College Students' Perceptions of Fitness and Body Type in Interpersonal Relationships

Melissa MacDonald
Kylee Thetford
Nicole Schueneman
Justin Daleiden
Cameron Miller
Jennifer T. Edwards*
Tarleton State University


The purpose of the study was to examine the perceptions of college students about a person’s body type in interpersonal relationships. The researchers investigated the stereotypes placed on college students and their level of physical appearance. In order to reach the goal of the study, the researchers offered the following research question: “What are college students’ perceptions of a person’s body type when beginning interpersonal relationships on a college campus?”

Twenty-two students responded to the qualitative questionnaire. Most of the responses regarding the uncomfortable situations formed the “negative self-perceptions” category. The highest number of responses in this category regarded students who are overweight and feel uncomfortable with themselves around others. Most of the responses regarding comfortable situations formed the “overweight” and “thin” subcategories. Students responded and implied that no matter their peers’ body types, they did not feel differently towards these students.


The purpose of our study was to examine the perceptions that college students place on a person’s weight in interpersonal relationships. We researched the stereotypes placed on college students and their level of physical appearance. We investigated the problem through our research to gain a better understanding of college student’s perceptions of their peers and their peers’ body types.

College students are particularly vulnerable when it comes to being dissatisfied with their body image. Studies show that 56 percent of women are reported to have a negative body reflection, while a growing 43 percent of men are unhappy with their appearance as well (Sanftner, Ryan, & Pierce, 2009). Do to the change in environment, gender roles, and relationships; pressures increase college students to channel their emotions, fears, etc. into negative body focused issues.

People feel better about themselves when they are part of a socially supportive environment. Researches have found that there is a positive impact between social support and physical health. According to these authors understanding social support in college students is important when physical health can be affected (Hale, Hannum, & Espelage, 2005). Research shows that higher social support leads to fewer physical problems. The problem is finding support and understanding students’ perceptions when it comes to discriminating against certain body types and the physical ability of others. 

Research Questions

In order to reach the goal of our study, we offered the following research questions:

  1. What are college students’ perceptions of a person’s body type when beginning interpersonal relationships on a college campus?
  2. What are the differences between male and female perceptions of a person’s fitness level in interpersonal relationships on a college campus?

Theoretical Framework

To accomplish the purpose of our study, we used the Intercultural Communication Competence model (Chen & Starosta, 1996). Intercultural communication competence is defined as “the ability to negotiate cultural meanings and to execute appropriately effective communication behaviors that recognize the interactants' multiple identities in a specific environment" (p. 358). During our research we determined the different perceptions male and females have on personal appearance and body type in a college environment. Our research focused on traditional college students. The study addressed the following components: intercultural awareness, intercultural sensitivity, and intercultural adroitness.

The authors defined the first component of intercultural competence, "intercultural awareness" as the "understanding of culture convention that affects how we think and behave" (Chen & Starosta, 2000, p. 1). The second component, "intercultural sensitivity" is defined as the "active desire to motivate themselves to understand, appreciate, and accept differences among cultures" (Chen & Starosta, 1998, p. 231). The final component of the theory, "intercultural adroitness" is defined as "the ability to get the job done and attain communication goals in intercultural interactions" (Chen & Starosta, 1996, p. 367). In our research, we focused our qualitative/quantitative survey questions on these three components of the Intercultural Communication model: intercultural awareness, intercultural sensitivity, and intercultural adroitness.

Literature Review

Background and Description

One important area of research that has emerged in recent years is the assessment of factors that contribute to the development of body image problems and, more concretely, to the development of body dissatisfaction. The female socio-cultural beauty ideal, a constant object of research for over three decades now, is ultra-thin is in. Likewise, the male beauty ideal of a lean yet muscular body is becoming an important issue for men. Body image has been related with self-esteem, depressed mood, social anxiety, and disordered eating (Esnaola, Rodriguez, & Goni, 2010).

According to Bessenoff and Snow (2006) America is preoccupied with weight, and many individuals, especially women, go to extreme lengths in order to be thin. Cultural norms appear to be at least partly responsible for such behavior. There are many factors that contribute to the tremendous pressure put on men and women in society these days such as beauty industries, television, a person’s friends and family, and much more. The cultural value then becomes the personal value for an individual. When individuals believe that they are not living up to these ideals, their self-evaluation and psychological well-being can be at risk,

Research shows that social acceptance plays an important role in contributing to personal appearance. Personality development in based highly on the interactions we have with individuals. The social interactions based on body configuration really develop our own self-concept and self-worth. (Guy, Rankin, & Norvell, 1980).

