College Women and Disordered Eating Symptomatology: A Relational-Cultural Perspective

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Scholars have long been trying to understand the complex risk factors for and protective factors against disordered eating symptoms at the clinical and subclinical levels. Our understanding of the connection between relational factors, in particular, and disordered eating may be enhanced by the measurement of constructs from feminist theories that provide a richer and more culturally-specific perspective on women's psychological development, as gender alone remains the single most robust predictor.

Using a sample of 451 college women, this study introduced two constructs from relational-cultural theory, perceived mutuality and self-silencing, to a model examining the sociocultural, personal, and relational factors that predict disordered eating. In addition, narrative responses were collected to examine who in participants' lives most strongly influenced, both positively and negatively, their body image and relationship with food, and how. In addition, differences between clinical and subclinical groups of participants were explored on key study variables.

Multiple regression analyses revealed that the variables of sociocultural pressure for thinness, internalization of the thin ideal, and body dissatisfaction uniquely predicted significant variance in disordered eating. Perceived mutuality and self-silencing did not predict significant, unique variance in disordered eating. However, self-silencing did mediate the relationship between perceived mutuality and disordered eating. Furthermore, a series of one-way ANOVAs revealed statistically significant differences between clinical and subclinical groups on key variables. Participants in the clinical group, as compared to participants in the subclinical group, scored significantly higher on: self-silencing; internalization of the thin ideal; body dissatisfaction; poor interoceptive awareness; and perceived sociocultural pressures for thinness, and significantly lower on: perceived mutuality (across mother, father, and friends); perceived mutuality with mother; and perceived mutuality with father. Analyses revealed that there were not significant differences between the two groups on social support or on perceived mutuality with friends.

The qualitative findings broadened our understanding of the ways in which family, friends, romantic partners, and society both positively and negatively influence college women's body image and relationship with food through messages and modeling. Limitations, implications, and directions for future research are discussed.