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On psychology and why it pays to be body positive 

Originally published in Mint.

Shilpa Madan 

Choosing to focus on the positive and taking control of your own health is ultimately the key to happiness 

When actress Anne Hathaway recently took to Instagram to share a photo of a pair of jeans cut short and say, “there is no shame if it takes longer than you think to lose the (pregnancy) weight", comparisons with a certain Ms Kardashian were inevitable. Ever since Kardashian gave birth, all her social media posts highlight her desperation to lose her baby weight.

Neither of these two things are surprising, be it our unyielding obsession with the body or the pervasive comparisons that dominate the discourse. As it turns out, as human beings, we are hardwired to compare. Sizing up people is our favourite pastime—be it strangers on the road or those we have known for ages. 

Whether they are about roti, kapda aur makaan (food, cloth and shelter) or as banal as “Uski shirt meri shirt se safed kaise?" (How is his shirt whiter than mine?), comparisons are pervasive.

Not surprisingly, they often trigger not-so-necessary consumption across several domains, thus becoming marketers’ favoured tactic for selling their wares. Given that we indulge in comparisons rather automatically, it is not surprising that they serve important psychological functions. 

Extant behavioural research shows that social comparison is a basic human motive and serves multiple objectives such as self-evaluation (how good am I?), self-improvement (how can I be better?) and even self-enhancement (yay! I am better).

This sizing up takes a literal meaning when it comes to body evaluation. Arguably, the most pervasive form of social comparison—body comparison—tends to start rather early in life. 

Ask any young mother who keeps getting inundated with queries about her infant’s weight, usually followed by unsolicited advice. Like all forms of contrasting, you feel good if you compare your stats with someone worse off (known as “downward comparison") and worse if you compare your body with that of a supermodel’s (“upward comparison").

Since they highlight what is lacking, upward comparisons are often rather demotivating and distressing. Research has consistently demonstrated the negative consequences of upward body comparisons, such as low self-esteem, body shaming, eating disorders and depression.

However, what is rather fascinating and unique about body evaluations is that while both face and body comparisons are equally prevalent, body comparisons lead to greater mental anguish. This is because women perceive that facial shortcomings can be quickly fixed (albeit temporarily) through make-up, but no such magic wand exists for achieving the ideal body in a flash.

The most common triggers of upward comparison are the images of skinny models in the media, leading to the idealization of thinness. And it catches them young!

There is evidence that girls as young as six start internalizing the thin ideal. In a unique experimental study in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, Helga Dittmar and colleagues found that five- to eight-year-old girls reported lower body esteem and greater desire to be thinner after brief exposure to images of Barbie dolls.

This pursuit of thinness is hardly surprising given that, across cultures, fat people are viewed as more self-indulgent, less self-disciplined and lazier. Underscoring this stereotype, research also shows that the “ugliness penalty" translates to the body as “obesity penalty". In other words, to cite an illustration, overweight applicants are rated to be significantly less employable than their fit counterparts.

That said, both consumers and marketers deal with this obsession with slenderness in myriad positive and negative ways. Given the severity of the issue, negative consequences are often in the limelight. However, while being fit is highly useful for physical and emotional well-being, body-image consciousness is not always detrimental and can even be empowering.

Insightful research in human behaviour shows that upward comparisons can make you smarter, that beauty is not just skin deep, that weight is ultimately about perception (and how using that deodorant can help), and explains the reality of vanity sizing.

At least I am smart

While much research demonstrates the dark side of exposure to attractive models such as lower self-esteem and other destructive behaviour, psychologists Kamila Sobol and Peter Darke’s work provides a refreshing flip side to this phenomenon.

In an article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, they show that exposure to idealized models led to improved performance in other domains, such as improved decision-making and enhanced self-regulation. Specifically, people made more optimal decisions and exhibited greater restraint over indulgent choices.

In other words, a feeling of lacking in the looks department motivated them to excel in other behavioural domains that are not related to appearance, thus showing that exposure to perfect images is not always harmful; people can find tangential ways to deal with the threat that are not detrimental to well-being.

That said, some degree of body dissatisfaction is found to be helpful and even necessary to motivate healthy behaviours such as exercise and eating healthy. Body dissatisfaction fuels motivation, which then encourages engagement in healthy behaviours.

Beautiful is as beautiful does

Beauty, too, can be, so to speak, gamed. Social psychology research shows that non-physical cues can have a significant impact on the perception of physical attractiveness.

In a large-scale study in the Journal of Social Psychology by Viren Swami and his colleagues, more than 2,000 male participants were asked to rate photographs of women. 

They were given either positive (or negative) personality information about the person being rated. Results show that participants who read positive personality information about the target individual perceived a wider range of body sizes to be attractive.

In other words, knowing that the target individual was a good person resulted in higher ratings of attractiveness across a variety of body sizes. The ratings were significantly higher in comparison to a control group where no personality related information was provided.

Good people, in other words, look a little more beautiful than they may often think themselves.

All about perception

The overcrowded grooming products category claims to enhance self-confidence and boost self-image. Turns out, the claims may not be just marketing hyperbole. Research shows that these products do have psychological benefits for both genders.

In a fascinating study, participants were asked to estimate their own body size in comparison to projected life-size images. In a separate experiment, they were asked to do the same following the application of a deodorant or antiperspirant.

Results show that participants who overestimated their body size in general made significantly more accurate judgements about it when they had applied a deodorant. This shows that the perception of body image is malleable and can be positively influenced by simple grooming routines. 

However, this was true only for people who had overestimated their weight initially. Thus, besides eradicating odour, deodorant maybe helping to boost self-esteem as well.

Vanity sizing

That unbeatable feeling when you comfortably slip into a pair of jeans two sizes smaller... and end up buying a few of the same kind.

You haven’t really lost weight overnight, but the retailers know that most women would give an arm and a leg to be able to. Vanity sizing, or the practice of altering measurements of garments to enable consumers to fit into smaller sizes, has been around for several years. And, of course, it’s a hit.

Not surprisingly, fitting into smaller-sized clothes makes us more likely to buy them, simply because we imagine ourselves being thinner and more attractive in smaller-sized apparel. However, heaven forbid that the opposite scenario unfolds. What if you end up fitting into a size “larger" than yours?

Research shows that not only are you going to storm out of the changing room but will also end up spending more on other non-size-related, yet appearance-enhancing products (such as make-up) to “repair" your broken self-esteem

While you indulge in what psychologists call compensatory consumption to feel better, notice how it’s a win-win for the retailer.

While comparisons may be inevitable and their behavioural repercussions complex, responding to them is a choice. Choosing to focus on the positive and taking control of your own health is ultimately the key to happiness. In the words of the late Jim Rohn, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live."

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