Also, physical activity is important when in college and the lack of, may hinder certain perceptions being placed on your body type. Five hundred twenty-one students participated in this study. “The results indicated that the factors of organic development (keeping good health and physical condition, getting regular exercise, developing and maintaining sound and proper physical functioning) and lifetime uses (Developing skills for lifetime and learning activities which could be continued outside of school) were valued as the most important motivations to participate in physical activity among participants” (Yoh, 2009).

Importance of Physical Appearance in College

According to Yoh (2009), “keeping good health and physical condition, getting regular exercise, developing and maintaining sound and proper physical functioning, developing positive mental qualities, are some of the most important objectives for both male and female students attending colleges and universities in the U.S.” Physical condition is presented numerous times in discussion with college students, both male and female. Taking care of oneself and being physically attractive is a factor that sets many college students apart. 

The physically fit individuals who are at a normal body weight and have qualities that society finds attractive stand out in college. An individual’s idea of a normal body type effects their personal preferences and personal standard (Bessenoff & Snow, 2006).

One study took responses from a questionnaire over socio-cultural influences on the aesthetic body shape model and studied the responses. The sample group was comprised of 1259 participants. 271 of these participants were young adults and 248 were midlife adults. Results indicated that body dissatisfaction is closely related to perceived socio-cultural pressure (Esnaola, Rodriguez, & Goni, 2010).

The following people from this research subject were individuals that were in college but were not strictly incorporated. The sources from a college standpoint allow a more uncensored view of the body type discrimination. The people outside of college in this research subject provided us a perspective on what they believe is accruing. When the information comes from college students we understand where the thought is coming from and possibly its origin.

Female Perceptions/Past Studies

For years, research and studies have been conducted to find the effects of body image and its relationship to interpersonal relationships. This trend has been increasingly popular among women. An increased change in social circles and social environments make college students are very vulnerable to present a certain body image (Sanftner, Ryan, & Pierce, 2009). The exposures to cultural standards, socialization, and pubertal development play a key role when developing attitudes about physical appearance.

Female undergraduates enrolled in the Introductory Psychology course at the University of Connecticut participated in an examination of the relationships between body shame, self body image, own ideal (perceptions of failure to meet a personal body ideal), and societal standard (perceptions of failure to meet the cultural standard). On average, women consider the cultural standard for their sex to be at the extreme thin end of the scale, thinner than their personal ideal, which is, in turn, thinner than their perceptions of their current body shape (Bessenoff & Snow, 2006). Rolnik, Engeln-Maddox, and Miller (2010) stated that campus involvement by a first year freshman female could place self-objection and body image disturbance on that student.

Male Perceptions/ Past Studies

Many years of research examined the perceptions that college students’ place on a person’s weight in interpersonal relationships. Our research provided us with two past studies that have been done on similar topics. We addressed additional research of our subject in regards to males. In one outside study almost one hundred percent of the male college students that were interviewed found some aspect of their body image to be inadequate (Labre, 2005). 

A study was done over college males and whether the reading of fitness magazines found to be associated with body dissatisfaction and related behaviors among men. Influences on body image can be brought from outside the televised media network. In one particular study it was found that more people had interest in their imperfections and body image after reading fitness magazines (Labre, 2005). Through this study we found that even non-media related influences could affect perceptions of another’s body image in interpersonal relationships.

In a second outside study conducted in 2009, the research concluded nearly 5 percent of college students are underweight, a little over 4 percent are at healthy weight, 22 percent are overweight, and nearly 10 percent are considered obese (Greaney, Less, White, Dayton, Riebe, Blissmer, Shoff, Walsh, & Greene, 2009). This research shows us how real “body issues” are among the male gender. Within this study, in addition to environmental barriers, interpersonal barriers were noticed. These barriers were associated with weight management issues and social situations (Greaney et al., 2009).

Future Projections

According to a study conducted by Washington University weight gain is a common variable among college students. The research at Washington University concluded that only a small percent of freshman were underweight, with a majority of the freshman at a normal body weight. Fifteen percent of the freshmen in that study were considered overweight or obese (Racette, Deusinger, Strube, Highstein, & Deusinger, 2008). By the end of senior year the percentage of obese and overweight students changed to 23 percent. According to these authors “exercise and dietary patterns do not meet the recommendations for many college students.” This can eventually lead to long-term health problems.  Another study conducted in August 2009 by Markey and Markey (2009) included 101 college undergraduate students in the northeastern portion of the United States. The study was done to see how it would affect the participants’ future needs for plastic or cosmetic surgery because of hazing directed towards physical appearance. The study in fact showed that all of the women who participated in the study were in some way correlated with or attached to cosmetic surgery doctors or were looking for them.


