (1997, January-February). The 1997 Body Image Survey Results. Psychology Today, 30-84. Harris, S. (1995). Body image and the psychosocial development of women. The Journal of Psychology, 129, 315-330. Hirschmann, J. & Munter, C. (1995). When women stop hating their bodies. New York: Fawcett Columbine. Rierdan J., & Koff E. (1997). Weight, weight-related aspects of body image and depression in early adolescent girls. Adolescence, 32, 615-625. Questionnaire (n.d.). The something fishy website on eating disorders, from the World Wide Web: http://www.sfwed.org/isf/questionnaire.php


 Body Image QuestionnairePage 11) Age _________2) Height _________3) Weight _________4) Kind of High School Attended (check one) co-ed ___ single sex ___5) Do you participate in sports? Yes____ No _____     If yes, which ones? ___________________________________________

6) Do you exercise? Yes____ No_____ If yes, why? __________________________________________________

Body Image QuestionnairePage 2Please answer Yes or No to the following questions.

1) Do you think life would be better and/or people would like you more if you were thinner?

2) Do you continually feel unsatisfied with your apperaance even after compliments from others?

3) Do you often find yourself comparing your appearance and weight to others, strangers, and or women in the media and wishing to be as “nice looking” or as “thin” as they are?

4) Do you feel as though you have a conscious or a voice that tells you negative things about yourself, convinces you that you do not deserve to eat and/or be happy, or that tells you that you are fat and ugly?

5) Do you feel guilty after eating large amounts of food and/or snacking?

6) Do you feel that if you eat a large amount of food you will instantly gain weight, even though you know that is unrealistic?

7) Do you weigh yourself often?

8) Does the number on the scale dictate your mood and/or self-worth for the day?

9) Are you ever satisfied with the number on the scale?

10) Have you ever had or do you have an eating disorder?

11) Do you set weight goals for yourself only to find that when you reach it you want to lose more?

12) If given the opportunity to change yourself through plastic surgery, would you?

13) Do you avoid certain situations (i.e. the beach) because of the clothing you would have to wear?

14) Have you ever been or are you on a diet?

15) Do you think you are beautiful and/or attractive?

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