URJHS Volume 7


The Relationship between Body Mass Index and Self-esteem in Female College Students

Leslie A. Malkemus, Lissa M. Shipman, and Cara J. Thomas

Huntington University


Prior research has shown a relationship between high BMI scores and low self-esteem scores among college-aged women. Culturally, Americans perceive low weight to be ideal and body weight to be a personal responsibility because it is a perceived to be a controllable factor. The hypothesis for this study was that there would be a positive relationship between the Body Mass Index score and the Index of Self-esteem (ISE) score in female sophomore and junior college students. Using a Pearson r, no statistically significant relationship was found between BMI and self-esteem.


In the individualistic culture of America, appearance and image are highly regarded. Young adult females can be especially affected by this culture due to the physical and emotional changes their bodies endure. “Body image involves both a perceptual and an attitudinal component” (Monteath & McCabe, 1997, p. 708). In order to have a positive self-image, an individual must appear attractive on the outside and also have a positive attitude about himself or herself. The latter of the two has been found to be difficult for women to achieve. Numerous studies found that women with higher Body Mass Index (BMI) scores had a lower self-esteem and judged their own bodies more critically than those with a low body image score (Ackard, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Perry, 2003; Forrest & Stuhldreher, 2007; Weaver & Byers, 2006).

Miller and Downey (1999) supported the idea that with college-aged students appearance is very important. When students enroll in college, they enter into a new environment where appearance matters most. College students are at a prime dating age, and first impressions become paramount. Also, a majority of college students come from a higher socio-economic status and therefore have the expectation to maintain a positive self-image and a healthy weight. For many of these college students, higher weight strongly correlates with low self-esteem.

In Western culture, specifically the competitive college environment, weight is seen as a controllable factor (Paxton, Neumark-Sztainer, Hannan, & Eisenberg, 2006). Issues with being overweight are viewed as an individual failure and lack of self-discipline. Miller and Downey (1999) emphasized that those from a higher socio-economic background, like most college students, had more access to resources for weight control, and consequently they were more stigmatized if they were overweight. Some turn to dieting in order to attempt to control their weight to reach an ideal body size. A study comparing Asian and U.S. college women found that 16 percent of the Asian participants and 33 percent of the U.S. participants engaged in restrained dieting behavior (Tsai, Hoerr, & Song, 1998). Forrest and Stuhldreher (2007) also reported that those participants not satisfied with their body image were more likely to diet. Those who diet, however, will not likely find positive results for long-term weight loss. Instead of reduction in weight, excessive dieting has been shown to increase the risk of gaining weight regardless of a person’s body type (Viner & Cole, 2006). Viner, Haines, Taylor, Head, Booy, and Stansfeld (2006) discovered that current dieting, or a history of dieting, was associated with those participants in the higher weight category.

It is evident that Western culture imposes ideas about the ideal slender body size, but how is weight perceived in other cultures? The thin body ideal was thought to be a cultural phenomenon restricted to the U.S. and Western Europe until the 1990s (Silverstein & Perlik, 1995). Western media and values about body image have spread to many other areas as shown through a multitude of multicultural studies. Davis and Katzman (1997, p. 449) studied “the differences in the relationship of body esteem, weight satisfaction, depression, and self-esteem among Chinese males and females in Hong Kong.” They found that more Chinese women than men were unsatisfied with their body and wanted to weigh less. In a similar study done solely with females in Korea, it was found that females who had “negative weight-related problems had higher depressive symptoms” (Kim & Kim, 2001, p. 3). This lead to the conclusion that the participants who had a higher weight status were experiencing depressive symptoms because they wanted to be thinner.

Another study that compared college women in Poland and the U.S. found that women from both cultures were relatively similar. Most sought the thin body ideal that was illustrated by media in the United States. BMI was statistically controlled in the study and both samples had no significant differences. The importance of body dissatisfaction was noted because of its association with depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders (Forbes, Doroszewicz, Card, & Adams-Curtis, 2004). A cross-cultural study by Mautner, Owen, and Fumham (1999) examined female college students in the U.S., Italy, and England and found no significant cultural difference in relation to body image disturbance.

Another facet of international self-perception studies is perception of body size and body image. In the European Union, a study was conducted to “identify factors associated with an adequate perception of body image in relation to body weight” (Sanchez-Villegas et al., 2001, p. 93). This study was motivated by the increase in obese individuals over the past few years. A similar study conducted in Mexico used body silhouettes; participants selected which silhouette most reflected their body size. The participants’ silhouette selections matched their actual BMIs (Kaufer-Horrowitz, Martinez, Goti-Rodriguez, & Avila-Rosas, 2006).

