Body image, peer effects and food disorders: evidence from a sample of European women
Excessive preoccupation with self-image has been pinpointed as a factor contributing to the proliferation of food disorders, especially among young women. To provide an economic basis for this argument this paper models how ‘self-image’ and ‘other people’s appearance’ influence health-related behaviour. Self-image (identity) is claimed to be biased towards anorexic women by social norms and peer pressure, increasing the probability of women experiencing a food disorder. This paper empirically tests this claim using data from a representative, cross-sectional European survey for 2004. A two-step empirical strategy was used. First, the probability was estimated of a woman ‘being extremely thin’ and at the same time ‘seeing herself as too fat’. The findings revealed robust evidence suggesting that (different definitions of) peer effects average out, and that a larger peer body-mass decreases the likelihood of being anorexic. Second, the two processes were estimated separately, using a recursive system, which suggested that self-image was associated with body weight when unobservable variables explaining both processes were controlled for. (These processes were found to be positively and significantly correlated). As expected, several definitions of peers’ body mass were found to decrease the likelihood of women being thin or extremely thin, when common unobservable variables were controlled for.
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