Focus on What Your Body Can Do Rather Than How it Looks

New research confirms focusing on what your body can do leads to body positivity

Posted Mar 07, 2018

Tim Savage/Pexels
Source: Tim Savage/Pexels

In January I wrote about one powerful change you can make to feel better about your body in 2018 – namely, by focusing on your body functionality, or everything your body can do, rather than how it looks. This month our newest research on this topic has been published in Body Image: An International Journal of Research. Here’s everything you need to know about the newest insights into this beneficial approach for developing body positivity.

What did we want to discover?

Our previous findings showed that helping people to focus on their body functionality can lead to a more positive body image. The idea behind this approach is that we live in an appearance-obsessed culture, which can encourage us to place too much importance on how we look. This, in turn, can lead to a more negative body image. Therefore, focusing on what the body is able to do can help people to regain a more balanced perspective toward their body. What we wanted to know in our most recent research is: What other mechanisms might explain why focusing on body functionality leads to a more positive body image?

We investigated two possible mechanisms. One: We thought that focusing on body functionality would help people to view their body in more complex terms. For example, rather than thinking of your body only in terms of its weight, shape, and physical strength, focusing on all of the things that your body can do might help you to see your body in terms of its weight, shape, and physical strength, but also creative abilities, expressive capacities, bodily senses, and so on. Research from the field of social psychology has shown that thinking of our self in more complex ways (e.g., “I am a researcher and a parent” vs. “I am a researcher, parent, artist, chef, activist, and so on”) can contribute to greater well-being. We thought this might be the same for how people think about their body.  

Two: We also thought that focusing on body functionality would help people to develop a stronger body-self connection. Thinking about all of the valuable things that your body can do – which are often taken for granted – could help you to realise the importance of your body for leading your daily life and having the experiences that you value (e.g., “My body can give my children a hug and be a shoulder to cry on, and this helps me to express my love for my family”).

What did we do?

We recruited 261 British women between 18 and 30 years old who wanted to improve their body image. They were randomised to the functionality programme or the control programme. The functionality programme was identical to the programme we developed in our prior research. Namely, participants completed three online writing exercises over the course of one week. Each writing exercise dealt with two different categories of body functionality (e.g., bodily senses, creative endeavours), and asked participants to write about the functions that their body can perform concerning those two categories and why they are personally meaningful. The control programme was exactly the same in terms of the format, but focused on a neutral topic. You can compare the control programme to a “placebo” in a drug trial. It helped us to rule out any effects that might not be due to the programme itself, such as expectations for improvement. Before and immediately after completing their assigned programme, as well as at one-week and one-month follow-up, the participants completed questionnaires that assessed their body image and the potential mechanisms. We also investigated how women in both programmes responded to beauty-ideal media images, but I will discuss this part of the study in next month's blog post.    

What did we find?

Women who completed the functionality programme, compared to those who completed the control programme, experienced significant improvements in body image at posttest, and these effects persisted one week and one month after completing the programme.

Concerning our potential mechanisms, we found that women in the functionality programme did think of their body in more complex ways at posttest and at both follow-ups compared to the women in the control programme. However, these improvements in body complexity did not explain the effects of the intervention.

We also found that women in the functionality programme did not experience significant improvements in body-self connection, contrary to our expectations. This might be because of the way that we measured body-self connection. Namely, the questionnaire we used asked women to indicate how closely they felt that their body was a part of who they are. It could be that the questionnaire did not distinguish between women who have a positive body-self connection, and those who may have a maladaptive body-self connection (e.g., “I am my appearance”). This is something we are working to resolve in our future research.

The take-home message

Focusing on everything your body can do – rather than how it looks – can contribute to a more positive body image. In addition, focusing on your body functionality can also help you to think of your body in more complex terms, but this does not necessarily explain the effects of the functionality programme. In our future research we will be looking at other possible mechanisms of this approach, as well as expanding the programme to other groups of people (e.g., women who experience chronic pain) and other ways to practice focusing on body functionality (e.g., yoga). Stay tuned!

To access the published scientific article, click here.

Note: It takes a village to complete a study! I would like to thank my co-authors Dr. Phillippa Diedrichs, Dr. Emma Halliwell, Prof. Nichola Rumsey, and Georgia Treneman-Evans at the Centre for Appearance Research (Bristol, England), where this research was conducted. I would also like to thank my co-authors Dr. Bobby Stuijfzand (University of Bristol) and Dr. Carolien Martijn (Maastricht University), as well as all of the women who participated in the study. Last, I would like to thank the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research for funding this research and my visit at the Centre for Appearance Research (Grant 446-15-011). 


Alleva, J. M., Diedrichs, P. C., Halliwell, E., Martijn, C., Stuijfzand, B. G., Treneman-Evans, G., & Rumsey, N. (2018). A randomised-controlled trial investigating potential underlying mechanisms of a functionality-based approach to improving women’s body image. Body Image, 25, 85-96.

Alleva, J. M., Martijn, C., Jansen, A., & Nederkoorn, C. (2014). Body language: Affecting body satisfaction by describing the body in functionality terms. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 181-196.

Alleva, J. M., Martijn, C., van Breukelen, G. J. P., Jansen, A., & Karos, K. (2015). Expand Your Horizon: A programme that improves body image and reduces self-objectification by training women to focus on body functionality. Body Image, 15, 81-89.

Goldenberg, J. L., & Shackelford, T. I. (2005). Is it me or is it mine? Body-self integration as a function of self-esteem, body-esteem, and mortality salience. Self and Identity, 4, 227–241.

Koch, E. J., & Shepperd, J. A. (2004). Is self-complexity linked to better coping? A review of the literature. Journal of Personality, 72, 727–760.

Moradi, B., & Huang, Y-P. (2008). Objectification theory and psychology of women: A decade of advances and future directions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 377-398.

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