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Oct. 4, 2012 Volume 34, No. 7

University of Missouri researchers study young women’s views on health, nutrition


College-age women believe society rewards attractiveness, study finds

It’s fine that university students care how they look. The danger is that many female students are prioritizing their appearance above health, according to researchers at the University of Missouri. 

María Len-Ríos, an associate professor of strategic communication; Suzanna Burgoyne, a professor of theater; and a team of undergraduate researchers conducted the study, presented in August at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Chicago.

The purpose was to learn how young women view their bodies and how they feel about media messages aimed at their demographic. 

Utilizing focus groups that included college-age women and men and mothers of college women, researchers discovered how women think about eating and nutrition. 

The disturbing find was that women are concerned about their weight but not about what they eat.

“During our focus group conversations, we learned that young people don’t think about nutrition when it comes to eating,” Len-Ríos said. “They think more about calorie-counting, which isn’t necessarily related to a balanced diet.” 

Researchers want to open a dialogue about conflicting societal messages regarding weight, values and healthful choices.

“We receive so many conflicting messages from news reports and advertising about how we should eat, how we should live and how we should look,” Len-Ríos said. 

“Some participants said they realized images of models are digitally enhanced, but it doesn’t necessarily keep them from wanting to achieve these unattainable figures. 

“This is because they see how society rewards women for ‘looking good.’ ”

In addition to surveying focus groups, researchers conducted interviews with nutritional counselors who cited lack of time and unhealthy food environments as reasons why college-age women aren’t eating nutritionally.

“Eating well takes time, and, according to health professionals, college students are overscheduled and don’t have enough time to cook something properly or might not know how to prepare something healthful,” Len-Ríos said.

The research contributed to Nutrition 101, a play by MU theater doctoral student Carlia Francis that premiered last spring. During the performance, characters disclose their insecurities about their bodies, deprecate other women’s bodies and discuss nutrition choices. Organizers hope to resume the play in coming months.

“Body image is a sensitive topic, and the play helps open discussions about how individuals view themselves and how media messages influence their self-images,” Burgoyne said.