To complete the purpose of our study, we used phenomenological research to examine traditional undergraduate students’ perceptions of their peers with different body types and how these perceptions influence their interpersonal communication. In our study, we included 50 participants (25 males/25 females) from a mid-sized higher education institution in central Texas. Phenomenology is described as “the study of the world as it appears to individuals when they place themselves in a state of consciousness that reflects an effort to be free of everyday biases and beliefs” (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003, p. 481).

The theory of phenomenology was founded by Edmund Husserl as a philosophical movement. “Self experience of phenomena” is what Husserl believed was the starting point for knowledge. He goes on to describe phenomena as “the various sensations, perceptions, and ideations that appear in consciousness when the self focuses attention on an object” (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003, p. 481). When conducting a phenomenological study, the “researcher is intimately connected with the phenomena being studied and comes to know [or herself] with his [or her] within his experiencing of these phenomena” (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003). This is accomplished through the following steps: step one - “identify a topic of personal and social significance”, step two - “select appropriate participants”, step three - “interview each participant”, and step four - “analyze the interview data” (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003, p. 481-482).

Participants and Context

Results were gathered from 50 undergraduate students attending a mid-sized higher education institution in central Texas. This university is a member of a major university system in Texas and was established in the late 1800s. In 2009, this higher education institution had slightly over 8,500 students and is located in a rural town outside of a major metropolitan area. In the 2005-2006 academic year, this university was 83.4 percent Caucasian American, 7.5 percent Hispanic American, 6.3 percent African American, 1 percent Native American, and .9 percent Asian American.

Over 21.3 percent of students attending this higher education institution are enrolled part-time and 35.8 percent receive Federal Pell Grant funds. Over the past few years, this university experienced an increase in the amount of student diversity (ethnic diversity). According to the "Online Resume for Prospective Students, Parents, and the Public", a report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, in fall 2009, this university was 81 percent Caucasian American (6,968 students), 9.1 percent Hispanic American (780 students), 6.5 percent African American (560 students), 1 percent Asian American (87 students), and 2.4 percent other and unknown (203 students) (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2010a). In the same year, there were 3,616 male students enrolled and 4,982 female students enrolled (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2010b). This higher education institution has almost 67 undergraduate degree programs and slightly over 20 graduate degree programs (Texas A&M University System Website, 2010). This university is classified as a Carnegie Master’s large institution (Educational Trust, 2007).

In this study, we had a total of 22 participants (15 females and 8 males). Fifteen participants (68%) were between the ages of 18-22, five participants (23%) were between the ages of 23-26, and two participants (9%) were between the ages of 27-32. Nineteen participants (84%) were white, one participant (5%) was Hispanic, one participant (5%) was Asian/Pacific Islander, and one participant (4%) was mixed race.


Our questionnaire was developed based on the Chen and Starosta Intercultural Communication Competence model. After conducting a review of literature we created the survey based upon the three components of this model: cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity, and cultural adroitness. The questionnaire contains a variety of survey questions:

  1. Think about an uncomfortable situation in which you interacted with a student of a different body type (i.e., slender body type, average body type, obese body type, etc.) than your own. Please list the body type and describe the interaction.
  2. I believe how I THINK about this body type (i.e., slender body type, average body type, obese body type, etc.) influences how I BEHAVE towards students of this body type.
  3. Think about a situation in which you felt comfortable when you interacted with a student who has a different body type (i.e., slender body type, average body type, obese body type, etc.) than you own. Please list the body type and describe the interaction.
  4. I actively seek opportunities to understand (i.e., reading about, interacting with, attending cultural trainings, etc.) students from a different body type (i.e., slender body type, average body type, obese body type, etc.) than my own.

This survey is based on our theoretical framework and was created through “Google Document.” The survey also contains several demographic questions dealing with: age, race, gender, hometown region, major, and academic college. The readability of this questionnaire was affirmed by 90 undergraduate student and two faculty members.

