“Only Girls Who Want Fat Legs Take the Elevator”: Body Image in Single-Sex and Mixed-Sex Colleges

Abstract

Because women at single-sex colleges are constantly surrounded by other women with whom they can visually compare themselves, and because we believed that physical appearance-based social comparison would impact body ideals and self-objectification, we predicted that students at a women’s college would endorse thinner body ideals and display more self-objectification as compared to female students at a mixed-sex college, and that these differences would be especially prominent between upper grade level students. Surveys were completed by 175 undergraduate female students at a women’s college and a mixed-sex college located in the same U.S. Midwestern city. Results were opposite of what we predicted; women at the women’s college were more likely to endorse larger body ideals, whereas women at the mixed-sex college were more likely to endorse thinner ideals. As predicted, there was a significant difference in scores between the upper college year students; lower college year students did not show significant differences in ideals, suggesting that although female students may enter college with similar body ideals, 4 years in a mixed-sex or single-sex setting can drastically alter how women think about body types. There were no differences between schools for self-objectification or physical appearance social comparison, and physical appearance social comparison did not correlate to body ideals. Taken together, this pattern of results suggests that social comparison does not influence body ideals, but rather, other characteristics of a single-sex and mixed-sex environment do. What these characteristics may be (e.g. presence of men, exposure to counterstereotypic role models) are discussed.

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Spencer, B., Barrett, C., Storti, G. et al. “Only Girls Who Want Fat Legs Take the Elevator”: Body Image in Single-Sex and Mixed-Sex Colleges. Sex Roles 69, 469–479 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0189-4

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Keywords

  • Body image
  • Women’s colleges
  • Single-sex schooling
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Social comparison