Peer Sexual Harassment and Disordered Eating in Early Adolescence

J.PetersenJennifer Petersen is an Assistant Professor in the department of Educational Foundations at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. Her background is in developmental psychology with a focus on adolescent gender development. Over time her research interest has evolved to broadly focus on gender in education. This includes elucidating the many psychosocial variables that disproportionately affect girls’ education in comparison to boys’ education, such as peer sexual harassment, disordered eating, and sexualization of girls. She recently published a paper titled: ‘Peer sexual harassment and disordered eating in early adolescence’ in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Background of the study

Society and the media are constantly bombarding men and women with the message that women are sexual objects. These messages are so pervasive than many women often begin to believe that their self-worth is wrapped up in their physical appearance. There has been a ton of research that shows that the media’s sexualization of women reduces women’s body esteem and is associated with disordered eating behaviors. However, very little research looks at the sexualization of women in the form of peer sexual harassment and how that harassment influences the victims.

I’d done some prior research that indicated that peer sexual harassment was incredibly pervasive in the schools with more than 80% of students reporting being harassed. I was interested to discover the consequences of this pervasive harassment and see how trends in harassment (whether harassed increased or decreased over time) affected girls’ body esteem and disordered eating behaviors.


When someone is sexually harassed that attracts unwanted attention to the victim’s sexuality and physical appearance. It treats the victim as though his or her physical appearance is the only thing that matters. Our research suggests that youth who are sexually harassed by their peers are more likely to focus on their physical appearance and become preoccupied with how they look. This preoccupation with one’s physical appearance is then related to an increased risk in disordered eating behavior even four years later as the victim strives to achieve the cultural ideal of a thin body. Essentially this suggests that being sexualized by others in the form of sexual harassment may lead to self-sexualization which then may lead to disordered eating to achieve the thin ideal.


To date the intervention programs that have focused on peer harassment have focused almost exclusively on bullying without addressing the sexualization and homophobia that surround adolescent victimization. Many of these programs are not even based on empirical results. Intervention programs must focus on youth at an early age and acknowledge the developmental needs of youth at multiple levels. In particular, interventions with young adolescents must acknowledge the sexual component of bullying and harassment in the schools and the effect of sexualization on body image and self-worth.

Additional research

I’d like to see these results spur researchers to think about how sexualization in the form of peer sexual harassment interferes with education and academics. For example, what is the cognitive load of being preoccupied with one’s appearance and how can that interfere with other cognitive tasks required to be successful academically.

About the department

The Educational Foundations department is focused on building the foundations of teacher education. In addition to introducing students to the history and philosophy of education, we are committed to developing students’ understanding of the social, cultural, and developmental characteristics that create a dynamic classroom.