A significant body of research showed that body image was a concern internationally. Some researchers investigated how participants’ race influenced how they viewed their bodies. Jung and Forbes (2006) compared Korean and U.S. college women and found that there were noteworthy differences in body dissatisfaction between the two groups due to cultural standards. In a study that compared African-American and Caucasian college students, African-American females were found to have higher levels of self-esteem than Caucasian females (Powell & Howard, 2007). The study also supported the notion that participants with a higher BMI had a lower self-esteem and self-perception when compared with participants who had a lower BMI. Snooks and Hall (2002) compared the BMI and self-esteem scores of European-American, African-American, and Mexican-American women. Although the self-esteem scores remained relatively similar, the African-American and Mexican-American women had markedly higher BMI scores than the European-American women. Higher weights were likely seen as “normal” in African-American and Mexican-American culture, and consequently their higher BMI scores did not as easily affect the self-esteem of those participants.

Because many women are constantly trying to reach their ideal weight and failing, many likely would have low self-esteem. As stated above, Powell and Howard (2007) found that the higher the participant’s BMI, the lower the level of self-esteem and self-perception the participant had in comparison with the participants who had a lower BMI. Similar findings were observed by McLaren, Hardy, & Kuh (2003) in their longitudinal study about women’s body satisfaction as well as by Miller and Downey’s (1999) study comparing heavy weight and self-esteem. Despite the fact that both extremely high and low BMI scores are unhealthy, those with scores below the normal healthy range viewed themselves as healthy and did not view low BMI as an indication of a possible medical problem (Kajita, Takahashi, Hayashi, Fukuharu, Sato, & Sato, 2002).

Given this seemingly overwhelming evidence, this study set out to determine if the same relationship between BMI and self-esteem would hold true among students at a small, liberal arts college. Therefore the current study hypothesized that as the BMI scores of female students at a small, liberal arts university increase scores on the Index of Self-Esteem will also increase.



The participants were conveniently sampled from all 200 female sophomore and junior full-time students; participation was on a volunteer basis. Participants were recruited via email advertisements and by fliers posted in the female dorms and around campus. There was a ­­­­12.5 percent response rate. Participants were given the incentive of the opportunity to win either a Wal-Mart gift card or a popular coffee shop gift card.

The participants were 25 Caucasian sophomore and junior full-time female students at a small Christian-affiliated liberal arts school in the Midwest. There were 11 sophomores and 14 juniors. The mean age was 20, with ages ranging from 19 to 24. Students were grouped at random; every other person formed a group. All participants fully completed the study.


The Index of Self-Esteem (ISE) (Hudson, 1982) and the Body Mass Index (BMI) were used in the current study. The purpose of the ISE is “to measure problems with self-esteem” (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987, p. 188). High scores on the ISE indicate lower self-esteem. This measure was composed of a series of 25 questions that were answered by the participants on a Likert scale of one to five. It asked both positive and negative questions such as, “I feel that people would not like me if they really knew me well,” or “I feel that I am a beautiful person.” “The reliability of the ISE has a mean of .93 indicating excellent internal consistency. . . . The ISE also has good known-groups validity, significantly distinguishing between clients judged by clinicians to have problems in the area of self-esteem and those known not to” (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987, p. 189).

The BMI was the second measure used in this study. Hoeger and Hoeger (2007) explained BMI to be the standard measure of determining whether someone is overweight or obese. It is most frequently used to determine health problems and mortality rates as they relate to excessive body weight. Hoeger and Hoeger (2007) also explain that BMI is calculated in one of two ways: dividing the weight in kilograms by the square of the height in meters or by multiplying the weight in pounds by 705 and dividing the square of the height in inches. The ideal BMI should be between 18.5 and 25. A BMI score above 25 indicates an individual is overweight and a score above 30 indicates an individual is obese. If an individual’s score is below 18.5, it indicates an underweight status.

Participants’ weight and height were measured using a balance beam scale and a measuring tape on the wall with a carpenter’s square. The weight was measured in pounds, and the height in centimeters. For the height measurement, participants were asked to remove their shoes and stand squarely against a wall; a square was placed against the wall and their head to determine the accurate height in meters.


Three classrooms were procured for use in the study. The eligible sophomore and junior female students were sent an e-mail a week before the study detailing the times of the study, the location, and the incentive of a drawing for gift cards. Advertisements with the same information were posted in the residence halls, academic buildings, and other public buildings on campus. On the days of the study, March 12 and 27, 2008, desks and chairs were prearranged in the rooms, along with a desk with forms for the prize drawing and survey collection envelopes. Several pencils and copies of the survey packet (including the Index of Self-Esteem and a blank page to record the height and weight) were prepared as well. The sessions took place at 5:00, 6:00, and 7:00 pm on March 12, then at 6:00 and 7:00 pm on March 27.

All participants reported to room #122 first, where the participants were told that their participation in either part of the study implied consent. Potential participants showing up five or more minutes past the start time were asked to come back at the beginning of the next hour’s session. Participants were informed that leaving after the start of the survey prevented them from being able to return to any of the sessions. They were assured of the confidential nature of the study and were asked not to put their names on the survey packet. They were then asked to count off, “one, two, one, two,” in order to split them into two groups. The purpose of the groups was to provide a counterbalance between having either the BMI measurements or Index of Self-Esteem survey administered first.

