April 28, 2005 -- A new study is taking a fresh look at men, women, and weight loss.
Past research has shown that women are generally more concerned with appearance, less satisfied with their bodies, more likely to think they're heavier than they actually are, more prone to eating-disorder behaviors, and want to lose more weight than men.
Now, new findings show that college men and women who want to lose weight have several things in common.
However, "more women than men want to lose weight, which is related to a host of body image and eating issues and so, naturally, more women suffer from these issues than do men," says the study, which is due to be published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.
Men, Women, and the Desire to Lose Weight
"How we feel about our bodies is complex, and we need to understand that it isn't just [about] gender," says researcher Susan Kashubeck-West, PhD, a counseling psychologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
She says that because the "vast majority of women want to lose weight," it can appear that men are generally happier with their weight.
But "if you only compare men and women who want to lose weight, many gender differences disappear. We need to focus on the impact of wanting to lose weight," Kashubeck-West tells WebMD.
"There is also pressure in our society to look a certain way. That's so unimportant in the grand scheme of things," she continues. "We would all be better off if we spent less time on how we looked and more on taking care of ourselves and treating our bodies well."
Kashubeck-West's study included 300 college students (136 men and 164 women) at a large West Coast university. They were nearly 19 years old, on average, and were white (62%), Asian-American (23%), black (6%), Hispanic (5%) and other/unknown ethnic identity (4%).
The students completed anonymous questionnaires on topics including desire for weight loss, body image, and diet and exercise strategies. The students also reported their height and weight, which was used to calculate the students' body mass index (BMI).
More Women Said They Wanted to Lose Weight
About 36% of the men (49) and 87% of the women (142) said they wanted to lose weight.
Out of the entire group, about 12% of the men and 4% of the women had a BMI of 25 or higher, which is considered overweight.
Among those who said they wanted to lose weight, "just 5% of the women and 22.5% of the men were actually overweight," says the study.
Other students said they wanted to gain weight or maintain their current weight (87 men and 22 women).
Of the students who wanted to lose weight, men and women both expressed concerns on the overall level of body satisfaction. This was determined by a body parts satisfaction scale, which assessed an individual's feeling toward specific body parts. Both men and women also had concerns with weight and appearance, and time spent exercising.
In other areas, men and women who wanted to lose weight had significant differences:
- Women reported using more dieting behaviors than men.
- Women were less satisfied with specific body parts (abdomen, buttocks, hips, and thighs).
- For women, satisfaction (or lack thereof) with body parts relates to self-esteem more often than it does for men.
- Women were more dissatisfied with their general muscle tone than men.
- For men who wanted to lose weight, only one body image variable was significantly related to self-esteem: the size of sex organs.
Kashubeck-West says it has become "more acceptable" for women to exercise.
The majority did not report binge eating. However, about 26% of the men who wanted to lose weight reported binge eating, compared to 29% of the women in the same group.
The researchers didn't get a chance to talk to the students. Kashubeck-West says that she would want people to know that "there is too much emphasis in our society on how women look."
She suggests physical activity, sports, and exercise as ways to feel better in whatever body you have. Kashubeck-West also says "staying away from fashion magazines" or at least understanding how media images are produced may also help. "There's a lot of airbrushing, a lot of meddling with images," she tells WebMD.
More Studies Needed
The number of men who wanted to lose weight was "somewhat small and so may not be representative of the larger population of men who want to lose weight," says the study.
More studies should be done on men who want to lose weight, as well as ethnicity and the desire for weight loss, say the researchers.
Kashubeck-West says she's currently studying body image and dieting behaviors in black women.
Further studies are needed to see if the findings also apply to older adults and those who aren't in college. "College students are a select group," says Kashubeck-West.