Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Emperor's New Clothes and Body Image

If you are a woman (or a man!) that lives in America, you probably think about your body and what it looks like. It's pretty difficult not to when you your everyday tasks encourage it- for example, you go grocery shopping and see magazine covers that boast about quick fix weight loss solutions, or how to snag that killer bikini body in three simple steps. Or maybe you just watch TV and pick up on the relatively homogenous body types represented. Or maybe you interact with people at home, or work, that say things like, "Ohhh man my thighs", "I was so bad today", "Did you see so-and-so? She looks so thin!" This is known as 'fat talk.'  I have numerous conversations a day about body image, the media, 'fat talk'-- and I spend a lot of time trying to help people challenge the negative beliefs that they have about themselves and their bodies. Changing our body beliefs is not an easy task- we are bombarded by soo many messages each day, both explicit and implicit, about how we should look. It is difficult not to absorb and internalize these messages.  

I was recently reading about a study (in this book that I often use with clients) that was conducted back in 1980 that has some pretty interesting implications about the power of perception and the thoughts that we have about ourselves, especially as it relates to body image. Psychologists at Dartmouth University (Kleck and Strenta 1980) had make-up artists create facial scars on a group of participants before they were to spend time talking with a stranger. Said stranger, unbeknownst to the group of participants, had been specifically trained by the research team on how to respond neutrally to each participant. Also unbeknownst to the participants? The make-up artists had actually removed the scars before the group members talked with this stranger. After the conversations, the researchers asked the participants about their experiences and how the stranger had interacted with each of them. 

"Compared to the control group, who had not been given a 'scar,' the participants who believed they had the facial scar 'witnessed' more discomfort in the stranger's behavior- such as staring at them or avoiding looking at them at all. They reported experiencing the self-conscious and adverse effects of their facial 'flaw' even though no flaw existed. Obviously, since there was no actual scar, these people created their own reality. Their experiences reflected what they believed about their looks, not the objective facts of the situation. This fascinating experiment demonstrates a profoundly important truth: The most influential dictators of negative body image emotions are your own ways of judging and thinking about your looks."

This kind of reminds me of the Emperor's New Clothes!!- minus the vain emperor part. This idea that our own judgments and thoughts about ourselves, our bodies, etc. predict our experience is important! Why? Our beliefs and judgments typically impact our emotions and likewise, our actions. The beliefs we hold are crucial in how we experience the world, and play a major role in our confidence, our relationships, and our health! When we have negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, we perceive the world in ways that reinforce our beliefs. Why not try replacing your negative thoughts with some positive ones today? Our thoughts don't simply change over night-- our thoughts are automatic, but when we regularly practice replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, this becomes a habit. When it comes to having a healthy body image, the ways that we think about ourselves is key. Consider practicing positive thinking!


  1. Wow, that's a really interesting study! Thanks for sharing about it

  2. Isn't it?? Thanks, Cristina!:) Hope to see you soon!!