Misperception of Peer Weight Norms and Its Association with Overweight and Underweight Status Among Adolescents
Previous research has revealed pervasive misperceptions of peer norms for a variety of behaviors among adolescents such as alcohol use, smoking, and bullying and that these misperceptions are predictors of personal behavior. Similarly, misperception of peer weight norms may be a pervasive and important risk factor for adolescent weight status. Thus, the comparative association of actual and perceived peer weight norms is examined in relation to personal weight status. Secondary school students in 40 middle and high schools (n = 40,328) were surveyed about their perceptions of the peer weight norm for same gender and grade within their school. Perceived norms were compared to aggregate self-reports of weight for these same groups. Overestimation of peer weight norms by more than 5 % occurred among 26 % of males and 20 % of females (by 22 and 16 lb on average, respectively). Underestimation occurred among 38 % of males as well as females (by 16 and 13 lb on average, respectively). Personal overweight status based on body mass index (BMI) was much more prevalent among respondents who overestimated peer weight norms as was personal underweight status among respondents who underestimated norms. Perception of the peer norm was the strongest predictor of personal BMI among all personal and school variables examined for both male and female students. Thus, reducing misperceived weight norms should be given more attention as a potential avenue for preventing obesity and eating disorders.