"All the beauty of the world ‘tis but skin deep."
- Ralph Venning
The issue of body image plays an increasingly influential role in modern society. Our level of body image has the potential to dramatically impact our quality of our life, through its emotional, cognitive and behavioral manifestations. We are aware, within our own culture, of the growing pressure that media images place on individuals and how these can lead to negative psychological and behavioral issues. For example, the media portrayal of “ultra thinness” and its relationship with physical beauty have been attributed to the increase in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Estimates indicate that at any one time almost 50 percent of North American women are on a restricted eating regime.
Socio-culturally body image in females, related to weight concerns, have focused on three explanations: the stigma associated with being over weight, cultural idealization of thinness and the link between thinness and femininity.
Body image is acknowledged as being a multidimensional concept, and the complexity of this branch of psychology is supported by Thompson et al. who identified 16 areas related to this phenomenon including:
- Weight satisfaction
- Size perception
- Appearance satisfaction
- Appearance evaluation
- Body dysmorphia
- Body distortion
Social expectancy theory supports the idea that the cultural values of society influence our perceptions and behaviors toward others, and this in turn influences others’ behavior and self perceptions of others (self-fulfilling prophecy). In relation to what we perceive as being physically attractive, this theory states that:
- There is, culturally, consensual agreement regarding attractiveness.
- There are consensual expectations about attractive and unattractive individuals.
- People behave differently towards attractive/unattractive people.
- Differing behavior based on attractiveness results in differences in how people respond.
- These behavioral differences result in differences in perceived self esteem, body image assessments made by others.
Rodin et al. used the phrase “normative discontent” to describe the pervasive perceptual, attitudinal and affective negative feelings that females experience about their body image. Research has consistently shown that females place greater emphasis and meaning on their physical appearance and characteristics than males and that this leads to greater psychosocial dissatisfaction with their appearance. Using the Reasons for Exercise Inventory (REI) Smith et al. found that females exercise primarily for weight and appearance concerns. This links in with the idea of perceived “beauty” and thinness.
So while there is pressure on females to conform to the idealized image of thinness, it could be this very fact that acts as a major barrier and prevents females from engaging in regular exercise programs.
Social Physique Anxiety
An area of body image that is inextricably linked with exercise and physical activity is the phenomenon of social physique anxiety. Social physique anxiety (SPA) is a relatively recent concept that has received an increasing amount of research attention from psychologists within an exercise context. Social physique anxiety was initially examined by Hart et al. who defined the term as “anxiety that people experience in response to others’ evaluation of their physiques.” An individual suffers from SPA when they believe that their appearance will fail to make a desirable impression on others in the same environment.
A female exerciser new to exercising could well be intimidated by the presence of others in that environment. The exerciser will experience high levels of anxiety in such environments. In an attempt to cope with this anxiety, the exerciser will adopt coping behaviors in order to “deal” with the situation. These behaviors might be quite subtle such as training at certain times or in certain places where there is little opportunity for physique evaluation, or they may be more dramatic like crash dieting or stopping their training altogether if they are unable to cope with the anxiety.
With the increased importance that exercise and physical activity now plays in modern society, research examining SPA has focused on its relationship with exercise behavior. This aspect of personality, related to social physique anxiety, has been consistently shown within the context of exercise and physical activity to be more prevalent in females than males.
