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“Look at her!”: How social comparisons hurt us all

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

We’re all aware that “fat talk” — that is, talking about dissatisfaction with our own bodies or making negative comments about the bodies of others–  are harmful to ourselves and those around us (not to mention foster a negative social environment where women’s bodies are commodified). But far fewer of us are aware of how dangerous it is to even mentally compare our bodies, exercise, and eating habits to those of other women. Our culture’s obsession with social media, reality TV, and celebrity watching have enabled us to make detailed comparisons between our lives and those of people we may have never even met, and there’s reason to suspect that those comparisons are hurting us.

A recent study conducted by Ellen Fitzimmons-Craft (2017)[1] measured the frequency and consequences of social comparisons in a sample of over 200 college women. Three times a day for two weeks, the women in the study answered questions about how many times in the past few hours they had compared their body, eating, or exercise to someone else’s, whether that comparison was upward (that is, they thought the other person was better) or downward (they thought they were better on that dimension than the other person), as well as some questions about who the comparison person was and the context in which they made the comparison. These women also rated their negative mood, dissatisfaction with their body, and disordered eating thoughts and behaviors.

The number of comparisons women made were staggering— everyone in the study reported making some kind of comparison, and women were making about 4 comparisons every few hours (a little more than 2 body comparisons, and about 1 eating and 1 exercise comparison every few hours. That’s a dozen comparisons a day! Most of the comparisons were upwards, meaning that those women felt negatively about themselves in contrast to the other person. Importantly, these comparisons were not good for women’s mental health: upward comparisons about eating and body were associated with increased body dissatisfaction. And thinking that someone else is better at exercise was actually associated with less likelihood of engaging in exercise oneself—the opposite of the “inspiration” many women claim to feel when comparing themselves to others the idealize.

What about the opposite kinds of comparisons, ones where we think we compare favorably? Shouldn’t those make us feel better? Not so much. Downward body comparisons didn’t appear to have much effect at all, and downward eating comparisons led to increased eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.

Although it was not measured as part of this study, my observation with clients is that social comparisons can be hurtful even beyond the world of eating and exercise. Many people report feeling like they are the only person in their social circle with problems like depression, loneliness, or grief. After all, we can all check our social media feeds and see endless pictures of our friends (or “friends” as the case may be) looking happy, vacationing, celebrating, eating well, and living it up. The way I think about this problem is “comparing your insides to other peoples’ outsides”. Rarely are people as open about their struggles as they are with their successes. In fact, I often think that the people discussing their problems with me must seem happy and like “they have it all” to the other people in their social networks. We can’t compare our own internal struggles to the external pictures that people choose to project about themselves.

The take away message here is that social comparisons are unhelpful mental habits. Although it’s not easy to break that habit, a helpful starting place is to catch yourself making a comparison and instead tell yourself “everyone is different.” Each person has a multitude of factors that determines her body shape and size, what and when she eats, and how much or little she exercises. To borrow a concept from Eve Ensler, we don’t think a pine tree is ugly because it doesn’t look like a weeping willow. The most important thing is to know and accept your own body—it’s beauties, its strengths, its limitations, and its needs. You can’t eat, exercise, or dress for someone else’s body and no one else should be trying to copy you either. It’s time to offer ourselves, and other women, some room for acceptance and gratitude.

[1] Fitzsimmons-Craft, E. E. (2017). Eating disorder-related social comparison in college women’s everyday lives. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 50, 893-905.

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