April 20, 2024

Intrasexual competition linked to young women’s willingness to use a risky diet pill

A recent survey in Canada found that young women who tend to compete more with other women and have a higher body mass index (BMI) are more willing to use risky diet pills. These pills were described as effective for weight loss but linked to heart complications later in life. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Intrasexual competition is a form of competition that occurs within one sex or gender, where members of the same sex compete for access to mates, resources, or other desirable outcomes. It involves behaviors and strategies designed to outcompete rivals of the same sex in order to increase one’s chances of reproductive success. Very often individuals compete for access to potential mates or to establish dominance within a social group. This competition can take various forms, including physical combat, displays of strength or dominance, and mate attraction tactics.

Men, much more than women, prefer mates that are physically attractive. Typically, men find women who are slim, but not unhealthily slim, to be more physically attractive. Due to this, much of female intrasexual competition revolves around physical attractiveness. Women universally exert much more effort than men to enhance their physical appearance. This often involves weight control strategies, some of which can be risky, like diet pills. For instance, over 8% of healthy-weight adolescent girls have reported using diet pills, and this figure surges to an estimated 32% among college-aged women.

In their new study, Steven Arnocky and his research team set out to determine if female intrasexual competitiveness and BMI could predict their propensity to use a risky diet pill. They also explored if there was a correlation between the willingness to use such pills and conditions like depression, eating disorders, and being overweight. The researchers hypothesized that women with higher BMIs might be more inclined to use such pills, but the level of competition with other women would also influence their decision.

The study involved 189 female students from Nipissing University in Canada, averaging 20 years of age, who earned course credit for participating.

Participants completed assessments of proneness to intrasexual competition (the Intrasexual Competition Scale, consisting of items like “I can’t stand it when I meet another woman who is more attractive than I am”) and depressive symptoms (the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire). They also answered a question about their interest in taking a diet pill known to cause heart problems later in life (“How interested would you be in taking a diet pill, which has shown to be effective for weight loss, but which may cause heart problems later in life?”).

The results showed that participants with more depressive symptoms and higher body mass index tended to be more prone to intrasexual competition, but also more willing to use the risky diet pill. Those more prone to intrasexual competition were generally more willing to use the risky diet pill.

A more in-depth analysis revealed that only women with a BMI over 22.74 displayed a higher inclination to use the diet pill based on their competitiveness. For women with a lower BMI (slimmer women), there was no significant link between their competitive nature and the pill.

“The present study demonstrates that intrasexual competition interacts with body mass index in predicting willingness to use a risky diet pill, controlling for symptoms of depression. This finding suggests that links between intrasexual competition and unhealthy weight control are not due to the potential confound of depression, but that it is contingent on body mass index. Heavier women ostensibly have more to gain within the realm of intrasexual competition by losing weight relative to thinner counterparts, and so may be more prone to engage in intrasexual competition by employing risky weight loss tactics such as diet pill use,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on the intricacies of intrasexual competition among females. However, it should be noted that study participants were all students, most of them of very similar age. Results on other age groups might not be the same. Additionally, the study design does not allow any cause-and effect conclusions to be drawn.

The study, “Female intrasexual competitiveness interacts with body mass index to predict willingness to use a risky diet pill”, was authored by Steven Arnocky, Hillary Brennan, Brittany Denomme, and Adam C. Davis.

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