Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Coping with Body Image Threats among College Women: The Swimsuit Problem

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychological Studies

Coping with Body Image Threats among College Women: The Swimsuit Problem

Article excerpt


This study explored college women's (N = 104) strategies for coping with a high- and low-social-evaluative body image threat. Using an experimental design, participants read and imagined themselves in one of two scenarios: a high-social-evaluative body image threat condition (modeling a swimsuit in front of friends) or a low-social-evaluative body image threat condition (modeling a swimsuit alone) and described strategies for managing these situations. An inductive and deductive thematic approach was used to analyze the written responses. In order of frequency, the following themes were found for the high-social-evaluative threat condition: avoidance, appeasement, positive rational acceptance, social support, and social comparison. In order of frequency for the low-social-evaluative condition the following themes were found: appeasement, positive rational acceptance, avoidance, social support, outsider's opinion, and social comparison. Overall, maladaptive strategies for managing body image stressors (avoidance and appeasement) were reported the most frequently across conditions.

Keywords: adaptive/maladaptive coping, social self-preservation theory, body image stressor, social evaluation

1. Introduction

Many young women experience situations where their body image may be at risk. For example, situations where women's bodies are exposed, such as wearing a bathing suit in front of others, are the most uncomfortable when it comes to body image (Lamarche, Kerr, Faulkner, Gammage, & Klentrou, 2012). Furthermore, being in an uncomfortable situation (e.g., wearing a bathing suit) has been linked to increased body shame and self-objectification, which is associated with dietary restraint and decreased math performance among women (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998).

One theory that may help us understand what occurs during these types of situations is social self-preservation theory (SSPT; Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2004). According to SSPT, in situations where we are worried about receiving a negative evaluation from other people (i.e., social-evaluative threats), we respond both psychologically (e.g., shame) and physiologically (e.g., cortisol). It is believed that these responses (i.e., shame and cortisol) serve as a warning that one's social standing is at risk and help to prepare the body to utilize strategies such as disengagement, withdrawal, appeasement, or submission in order to prevent a further loss in social standing (Dickerson, 2008).

Most research framed within SSPT has investigated only those immediate psychobiological responses to a performance-based social-evaluative threat (i.e., the Trier Social Stress Test; Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993). Recent evidence suggests that SSPT may also be applicable to social-evaluative threats related to the body (Lamarche et al., 2012; Lamarche, Gammage, Kerr, Faulkner, & Klentrou, in press; Martin, Strong, Arent, & Bray, 2012). Using a qualitative approach, Lamarche et al. (2012) explored women's thoughts and feelings to situations that increase body image concerns and the context of those situations. Using a thematic analysis, these authors found that the thoughts and feelings described by participants were consistent with SSPT. One of the most threatening body image situations for women was being seen in a swimsuit by other people. Using a quantitative approach, Martin et al. (2012) investigated if the social evaluation of one's physique elicited a cortisol response consistent with SSPT across two separate experiments. In Study 1, participants believed they would be either exercising in a public, mirrored facility while wearing revealing clothing and being videotaped by a man (high social-evaluative threat) or exercising in a private room wearing baggy clothing and not being videotaped (low social-evaluative threat). In Study 2, participants were told either they would try on exercise attire and then be videotaped by a man so that a panel of judges could later evaluate the fit of the clothing (high social-evaluative threat) or they would try on exercise attire but no one else would see them (low social-evaluative threat). …

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