As a component of people’s identity, body image forms a central focus. Body image is defined as your internal representation of your physical self, and includes such features as self-perception of your height, age, weight, attractiveness, and functionality or your body’s ability to perform actions of importance to you.
Along with these cognitive components are the emotions attached to these internal representations. Do you feel too heavy, old, unattractive, and weak or are you happy with most aspects of your body image?
You’re probably also aware of the mismatch that some people have between the way you see them and the way they see themselves. Perhaps you have a friend at the gym who has zero ounces of excess body fat yet complains about her pudgy tummy. It seems unbelievable to you that anyone could have such a distorted bodily perception. No amount of reassurance on your part seems to convince her to ease off on the self-criticism.
Alternatively, maybe you’re the one with these distorted views of your own body image. You spend hours at a time trudging on the treadmill, hoisting heavier and heavier weights on the gym floor, and restricting your diet to the minimal amount to fuel all those workouts. Friends tell you that you look amazing, but their warm words fail to reassure you.
It’s not surprising that people who meet all objective standards of fitness continue to berate themselves for not being thin or fit enough, particularly women. According a new study by Griffith University’s (Australia) Laura Uhlmann and colleagues (2020), women become obsessed with the thin and fit ideal as the result of being “bombarded with media images and messages that lead them to subscribe to the notion that both thinness and muscle tone are required to be beautiful” (p. 140).
The more connected you are on social media, the Australian authors note, the more likely it is that you’ll absorb these messages into your body image. Having done so, the authors point out that you’re also at higher risk for an eating disorder. Summarizing the findings of previous studies, they conclude that “internalization with problematic outcomes such as dieting, bulimic symptoms, psychological distress, body dissatisfaction, body surveillance, social comparison, compulsive exercise, and supplement use” (p.140). Furthermore, whereas in the past it was only the thin ideal that permeated the media for women, the thin and fit ideal has now become the standard against which women measure themselves.
The purpose of the Uhlmann et al. study was to develop the Fit Ideal Internalization Test (FIIT), a scale to assess what they regard as the three key areas of this preoccupation with being thin and fit: the thin body image ideal (“fit idealization”), the thin and fit idealization (“fit overvaluation”) and engaging in behavior to achieve the fit ideal (“behavioral drive”).
Uhlmann and her colleagues tested the FIIT across samples of primarily undergraduate students of women in their 20s, an appropriate participant pool given that they are the most likely targets of social media efforts to influence women’s body images. The pilot measure included 38 items (based on the literature) along with 14 fillers. After determining how well the items clustered together, and testing the scores against other available measures, the authors arrived at a final 20-item measure. Participants rated each item using a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). See how you would score on the following sample items, used here because they were most closely aligned with each subscale:
I often feel concerned about the progress I am making towards achieving a perfectly lean and toned body.
I spend time fixating on parts of my body that are not very lean and toned.
I am preoccupied with the idea of having a body that looks both lean and toned.
Having a body that is both very lean and very toned, is a good way to show people you are in control of your life.
It says something good about me as a person if I can have a body that is both lean and toned.
Maintaining a body that is both lean and toned, is a good way to show people how hardworking I am.
I spend time doing things (e.g., exercising, dieting, taking supplements) to develop visible muscle tone.
I spend time doing things (e.g., exercising, dieting, taking supplements) to ensure my body looks very lean.
I spend time doing things (e.g., exercising, dieting, taking supplements) to burn fat.
If your ratings average out to four or higher per item, you would be considered to have incorporated the thin and fit ideal, as well as to be actively trying to maintain that idealized body image. Additionally, the women with high scores on the FIIT also showed higher than average scores on scales measuring body dissatisfaction, the tendency to exercise compulsively, excessive dieting, psychological distress, and high self-ratings of bulimic symptoms.
Based on some of the findings, high FIIT scores may also signify above-average perfectionism, particularly with respect to the fit drive scale. As the authors predicted, then, people who internalize society’s overvaluation of a lean and fit appearance can suffer both mental and physical consequences.
To sum up, although it is beneficial to keep fit, the risk of overdoing it is that your body image and thus your identity begins to be defined in unrealistic and potentially unhealthy ways. Maintaining good physical health is certainly a way to achieve fulfillment, and accepting your body for what it is will also preserve your mental health.
Uhlmann, L. R., Donovan, C. L., & Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J. (2020). Beyond the thin ideal: Development and validation of the Fit Ideal Internalization Test (FIIT) for women. Psychological Assessment, 32(2), 140–153. doi:10.1037/pas0000773