Many people feel unhappy about their looks: Recent research shows that as many as 72 percent of women and 61 percent of men experience body dissatisfaction. Body dissatisfaction is a problem in and of itself, but also because it can lead to other negative outcomes, such as low self-esteem, depression, and unhealthy eating behaviors. When people feel unhappy with their body, they’re less likely to feel happy about themselves as a whole and less likely to look after themselves.
Given that body dissatisfaction is common and can have negative consequences, it is important to understand what makes some people more (or less) vulnerable to developing it. That is why researchers at the University of Wollongong (Australia) recently asked: How does your personality relate to how you feel about your body?
The researchers reviewed a large number of the studies that have been published on the relationship between personality and body dissatisfaction, which together included nearly 40,000 adults. To be included in their review, each study needed to have had both a questionnaire measuring people’s personality and a questionnaire measuring their levels of body dissatisfaction.
The personality questionnaires measured the “Big Five” traits:
- Neuroticism (i.e., the tendency to be moody and experience negative feelings like anxiety)
- Extroversion (i.e., the tendency to be outgoing)
- Openness (i.e., the tendency to be curious and try new things)
- Agreeableness (i.e., the tendency to be considerate and get along with others)
- Conscientiousness (i.e., the tendency to be self-disciplined and organized)
Next, the researchers put all of the data from all of these studies together in one big analysis (called a “meta-analysis”) to look at the overall relationship between personality and body dissatisfaction.
The key finding was that people who were more neurotic were much more dissatisfied with their body. To a lesser extent, people who were less extroverted and less conscientious were also more dissatisfied with their body. All of the results were similar for both women and men.
The Take-Home Message
Men and women who are more neurotic, and less extroverted and conscientious, tend to be more dissatisfied with their looks. Why might that be?
Neurotic people tend to be more self-conscious and sensitive to others’ opinions. They also tend to compare themselves to others more often. These tendencies would make someone more vulnerable to feeling insecure about their looks. Indeed, a wealth of body image research has shown that comparing your appearance to other people, and measuring your appearance against societal standards, are key factors that contribute to body dissatisfaction.
With respect to extroversion and conscientiousness, people who are more extroverted and more conscientious tend to be more assertive and self-confident. Thus, similar to neuroticism, people who are less extroverted and less conscientious might be more vulnerable to those habits that lead to body dissatisfaction, such as comparisons to others and societal beauty ideals.
These findings are important because they could help us to identify those people who might be more vulnerable to developing body dissatisfaction, and thus who might benefit most from body image intervention programs.
Importantly, the data can tell us about the relationship between personality and body dissatisfaction, but they cannot tell us what came first. However, personality is assumed to be relatively stable, so it is likely that personality eventually leads to higher or lower levels of body dissatisfaction. Of course, it could also be that experiencing body dissatisfaction long-term could reshape your personality, just as it has been shown to shape people’s physical and psychological well-being.
Last, if you consider yourself someone who is very neurotic, and not very extroverted or conscientious, does that mean you are doomed to experience body dissatisfaction? Luckily, no. The data tell us about overall relationships, but there are exceptions. There is also evidence that personality traits can actually be reshaped over time. And, fortunately, there are plenty of good body image programs out there, which have been shown to help people feel more positively about their body. Nothing is set in stone.
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Allen, M. S., & Robson, D. A. (2020). Personality and body dissatisfaction: An updated systematic review with meta-analysis. Body Image, 33, 77-89.