Body Positivity: What Goes Around Comes Around?
Promoting body positivity can make you feel more body-positive yourself.
Posted Dec 17, 2020
A wealth of research has investigated negative body image—negative thoughts and feelings about one’s own body—and has answered important questions, such as how negative body image is caused and what we can do about it. In recent years, however, researchers have begun to pay more attention to positive body image. That is, love, acceptance, and respect for one’s own body—regardless of what it looks like. Research on positive body image is important: If we only focus on reducing negative body image, that does not necessarily mean that people will be happy about their body and treat it well.
The emerging research on positive body image is teaching us many important and interesting things. One of the most fascinating characteristics about people with a positive body image is that they tend to promote positive body image to other people. For example, by being a role model to others about the importance of accepting one’s own body, and criticizing unrealistic beauty standards. At the same time, people with a positive body image surround themselves with other people who are body-positive, too, and who love and accept their body. This phenomenon—being body positive and promoting body positivity to others, and also having peers who are/do the same—has been termed reciprocity.
In a recent experiment by my colleagues and me at Maastricht University, we wanted to look more closely at one piece of the puzzle of reciprocity. Namely, we investigated whether the act of promoting positive body image to a close friend would lead people to feeling more body-positive themselves.
The experiment included 154 young women. At the laboratory, they completed questionnaires about their body image and about friendship and well-being (to disguise the true purpose of the study). Afterwards, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups.
In the body-positive group, participants were instructed to write a letter to a close friend, expressing appreciation for their friend’s body functionality. Body functionality refers to everything the body can do, such as eat and digest food; listen to music and see the sunrise; dance and paint; stretch and bend; and give hugs and cuddle. For example, a participant may have written, “I love your body because it gives me the most amazing hugs.”
We chose this particular activity because focusing on one’s body functionality, and why it is personally meaningful, is one of the most effective ways to improve positive body image. Though this technique had never been applied to writing about someone else’s body, we expected it to have similarly positive effects, by shifting participants’ focus away from how the body looks and towards all of the valuable things it can do, which may otherwise be taken for granted.
In the comparison group, participants were instructed to write a letter to a close friend, expressing appreciation for their favourite shared memories. In this way, participants in both groups wrote a letter to a close friend and expressed appreciation to their friend, but only the focus of the letter was different (body functionality vs. favourite memories). Participants in both groups were told to spend 15-30 minutes writing their letter.
After writing, all participants completed the same set of questionnaires again.
The key results are that participants in both groups experienced sizeable improvements in how they felt about their own body from before to after writing their letter. Namely, all participants felt more grateful for the functionality of their body in particular, and experienced more love, acceptance, and appreciation for their body overall.
The Take-Home Message
Women who promoted body positivity to a friend ended up feeling more positively about their own body, too. However, women in the comparison group, who wrote about favourite memories with their friend, also felt more positively about their own body. Why might this be?
It could be that the present findings are merely the result of demand characteristics: That is, the participants completed the questionnaires based on what they thought the experimenters expected of them (i.e., to feel better about their body). However, we made efforts to disguise the true purpose of the study, such as including questionnaires about friendship and well-being to align with our “cover story.”
Another possibility is that participants in both conditions did in fact experience real improvements to their body image. Based on prior research, writing about a friend’s body functionality should encourage women to reflect on their own body functionality, too, thereby shifting their focus away from physical appearance. It could be that writing about shared memories with a friend also involved reflections on body functionality, for example, if participants described doing physical activities together (e.g., dancing).
It is also possible that participants in both conditions experienced an increase in positive mood and gratitude after having written a kind letter to their friend, and these changes may have driven the improvements in positive body image.
In future research, we aim to shed more light on these underlying processes. We are also planning to incorporate the friend into the laboratory experiment as well: Will the effects of the letter-writing be strengthened if participants read their letter to their friend? And, how will the friend feel about their own body after receiving the letter? In this way, we hope to learn even more about the fascinating phenomenon of reciprocity.
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