Data Collection/ Analysis

We received permission for the university’s Internal Review Board before distributing our questionnaire to the participants. After the study was approved we distributed the questionnaire to 22 (7 male/15 female) undergraduate students within the university. The questionnaire was distributed through a Tinyurl link posted on Facebook, Twitter, and in public places around campus. The study only consists of students who attended the university for Fall 2010, were above the age of 18, and who were willing to participate in the survey. Students who completed the survey were entered in a drawing making them eligible to win either a net book computer or iPod.

Our group used Google Spreadsheets, a collaborative, cloud computing software package to manually analyze the questionnaire. “Data analysis involves working with data, organizing them, breaking them into manageable units, synthesizing, searching for patterns, discovering what is important and what is to be learned, and deciding what you will tell others” (Bodgan & Biklen, 1998, p. 157). Data were sorted, analyzed, organized, and reorganized searching for patterns and themes following these researchers’ recommendations. To ensure that the placement of the participants’ responses matched the categories initially determined, Investigator triangulation (Denzin, 1978) was used. Six undergraduate researchers and two faculty members reviewed the questionnaire responses and created categories based on their own perceptions of themes and patterns to triangulate the categorizations. All of the categories were compared and were placed in agreed-upon categories after categorization was completed.

Our group was persistent through the aforementioned steps of phenomenological research in our study, while remaining objective and minimizing our research bias as best as we could. As undergraduate students, we are connected to our experiences at a higher education institution. We are shaped by our course work as well as our involvement on campus


Twenty-two undergraduate students participated in this study. The first part of the results focuses on the participant’s responses to questions one and three of the survey (levels of uncomfortable and comfortable).

The participants responded to the following question: “Think about an uncomfortable situation in which you interacted with a student of a different body type than your own.  Please list the body type and describe the interaction.” The responses focusing on uncomfortable interactions were broken into three categories: negative in a fitness and work environment, negative regarding personal weight, and additional responses. The three categories for the comfortable responses were: comfortable with different body types, comfortable with similar body types, and additional responses.

Uncomfortable Situations: Negative Perceptions of Others in Fitness and Work Environments

The participants provided responses that were distributed into four sub-categories: feels uncomfortable, dislikes the way they smell, dislikes physical interaction, and dislikes intimate situation. Table 1 introduces the frequencies of the participants’ responses focused on their negative perceptions of others in fitness and work environments.

Table 1: Negative Perceptions of Others in Fitness and Work Environments


Feels Uncomfortable

Dislikes the way they smell

Dislikes physical interaction

Dislikes Intimate Situations

Students' Responses





The subcategory with the most responses (13) was “feels uncomfortable.” An example from this category is, “I recently had an awkward interaction with an obese person. We both were walking through a door, and we ran into each other because we could not both fit through at the same time. I looked at him, and he seemed really sad I’m guessing since he was afraid I would say something about him.”

“Dislikes physical interaction,” is the sub-category with the next highest responses. An example from this category is, “I took a fitness walking class and there was a girl with an obese body type in my class. It was difficult for her to keep up in the class and she got tired easily. I would start out walking with her so she wouldn't be by herself but after awhile I would have to walk faster leaving her behind. This made me feel uncomfortable because I didn't want to hurt her feelings.”

Students who responded in the subcategory “dislikes the way they smell” responded with answers like “I was rooming in Europe with this pretty hefty kid, and his smell is what killed me. So inversely, his body type affected me, because it [a]ffected how he smelled.”

Table 2 provides statistics of the participant’s responses of negatives regarding personal weight.” The category “dislikes intimate situations” only had two responses, one of them being, “I once dated a girl that I didn't think was the cutest because of her body type. It made it weird whenever we would have any kind of close personal moments, because I would think of their type of body structure. That body type was above average weight for a female.”

Table 2. Negative Perceptions of Personal Weight


Looking Glass Self



Uncomfortable Around Food

Students’ Responses





Uncomfortable Situations: Negative Perceptions of Personal Weight

This section had four subcategories as well: Looking glass-self, overweight, thin and uncomfortable around food. Table 2 introduces statistics of the students’ responses of negative perceptions regarding personal weight. 

The subcategory with the most response was “overweight.” An example of a response is, “I've been in an uncomfortable situation with an obese person on an airplane. The lady that was sitting next to me on a flight was very obese and ended up having to purchase 2 seats in order to fit in the airplane. It was very uncomfortable because I didn't know how to handle it because she was embarrassed.”