Group one was sent to room #150 and received instructions on the BMI measurements of height and weight. They were led individually into room #142, where a researcher measured their height and weight and recorded it on a blank piece of paper. As the participants finished with the BMI measurements, they waited, holding their measurement papers in room #150, for their entire group to finish. When this entire group was assembled back in room #150, the ISE was then administered. They were asked to staple their measurement paper to the ISE packet, to place their completed surveys in an envelope near the door of the room as they left, and then to complete an entry form and place it in a designated box if they wished to be in the drawing.

Meanwhile, group two had begun with the administration of the ISE first in room #122. After completing the ISE, group two was instructed on the BMI measurements. They also were measured and the data recorded in the same manner as group one, except their measurements were recorded on the back of their ISE packet. They were instructed to place their completed survey packet into an envelope. They were also told how to enter the prize drawing as they exited. The same procedure was followed for the participants showing up at 6:00 and 7:00 pm.

After all participants exited the final session, the surveys were gathered and the forms were shuffled together. The names were drawn for the incentive prizes and the gift cards were mailed to the winners. The data from the surveys were then prepared for analysis.


The data were analyzed using a Pearson r statistic. At the 0.05 alpha level and with 23 degrees of freedom, the obtained r value of 0.249 was not large enough to indicate a significant correlation when compared to the critical r of 0.396. The null hypothesis was retained, meaning there was not sufficient data to support a correlation between scores on the ISE and BMI as originally hypothesized.

Figure 1. Relationship between Body Mass Index and Index of Self-esteem Scores


The results do not support our initial hypothesis that weight and self-esteem are correlated between sophomore and junior undergraduate females. Contrary to what we assumed, as BMI scores increase, the scores on the ISE did not increase significantly as they would if such a correlation existed. Surprisingly, many of the participants with higher BMI scores in fact had higher self-esteem as shown through lower scores on the ISE.

One wonders what affect the participants’ religiosity had on this result. Perhaps because our sample was drawn from a Christian-affiliated institution, the females there might define their worth, and thereby self-esteem, from other factors regardless of their BMI. The result could possibly be influenced by factors not directly related to their religious faith, such as being from intact and supportive families and having an increased emphasis on internal beauty.

Much more research must be conducted on the relationship between these variables. Past research studies led us to hypothesize that a correlation existed, so we really need to examine why our study did not find support. Research such as Powell and Howard (2007) and Miller and Downey (1999) supported our initial hypothesis, much like the multiple other studies discussed in the introduction. Perhaps there is something unique about this population as mentioned above, or our sampling technique could have been biased.

Unique to this study is that we specifically examined the variables of BMI and self-esteem as determined by the ISE as opposed to the other self-esteem measures normally implemented. Most of the studies referenced in our introduction used the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Self-Esteem Inventory, which measured self-esteem rather than problems with self-esteem. Also, most of the studies we observed had a wider spectrum of issues and did not limit their topic so greatly or limit their population to only sophomore and junior females at a small undergraduate institution. Whatever the case, self-esteem and weight issues among the young-adult female population are great concerns that must be further researched.

Our research had notable limitations. One limitation was related to the time period in which we conducted our survey. We administered it during a very busy time in the students’ academic schedule—around mid-semester with midterm exams approaching and participants preparing for their spring breaks. Students undergoing stress might compulsively eat more or have less time to exercise, impacting their BMI. Also, as spring approaches, students are more aware of their weight and appearance in preparation for wearing less clothing in the warmer weather.

A second limitation is the method of recruiting participants. We posted flyers in sophomore and junior residence halls as well as other academic facilities on campus and mailed campus-wide recruitment emails. We also specifically asked friends and fellow research classmates to participate. These friends and classmates made up a majority of our participants and many were somewhat aware of the nature of our study beforehand. This could have made our attempts at counterbalancing ineffective if participants were already aware of both measures. Specifically, we are concerned that some participants might have already known about the BMI measurement despite completing the ISE first. Thus their self-esteem score might have been influenced by their nervousness or other emotions in anticipation of the BMI measurement.

Finally, we encounter the participants’ reactivity to the outcome assessment and experimental arrangements. If participants are aware that they are being assessed, they are prone to respond differently or less truthfully. It was very clear that the ISE survey would be later scored and analyzed, so perhaps participants felt like they had to give certain responses despite the anonymity of the surveys. It might have also been observable, especially to those participants who were our research classmates, what the ISE measured. If the participants assumed that the ISE measured self-esteem, they might record different responses to the questions based on what they imagined their score should be.

If future research on this topic is to be conducted, researchers need to consider the delicate nature of the subject matter; anyone dealing with self-esteem needs to remember that each person is different. It would be best if they could find means to administer the study on a larger scale. Perhaps different recruitment methods could be utilized in order to get a more diversified sample, particularly those who are unaware of the nature of the study. Furthermore, it would be advantageous to not conduct the study at a time when the population is so busy or preparing for warmer weather.

Although there is still much work to be in done in the field of BMI and self-esteem, the present study raises many other questions for future research. If this study were to be repeated in similar settings, it would be beneficial to take other factors into account, such as the participants’ faith, extracurricular activities, and social involvements. Hopefully, future research will provide a better understanding of the relationship between BMI and self-esteem.


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