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How Romantic Rejection Can Lead to Body Dissatisfaction

Women's attractiveness-contingent self-esteem moderates body dissatisfaction.

Key points

  • Romantic rejection is associated with increased levels of body dissatisfaction in some women.
  • An important factor in determining whether romantic rejection will lead to body dissatisfaction is attractiveness-contingent self-esteem.
  • Over time, repeatedly experiencing romantic rejection may lead to decreased body satisfaction.
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In a new research project, which will appear in the December 2021 issue of the journal Body Image, Auguste Harrington and Nickola Overall document the co-occurrence of romantic rejection and body dissatisfaction in two studies. The authors define body dissatisfaction as “negative thoughts and feelings about the appearance of one’s body, including body size, weight, shape, and attractiveness.” However, not all people who experience romantic rejection also experience body dissatisfaction. Harrington and Overall found that an important factor in determining whether romantic rejection will lead to body dissatisfaction is an individual’s level of “attractiveness-contingent self-esteem.”

Attractiveness-Contingent Self-Esteem

According to the researchers, “contingent self-esteem captures the degree to which people’s self-worth is dependent or ‘contingent’ on the achievement and fulfilment of internalized standards and expectations.” Individuals with high attractiveness-contingent self-esteem (ACSE) evaluate their own self-worth based on whether they believe they meet their own and others’ expectations for physical attractiveness. Conversely, “People with high levels of non-contingent self-esteem experience stable, secure, and robust feelings of self-worth that do not require continued validation.” Another important variable which may affect the link between romantic rejection and body dissatisfaction is gender.


Harrington and Overall contend that the emphasis on attractiveness when evaluating women, especially in Western cultures, makes body dissatisfaction a more pressing issue for women than for men. Women are not only more likely to be judged by others based on their level of physical attractiveness, but women are also more likely to judge themselves based on their own level of physical attractiveness. Therefore, the authors proposed that women higher in attractiveness-contingent self-esteem who have experienced romantic rejection will be at an increased risk for body dissatisfaction. According to the authors, prior research also links women’s feelings of body dissatisfaction with reduced life satisfaction as well as increased depression and anxiety.

The Current Research

In Study 1, the researchers recruited 150 women from the US, the UK, and Canada who were not involved in romantic relationships via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The participants were primarily Caucasian and ranged in age from 21-75. The participants self-reported their feelings of attractiveness-contingent self-esteem, their experiences with romantic rejection (e.g. asking for someone’s phone number and not receiving it or being given a fake number), and their body dissatisfaction following their experiences with romantic rejection. The authors found that women high in attractiveness-contingent self-esteem were more likely to report stronger feelings of body dissatisfaction following their experiences of romantic rejection.

In Study 2, 100 female students from a large university in New Zealand participated and provided their responses to the self-esteem scale. These women identified primarily as New Zealand European or Asian. After these baseline measures were collected, these same women were asked to report their daily experiences of romantic rejection and body dissatisfaction for a period of 10 days. Similar to Study 1, the results of Study 2 showed that “women higher in ACSE experienced greater increases in body dissatisfaction on days they encountered naturally occurring romantic rejection compared to days when rejection was low.”


The authors suggest that romantic rejections and the associated body dissatisfaction may dissipate over time, but they believe that it is more likely that “accumulated experiences of romantic rejection contribute to increasingly lower levels of body dissatisfaction over time, especially for women higher in ACSE.”

In order to counteract these potential negative consequences of romantic rejection, the authors state that “reducing harmful beliefs about the centrality of attractiveness for women’s self-worth may help reduce or mitigate the detrimental effects of ACSE and unfavorable social feedback…on women’s body dissatisfaction.” The authors review previous research which suggests that “spontaneous self-affirmation might mitigate the links between ACSE, romantic rejection, and body dissatisfaction. Spontaneous self-affirmation is the tendency for individuals to respond naturally to self-threats by reflecting on positive thoughts such as their values and strengths.”


The authors acknowledge that the correlational design of their research precludes drawing firm causal conclusions. However, Harrington and Overall believe that that “it is unlikely that daily romantic rejection would be caused by within-person variation in actual body desirability.” The researchers recommend future research manipulating romantic rejection in order to study the possibility of a causal relationship with body dissatisfaction. The authors also recommend future research studying the link between romantic rejection and body dissatisfaction in men.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock


Harrington, A. G., & Overall, N. C. (2021). Women’s attractiveness contingent self-esteem, romantic rejection, and body dissatisfaction. Body Image, 39, 77-89.