The second highest was “looking glass self.” Students who felt uncomfortable with themselves provided responses such as, “I am average body type and when I am with persons of the slender body type I tend to feel uncomfortable in my own body. I think that I look at theirs and then start to think about what I need to change about my own. I know that I'm average, but everyone always wants to change something about themselves. The interaction between us was fine because we weren’t talking about body shape.” 

The “thin” category contained responses such as “I am going to be honest on this survey...it makes me really uncomfortable to interact with little bitty skinny girls. I don't know why. It may be because I am kind of thick. And I have no idea why it makes me feel uncomfortable, it just does.” The sub-category “uncomfortable around food” only had one response:

I have refrained from any kind of conversation about food because it always made this person feel bad for eating unhealthy. One time I was really hungry and wanted to "pig out." I did and invited that person to go with me but I ended up just getting a grilled chicken sandwich while that person ordered a huge burger. I felt really bad because I said I was really hungry but still ended up eating healthier than she did.

Uncomfortable Situations - Additional Responses

Few people responded in the “additional responses” category. These subcategories were “no answer” (two responses) and “doesn’t feel uncomfortable” (one response). One response of the “doesn’t feel uncomfortable” category was, “I interact with people all the time of different body types and it doesn't make any difference on how I act towards them, or make it uncomfortable for me.”

Comfortable Situations – Comfortable with Different Body Types

The participants’ contributions lead to two different subcategories “indifferent” and “comfortable most of the time.” A response in the “indifferent” category stated, “I’ve always gotten along with everyone.” A response in the “comfortable most of the time” category was “I usually have a normal interaction with others no matter what their body type. The only time it became apparent is when we are on the subject or eating, clothing or exercising.” Table 3 introduces the frequency distribution of comfortable situations of students’ responses regarding body type. 

Table 3- Frequency Distribution of Comfortable Situation - Different Body Types


Feels Comfortable


Comfortable most of the time

Students' Responses




Comfortable Situations - Comfortable with Similar Body Types

The participants’ contributions lead to four categories. Five people were comfortable with people of similar body types. Two were comfortable if in better shape. Nine were comfortable both with overweight and thin. One person said, “I work out in the rec and there are all different body types in there. I have worked out in group programs with slender and obese body types, and we all had a lot of fun.”

Comfortable Situations - Additional Responses

Only one sub category was formed under the “additional responses” category: no answer. The sub category “no answer” had three responses.


Twenty-two undergraduate students responded to the “College Students Perceptions on a Person’s Body Type in Interpersonal Relationships.” In this study we decided to focus on the first two qualitative questions from the questionnaire. These questions related to the comfort levels between undergraduate students with different ages. The uncomfortable responses formed three categories: negative perceptions in a fitness and work environment, negative perceptions regarding personal weight, and additional responses. The comfortable responses also formed three categories: comfortable with different body types, comfortable with similar body types, and additional responses.
Most of the responses regarding the uncomfortable situations formed the “negative self-perceptions” category. The highest number of responses in this category regarded students who were overweight and felt uncomfortable with themselves around others. In regard to the Chen and Starosta Intercultural Communication Competence Theory, the students’ responses exhibited a low level of intercultural sensitivity (i.e., understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of differences) towards others with different body types. 
Most of the responses regarding the comfortable situations generated from “comfortable with similar body types.” The responses with the highest results came from both the “overweight” and “thin” subcategories. Students responded that no matter the student’s body type, they did not feel differently towards their peers. The students’ responses exhibited a high level of intercultural sensitivity (i.e., understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of differences) towards others with different body types.


Based on the conclusions in this study, higher education administrators might consider offering intercultural sensitivity training to students to help them better manage interpersonal encounters with people of a different body type. This training may be useful for traditional and non-traditional college students. Intercultural sensitivity training for college students might focus on the various life experiences and viewpoints of other students with a different body type and discuss how these differences can potentially add to their college experience. College faculty might also benefit from training focused on dealing with students of a different body type enrolled in their classroom. This training for faculty might also focus on how to actively engage each of their students in the classroom, regardless of their size, shape, or body type.

Suggestions for Further Research

Our study was limited to 50 undergraduate students attending a mid-sized higher education institution in Texas. As a result of our small population size and our geographical limitations, future researchers might want to examine college students’ perceptions of different body types attending a community college, historically black college or university, or a Hispanic serving institution. Using these different contexts, researchers can determine if the different types of higher education environments have an impact on college aged students and the perceptions they place on people with different body types in interpersonal relationships.


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