Why the Way You Think About Your Body Matters

Research shows what happens when we think about what we can do, not how we look.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

The way that you think about your body matters. Research from our lab at Maastricht University has shown that thinking about what your body can do – rather than how it looks – can help you to feel more positively about your body. In a recent collaboration between our lab and researchers from the University of Gothenburg, we took a closer look at why this is the case.

The research

In the study, 75 women and men between 18 and 25 were randomized to write about either what their body can do (i.e., their body functionality) or what their body looks like (their physical appearance). Then, we analyzed their writing to identify common themes across the data.

Among participants who wrote about their body functionality, most made positive evaluations about what their body could do. They also described why their body functions are meaningful to them, such as allowing them to do valued activities or get from A to B, and how their body is resilient as it can adapt to different circumstances (e.g., lack of sleep). Many participants favorably compared their body to what they considered to be a “normally” functioning body. Last, participants described how their body constantly works “behind the scenes” (e.g., pumping blood), and how they enjoyed what their body could do, such as dancing or giving their partner a hug.   

Comparison was the most common theme among participants who wrote about their physical appearance: They described how their body measured up to what they thought was a “normal” physical appearance. Evaluations were also common, but they tended to be more mixed compared to the evaluations among participants who described their body functionality. Interestingly, they also described what other people thought about their physical appearance. Participants who described their physical appearance also described their body as a “project” that should be worked on (e.g., via weight loss, make-up). Last, some participants described appreciation for their physical appearance. For example, they described unique aspects of their looks, and how their physical features reflected their ethnicity.

The take-home message

Focusing on what your body can do vs. how it looks may generate distinct thoughts about your body. In our study, we identified more positive themes among women and men who described their body functionality. The body was viewed as meaningful, reliable, and as an instrument to experience valued activities. The tendency to describe body functionality in this way could explain why many experiments have shown that focusing on body functionality can increase positive body image.

Although some women and men who described their physical appearance also expressed positive feelings like appreciation, we identified potentially problematic tendencies in their writing as well. For example, research has shown that making appearance-related comparisons, viewing the body as a “project,” and thinking about how other people judge your looks can all lead to a more negative body image.

This is the first study to analyze what people write about when they describe their body functionality or physical appearance. It is important to keep in mind that the participants in this study were young, and therefore may not yet have experienced challenges to their body functionality such as physical illness or age-related declines in functioning. So, it may have been easier for them to describe their body functionality positively. However, a study that we conducted among women with rheumatoid arthritis has shown that focusing on what their bodies are able to do – despite physical symptoms or challenges – can still contribute to a more positive body image. In the future, it will be interesting to further explore how diverse groups of people describe what their body can do vs. how it looks.

To read the full research article, click here.

We would like to thank the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) for supporting this research through the Distinguished Women Scientists Fund, awarded to Dr. Jessica M. Alleva. 

References

Alleva, J. M., Holmqvist Gattario, K., Martijn, C., & Lunde, C. (2019). What can my body do vs. how does it look?: A qualitative analysis of young women and men’s descriptions of their body functionality or physical appearance. Body Image, 31, 71-80.

Alleva, J. M., Diedrichs, P. C., Halliwell, E., Peters, M. L., Dures, E., Stuijfzand, B. G., & Rumsey, N. (2018). More than my RA: Improving body image in women with rheumatoid arthritis using a functionality-focused intervention programme. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 86, 666-676.

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