A research study by two SSU psychology professors and a graduate student shows that the more diverse a woman's friends are the less likely she will compare herself to them negatively.
The battle for self esteem among young women has a new frontier.
Recent research conducted by a Sonoma State University psychology team has found that the more diverse a woman's close friends are, the less likely she is to experience feelings of envy and inferiority when she compares her physical appearance to them.
Their research by professors Heather Smith, Matthew Paolucci Callahan and graduate student Stephanie McKee began in 2008. It was recently published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Numerous studies have identified the value of close friend demographic diversity for increasing tolerance, empathy and civic engagement, but Smith and McKee say "ours is the first research study showing that having more close friends from different ethnicities, religious backgrounds, ages, sexual orientation and gender can mitigate the negative impact of physical appearance comparisons."
Smith suggests that this happens because "women with more demographically diverse friends might be exposed to different and less constrictive physical appearance norms, they might be more likely to critically evaluate their own group's physical appearance norms, and/or they might have fewer opportunities to compare themselves to demographically similar peers."
"This is just another example of why diversity is a great thing," Smith said. "I like the idea that if you have a more diverse group of friends, you're protected from some of those negative, envious feelings and more likely to feel inspired."
Smith, who admits to being fascinated with this topic, has conducted similar research on comparisons in the past. "I think we compare all the time, and we can't avoid it," she said, "...what you can do is reframe it, so that's what really interests me."
Identifying why close friendship diversity mitigates feelings of envy and resentment, and whether this benefit extends to women and men from minority ethnicities and sexual orientations is a crucial question for future research.
Smith and Matthew Callahan (the psychology department expert on gender and sexuality) have partnered together for a grant application that if funded, will replicate and expand these results.
WHAT IS A GIRL TO DO?
McKee says their findings suggest that women's comparing themselves to others is not the problem. The problem is when the comparisons elicit negative emotions. So rather than suggest one "stop comparing," the answer may be to reduce the negative emotions that arise when they are made.
Their research points to taking these steps:
First, focus less on the body itself and more on the quality of life a healthy body can bring. When women in the study compared themselves to successful college athletes, they did not feel envy, inferiority or resentment, but rather, they felt inspired - a much more positive emotion.
Second, cultivate a diverse group of close friends. When women had close friends from diverse groups (a non-white friend, a gay or lesbian friend, an older friend), they reported far fewer negative emotions when making physical comparisons.
Third, focus on how we can adjust our interpretations of physical appearance comparisons. As tempting as it might be, simply asking young women or anyone for that matter, to stop comparing their appearance is unrealistic.
A more successful approach would ask how we can move people from feeling envious to feeling motivated - either by changing their general attitudes toward their bodies, or by leveraging the benefits of cross-group friendship to include a closer examination of physical appearance norms and stereotypes.
As part of the study, 87 women reported whether or not they had made a comparison to another person, group or themselves at a different point in time whenever they received one of three daily (randomly timed) text messages for seven days.
Eleven percent of the comparisons were about physical appearance (20% were about academics and 21% were about lifestyle.
Although women described some of these comparisons as inspiring, they most frequently reported feeling envy, inferiority and resentment - all emotions associated with a focus on tearing down the envied target. Comparisons about academics and lifestyle did not elicit these emotions to the same extent.
Heather Smith, Dept of Psychology
Matthew Paolucci Callahan, Dept of Psychology