Dispositional SPA refers to the levels of SPA an individual is generally predisposed to experiencing. So for example, an exerciser with high dispositional SPA will experience high levels of anxiety, even in environments that offer relatively little opportunity for appearance evaluation. Individuals with this profile will be more vulnerable and sensitive to SPA and therefore more likely to adopt the maladaptive coping strategies similar to the ones mentioned earlier. Dispositional SPA will influence individuals' responses and thoughts about being in an environment in which they experience this anxiety. It is the integration of dispositional and situational factors that produce the overall anxiety reaction. Spink found that females with high levels of SPA were more likely to exercise in private or away from others to avoid any negative evaluation. The challenge for exercise professionals is to turn this into an opportunity for our clients who might experience this and to prevent it being a barrier to their continued exercising. Eklund and Crawford showed how female exercisers with high levels of SPA were more aware of the presence of male gym members, which heightened their social physique anxiety and increased their preference to exercise in female-only classes. A further interesting factor that these researchers found was that high SPA females preferred exercising with other females only when their peers wore less tight fitting clothing and found that exercising with females wearing tight fitting aerobic clothing also increased the opportunity for physique evaluation and therefore anxiety. A later study by Kruisselbrink et al. examined the gender composition of exercise classes and its effect on SPA. Replicating the findings of the previous research, this study concluded that female exercisers feel greatest anxiety in the exclusive presence of males. This anxiety is reduced in mixed classes and further reduced in female only classes. Interestingly, this profile of anxiety did not transfer to males, where the gender composition of the exercise setting had little or no effect on the social physique anxiety they experienced. Kruisselbrink’s work also showed that in the presence of males, females with higher levels of SPA exercised for significantly shorter periods and exercised longest in a female-only environment. Though the shortening of their exercise was shown for all female SPA profiles, the most affected group was the group that experienced the highest SPA.
As an exercise professional working with female clients, you can have a major influence on the situational component of SPA that your client experiences. Think about the gym environment where you typically work with your female clients and ask yourself:
- Does it promote “physique evaluation?”
- If so, what can you do to reduce this?
- How can you alter the way you interact with your clients to reduce this?
- Have you thought about what you wear and the language you use and its implications in relation to SPA?
Lantz and Hardy examined dispositional SPA and exercise behavior in females and found that individuals with higher levels of SPA were significantly less likely to participate in exercise in environments where there was opportunity for evaluation about their bodies because they perceived that any evaluation would be negative. This group also avoided situations where their bodies could be evaluated by others and became distressed when this could not be avoided, even though they were denying themselves the opportunity to participate in beneficial aerobic exercise. In addition to this, the high SPA group was shown again to be more likely to engage in maladaptive coping behaviors such as crash dieting and taking slimming pills/diuretics in an attempt to change their appearance.
Social physique anxiety scores have also been shown to be significantly higher in individuals who are at the earlier stages of behavioral change (exercise), namely the contemplation, preparation, action and even the early stages of maintenance. This demonstrates that inexperienced exercisers will suffer more from SPA than individuals who exercise on a regular basis. This can therefore be viewed as a major barrier to exercise participation by sedentary individuals. Again, the negative consequences of high SPA among inexperienced exercisers was more prevalent in females than males.
Self Presentational Efficacy
Linked with SPA is the concept of self-presentational efficacy (SPE). SPE is the confidence that an individual has about the ability to make a favorable impression to others. SPE has been defined as “the subjective probability of portraying a desired impression on others.” Females who suffer from high levels of SPA will be generally characterized with low levels of self-presentation efficacy because they think they will be unable to create a favorable impression in relation to their physique with others. SPE, within an exercise context, might also be related to factors other than physical attributes including appearing fit and healthy or coordinated. The association between high social physique anxiety and low self-presentation efficacy has again been shown to be a major barrier to exercise participation with female exercisers.
Leary and Kowalski suggested that situational factors such as the presence of others, especially individuals who you want to make a favorable impression on, can lower self presentational efficacy and promote social physique anxiety. Ginis et al. also stated that the use of mirrors in fitness facilities and revealing clothing can reduce self-presentational efficacy because they increase the opportunity for negative self-evaluation, reinforcement of their negative body image and increased social physique anxiety.
This is a good opportunity to reflect on the design of your facility and how it might be interpreted by this profile of client. Are there small changes you could make that would allow exercisers who experience this to have a more positive experience?
Weight and Body Image
Negative body image, in females, is most often related to body weight and specific body areas (waist, hips, thighs), and this relationship is more prevalent in females who are overweight. Though interestingly, research has shown that the expected increase in negative body image with increased obesity has not been found.
It has been shown that weight loss does increase an individual’s perception of his or her body image, though there is little correlation between the actual amounts of weight lost and changes in body image. This implies that there is a threshold effect where small amounts of weight loss increase body image, then after that the impact seems to plateau. This has important practical implications for you to be aware of when working with clients who have set weight loss goals.
