J Adult Dev (2017) 24:155–162
What Does She Have that I Don’t? The Eﬀect of Sexual Activity
on Social Comparisons and Body Dissatisfaction in Emerging
Cynthia Elizabeth Gangi
· Erin A. Koterba
Published online: 9 January 2017
© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017
The desire to understand oneself is an inherent aspect of
being human. During certain times such as emerging adult-
hood, this desire seems to intensify. Emerging adulthood, a
developmental phase spanning ages 18–29, involves explo-
ration of one’s identity, sexuality, romantic relationships,
and other important domains (Arnett 2000). It is a time of
great instability that only begins to steady as the individual
develops greater insight into his or her own existence. Dur-
ing countless interviews between researchers and emerging
adult participants, for example, this quest for self-under-
standing has revealed itself to be a strong, underlying motif
of the emerging adult psyche (e.g., Arnett 2014).
One aspect of the self that emerging adults, particularly
females, seek information about is physical attractiveness.
To obtain information about one’s own attractiveness,
many females engage in appearance-focused comparisons
with others (Markey and Markey 2012). This seems to be
especially true for sexually active females (Gillen et al.
2006). Subsequently, these appearance-focused compari-
sons can have a profound impact on the emerging adult
female’s development. A meta-analysis of over 150 articles
by Myers and Crowther (2009) found a strong relationship
between females’ tendency to make appearance-focused
comparisons and their level of body dissatisfaction, a set
of negative thoughts and attitudes about one’s physical
shape (Garner 2002). Those who exhibit a greater tendency
to make such comparisons are typically more dissatisﬁed
with their own bodies. Appearance-focused comparisons
have also been identiﬁed as a major risk factor for eating
psychopathology (Corning et al. 2006; Stice 2002; Stormer
and Thompson 1996) and for a plethora of other adverse
outcomes (Dittmar and Howard 2004; Ridolﬁ et al. 2011).
Abstract Emerging adulthood is a time of exploration
when people try to understand themselves as well as their
place within the world. According to Social Comparison
Theory (Festinger in Hum Relat 7:117–140, 1954), one
of the ways we gather such information is by compar-
ing ourselves to others. The current research investigated
the frequency and nature of these comparisons, speciﬁ-
cally those that are appearance-focused, in emerging adult
women. Furthermore, we examined how one type of
exploration, sexual activity, impacts these comparisons.
Seventy-ﬁve emerging adult women, aged 18–23 years
= 19.53, SD = 1.28), participated in the present
study. They were asked to complete a questionnaire assess-
ing current and past sexual activity. The questionnaire also
assessed their body dissatisfaction as well as the frequency
with which they make appearance-focused comparisons.
The results demonstrate that females’ sexual exploration
during emerging adulthood predicts a tendency to make
more appearance-focused comparisons and that these com-
parisons are more detrimental to their body image.
Keywords Social comparisons · Emerging adulthood ·
Body dissatisfaction · Sexual activity
Erin A. Koterba has contributed equally to this project.
* Erin A. Koterba
Cynthia Elizabeth Gangi
Department of Psychology, University of Tampa, 401 W.
Kennedy Blvd., Box Q, Tampa, FL 33606, USA