The effect of social comparison of appearance on compensatory buying and symbolic consumption: The mediating role of body esteem

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Interest in the body from a psychological perspective has increased dramatically in recent years. One of the central terms in this field, body image, was conceived to represent the “picture of our body which we form in our mind, that is, the way in which the body appears to ourselves” For many people, the body is the most obvious object with which they identify themselves. As the body becomes more significant as a means of recognizing and expressing the self, people focus on the body and try to improve it. This emphasis on outward appearance has been popularized because of the development of mass media. Presumably, the more pervasive is media image, the more people feel that they must meet these unattainable standards and the less positive about their bodies. As the interest in body image has been growing rapidly, many researchers have found that it is influenced by mass media. To give implication to marketing researchers and practitioners, we brought a conception of body image, which was mainly examined by medical and psychological researchers, to the marketing field by investigating its influence on purchasing behavior. This study examines how social comparisons of appearance influence compensatory buying and symbolic consumption through the mediating role of body esteem. Social comparison theory has been suggested as a useful theoretical foundation for associating the individual’s physical self with a social ideal of physical appearance influenced by mass media. Festinger suggested that humans have a drive to assess their own opinions and abilities, and meet it by comparing themselves with others. Major, Testa, & Bylsma (1991) found that responses to the self include changes in self-related emotions, perceptions and behavior, and may involve emotions, changing self-esteem, expectations for self-capacity and efforts to better oneself. Thus, we build hypothesis 1: consumer’s social comparisons of appearance negatively affect their body esteem based on these extant findings. Body esteem is consumers’ attitudes and feelings about their bodies and appearance. It is composed of three correlated fac-tors—physical condition, general attractiveness, and physique appearance. Body esteem is distinct from self esteem. Self esteem can be concerned with performance, social relations, and appearance (Heatherton & Polivy, 1991). Conceptually, body esteem is most strongly related to appearance esteem. Compensatory buying is a means of compensation for stress, disappointment, despair, loss of autonomy, lack of self-esteem, and so on (Scherhorn, Reisch, & Raab, 1990). One is that low body esteem leads to higher consumer’s compensatory buying. Grenmo (1989) suggested that compensatory buying comes from attempts to meet unsatisfied needs, including lack of self-esteem or self-realization, by the way of purchasing, particularly where there is a lack of more appropriate ways to meet the needs. Thus, we build hypothesis 2: consumer’s body esteem negatively affects compensatory buying. In contemporary society, consumption activities are not simple activities of buying goods, but a signaling and communication process based on certain codes in buying goods, as well as a process of classification and social differentiation between oneself and others (Baudrillard, 1991). According to symbolic self-perfection theory, people with low self-esteem choose to buy products as a symbolic means to “complete” themselves (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1981). Individuals with low body esteem should see symbolic products as a means of bolstering appearance and building self-esteem. We build hypothesis 3: consumer’s body esteem negatively affects symbolic consumption based on existing finding. Our empirical results support all the hypotheses and offer theoretical and managerial implications for consumer purchase intent. First, the research provides a useful framework in the development of empirical marketing strategies. The current study can help companies to understand how societal ideals about the body affect a consumer’s need and desires as they relate to expectations about beauty. Second, consumer’s body esteem has a negative influence on compensatory buying and symbolic consumption. This suggests that a person with low body esteem tends to indulge in compensatory shopping to meet their unsatisfied needs and choose luxury brands as a means of bolstering appearance and improving self-esteem. Third, previous researches address that consumers with low body esteem are likely to exhibit low involvement with body-involving products because they do not see body-involving products as affirming their self-concept (Rosa, Garbarino, & Malter, 2006).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-85
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Global Fashion Marketing
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2011

Bibliographical note

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© 2011 KAMS. All rights reserved.


  • Body esteem
  • Compensatory buying
  • Social comparison of appearance
  • Social comparison theory
  • Symbolic consumption


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