Body Image and Anorexia Nervosa
Research consistently shows that females who exercise are more prone to eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa. This group use exercise as an additional means of reducing body weight. Davies et al. discovered that 80 percent of participants with anorexia nervosa also experience exercise addiction. The body image disturbances in females with anorexia nervosa are centered on two types of misperception:
- Body part distortions that focus on specific body areas (face, hips, thighs, etc.)
- Whole body distortions that focus on a distorted image of the entire body size
As anorexia nervosa sufferers experience low levels of body image and typically possess distorted perceptions about their weight, this group is particularly vulnerable when put in environments that facilitate physique evaluation to subsequent maladaptive coping behavior and heightened anxiety.
Imagine this scenario: a sedentary female starts to exercise for the first time (early stages of behavioral change). This individual is likely to have low confidence about exercising because she has never really engaged in exercise or physical activity previously. She might be slightly overweight and conscious of her appearance. She has to go into an unfamiliar environment (i.e., the gym!) where she is surrounded by what she perceives to be fitter and healthier individuals. This individual is likely to experience high social physique anxiety and low levels of self-presentational efficacy. The client will experience negative thoughts and emotions related to this very early on in her exercise life and probably even before she sets foot into your facility.
How does your facility offer the support this individual requires to overcome these issues and become a long term exerciser?
As research states, the issue of body image can have a dramatic influence on the cognitions, behaviors and emotions of some particularly vulnerable individuals within the fitness industry. If as fitness professionals we want to encourage mass participation in exercise, we need to consider these issues in our professional practice to ensure our clients benefit from positive exercise experiences.
The challenge is for you to help your female clients overcome these issues. Strategies must be put in place immediately because this is the time when they will be most vulnerable to quitting. If you can reduce their social physique anxiety and increase their self-presentational efficacy, you can help them cope with the initial difficult stages and give them the opportunity to train at your facility for longer and to enjoy the experience!
- Adami, G.F., Meneghelli, A., Ravera, G., Bressani, A., and Scopinaro, N. (1999). Body image in obese patients before and after stable weight reduction following bariatric surgery. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 46(3), 275-281.
- Eklund, R.C., and Crawford, S. (1994). Active women, social physique anxiety, and exercise. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16, 431-448.
- Eklund, R.C., Kelley, B., and Wilson, P. (1997). The Social Physique Anxiety Scale: Men, women, and the effects of modifying Item 2. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19, 188-196.
- Ginis, K.A., Jung, M, and Gauvin, L. (2003). To see or not to see: The effects of exercising in mirrored environments on feeling states and self-efficacy. Health Psychology, 22, 354-361.
- Hart, E.A., Leary, M.R., and Rejeski, W.J. (1989). The measurement of social physique anxiety. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11, 94-104.
- Kruisselbrink, D.L., and Dodge, A.M., Swanburg, S.L. and MacLeod, A.M. (2004). Influence of same-sex and mixed sex exercise settings on the social physique anxiety and exercise intention of males and females. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26, 616-622.
- Lantz, C.D., Hardy, C.J., and Ainsworth, B.E. (1997). Social physique anxiety and perceived exercise behaviour. Journal of Sport Behavior,20, 83-93.
- Leary, M.R., and Kowalski, R.M. (1995). Social anxiety. New York: Guilford Press.
- Rodin, J., Silberstein, L.R., Streigel-Moore, R.H. (1985). Women and weight: A normative discontent. In R. Sonderegger (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.
- Smith, B.L., Handley, P., and Eldredge, D.A. (1998). Sex differences in exercise motivation and body image satisfaction among college students. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 86, 723-732.
- Spink, K.S. (1992). Relation of anxiety about social physique to location of participation in physical activity. Perceptual and Motor Skills,93, 1075-1078.
- Thommpson, J.K., Heinberg, L.J., Altabe, M., Tantleff-Dunn, S. (1999). Exacting beauty: Theory, assessment, and treatment of body image disturbance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. A contemporary and comprehensive volume detailing theory and research on body image.