“I am beautiful”, “I embrace my imperfections”, “I love my body”. You might be familiar with body positive self-affirmations such as these, as they have become increasingly popular in the Body Positive movement. Self-affirmations are believed to help shift beliefs, and therefore are commonly used with the intention of increasing self-esteem and body satisfaction- particularly in individuals who struggle with poor self-image. But, what does science say about this? While some affirmations may work for some people, it turns out that affirmations that focus on appearance can have unintended consequences for body satisfaction.
Renee Engeln and Megan Imundo conducted a study in which they tested the impact that mentally repeating the affirmation “I love my body” had on body satisfaction. 293 college women (ages 18-23) were prompted to either think “I love my body” (this was the experimental group) or “I am [age] years old” (this was the control group), every 30 seconds, while completing a writing task in which they were asked to write their thoughts and feelings as they experienced them. The researchers suspected that, in comparison to participants in the control group, participants in the experimental group (who repeatedly thought “I love my body”) would be more likely to include at least one negative appearance comment in their writing, as well as show reduced levels of body satisfaction immediately following the writing activity.
Participants’ pre-existing body satisfaction levels were measured between 4 and 8 weeks prior to the experiment, in a group testing session in their introductory Psychology course, using the 9-item body dissatisfaction subscale of the Eating Disorder Inventory- 2.
The day of the experiment, participants reviewed the informed consent, sat in a quiet lab room with a computer, and participants in the experimental condition were given the following instruction: “For the next five minutes, please type out your thoughts and feelings in this box. Write them down as they occur to you. Each time you hear the chime sound, please think to yourself, ‘I love my body.’ (You don’t need to type it; just think it)”. Participants in the control condition were given the same instruction except that the affirmation they had to mentally repeat was “I am [age] years old”. The chime sounded every 30 seconds for both groups. After five minutes passed, the writing task stopped, and participants were automatically prompted to complete another body dissatisfaction test.
Note: The researchers chose to use age as a neutral statement in their study because all participants were undergraduate students within the same age range, so age was less likely to have an impact on appearance-related contrasts, as other identity markers might have had (Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
The writing task answers were analyzed by two independent coders in a this way: participants’ writing tasks were classified on whether they contained at least one negative and/or one positive comment about their appearance. The coders did not know what group each participant belonged to. There was a high level of agreement between the coders, and disagreements were solved through discussion.
All the data was analyzed, and these were the results:
There wasn’t a difference in the pre-existing body satisfaction in participants in the experimental group and in participants in the control group. 29% of all participants wrote at least one negative comment about their appearance. As expected, participants in the experimental group were significantly more likely to write a negative comment about their body (53% of them did) than participants in the control group (only 6% of them did). 12% of all participants wrote a positive comment about their appearance. Only 24% of participants in the experimental group (repeating to themselves ‘I love my body’) did, and none in the control group. 74% of participants who wrote a positive comment about their appearance, also wrote at least a negative one. There wasn’t a statistically significant difference in the pre-existing body satisfaction between those participants who wrote negative comments about their appearance and those who didn’t.
Confirming the researchers’ hypothesis, when pre-existing levels of body-dissatisfaction were controlled for, participants who repeated the affirmation “I love my body” showed lower levels of body satisfaction in comparison to participants in the control condition.
These results show the harmful unintended consequences that repeating “positive” appearance-focused affirmations can have. You might be wondering: What is the reason for this?
The authors provide two possible explanations for this phenomenon. The first one is counterarguing. People integrate the new messages they receive with their pre-existing knowledge and beliefs, and if the discrepancy between the two is too big, cognitive responses that are in disagreement with the message (counterarguments) are generated (Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
“Given widespread body dissatisfaction among women, exhortations to feel good about the appearance of one’s body could lead to counterarguing. If you believe your body is unattractive and are faced with a message suggesting your body is attractive, you may respond with arguments that bolster your initial assessment.” (Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
This same unintended effect can be seen with other studies that affirmations, such as one by Wood, Perunovic and Lee (2009), which showed that for people with low self-esteem, repeating the affirmation “I am a loveable person”, decreased mood and state self-esteem.
A second explanation for this phenomenon, is the fact that the focus of these affirmations is still appearance. The authors explain this with the objectification theory, which sustains that the experience of being sexually objectified by others can lead a person to view themselves in an objectified way. Some studies found that bringing attention to a person’s appearance (like appearance-focused statements do), even if done in a positive way, may result increased body-surveillance and body dissatisfaction (Tylka & Sabik in Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
Breines et al. suggested that since many women’s sense of self-worth is closely linked to their physical appearance, if they perceive themselves as unattractive, focusing on their appearance can lead to a decrease in their well-being. In this line, “If a woman is already struggling with body dissatisfaction, suggesting that she ‘love her body’ may prompt her to focus on her appearance-related distress, reinforcing her initial belief that her body is unattractive” (Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
The researchers state that “Focusing on the appearance of your body has the potential for negative psychological consequences, even if that focus is positive in nature” (Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
Author Eleanor Clark criticizes this appearance-centered aspect of the Body Positivity movement:
“It seems this movement has prescribed the ‘issue’ as the ‘solution:’ emphasis on the physical body is the issue of body obsession, but body positivity also maintains body focus as the solution. Not surprisingly then, body positivity can inadvertently reinforce and perpetuate preoccupation with physical appearance” (Clark, 2022).
Clark, along with many body image and eating disorder recovery specialists, make a point for the Body Neutrality movement, which promotes accepting the body as it is, without the obligation to love it, taking the focus away from physical appearance. While Body Positivity seeks to transform society’s definition of beauty (promoting ideas such as “our perceived imperfections are still beautiful”), Body Neutrality seeks to shift society’s focus on beauty (Clark, 2022). In these lines, the authors of the paper highlight that interventions that focus on the body’s functions, rather than its looks, are showing promise (Alleva et al. in Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
Positive body image involves (in part) appreciating the functions of your body and showing care for your body even if you do not like how every part of it looks” (Engeln & Imundo, 2020).
These findings can help us rethink the way we craft our goals and affirmations to decrease body dissatisfaction. If body dissatisfaction partly stems from the amount of focus that is given to body appearance, it makes sense that its solution might reside in shifting our focus and learning to appreciate ourselves and our bodies in a more well-rounded way that's not just about appearance.
Engeln, R. & Imundo, M. (2020). I (Don’t) Love My Body: Counter-Intuitive Effects of a Body-Affirming Statement on College Women’s Body Satisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 39 (7), 617-639.
Clark, E. (2022). Body Neutrality: Finding Acceptance and Liberation in a Body-Focused Culture. Routledge.
Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W.Q.E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Pow- er for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20, 860–866.
Breines, J. G., Crocker, J., & Garcia, J. A. (2008). Self-objectification and well-being in women’s daily lives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 583–598.
Tylka, T. L., & Sabik, N. J. (2010). Integrating social comparison theory and self- esteem within objectification theory to predict women’s disordered eating. Sex Roles, 63, 18–31.
Alleva, J. M., Martijn, C., Jansen, A., & Nederkoorn, C. (2014). Body language: Affecting body satisfaction by describing the body in functionality terms. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 181–196.
Article written by Maggie Stilman.
The Considerable Journal.
The Considerable Journal's mission is to bring relevant scientific findings closer to people who seek evidence-based paths to integral well-being, by providing briefed, straightforward expositions of scientific research regarding mental and physical health, relationships, habits, and more.