- Body dissatisfaction affects people of all ages and genders.
- A reflection and writing task focusing on body functionality has been shown to help improve body image.
- Anecdotal evidence supports new research findings regarding the benefits of writing to improve body image.
Our scientific understanding of body image is based predominantly on research examining adolescent and young adult women’s body images. Historically, the assumption has been that these age and gender groups are most vulnerable to body dissatisfaction and related disordered eating.
However, in some of my own research, I’ve found that older women report high rates of body dissatisfaction. In one study of women who were 60 years old on average, 84% of women reported some degree of body dissatisfaction. In another study of women who were 55 years old on average, women were likely to report body dissatisfaction and their dissatisfaction predicted anxiety and depression. It appears that body dissatisfaction does not necessarily cease to be a concern as women age—and the consequences of dissatisfaction can be serious.
Most of the prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing body dissatisfaction also focus on young women. Fortunately, some of these strategies can be adapted for other demographics. One such example is the use of writing and reflection tasks, whose efficacy has just been examined in a recently published study. The investigators, Drs. Rachel Weaver and Kate Mulgrew, asked women to generate 10 positive statements about their physical appearance or their bodies’ physical functionality.
They found that women who reflected on their body functionality — what their body can do and why this is meaningful to them — were most likely to experience improvements in their body image. Women who wrote positive reflections about their physical appearance also reaped some benefit from the writing task, but not as much as women who focused on their bodies’ functionality.
In correspondence with Dr. Mulgrew, she suggested, “The key is to appreciate all of the wonderful things that our bodies allow us to do and to diversify how we think about our body. We want to encourage a greater connection with the body—known as embodiment—wherein we focus on how our body feels rather than how it looks.”
The positive body image benefits of a writing task may seem counterintuitive, given that there are endless products, plans, and prescriptions marketed to all of us as remedies for body dissatisfaction. It is easy to believe that weight loss or new clothes are required for body satisfaction.
Sharing Personal Stories Can Also Improve Body Image
The study’s findings are supported by anecdotes shared in a new book, MeaningFULL:23 Life-Changing Stories of Conquering Dieting, Weight, & Body Image Issues. As the title suggests, the book offers stories of individuals of varied ages and backgrounds who have struggled with their body image and, in some cases, eating disorders.
Alli Spotts-De Lazzer (49 years old) is a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist and the book’s editor and she offers commentary throughout. She indicated that her interviewees found it helpful and even healing to share their stories. They were motivated to help others and many expressed appreciation for the opportunity to work through parts of their past. They didn’t participate in a writing task in quite the same way that participants in Weaver and Mulgrew’s study did, but nonetheless seemed to reap similar benefits.
Alli shares her own story in MeaningFULL as well. She writes, “Taking the time to be thoughtful about my journey seemed to give my own soul some calming and closure. I also found increased self-compassion. By writing as an observer of my life, it allowed me to become kinder and more patient about my young self's inexperience, confusion, and naivety.”
With both empirical and anecdotal evidence suggesting the value of writing about one’s body image, what are you waiting for? This body image “work” does not need to be time-consuming to be beneficial. Dr. Mulgrew believes that “although writing tasks have long been used in psychology as a way of recording and making sense of our experiences and there is some benefit initially of putting ideas on paper, I don’t think the benefits can only come from writing. We can come to appreciate our bodies through a variety of creative outlets.”
Whether you have the goal of sorting out your own body image journey across several decades or focusing on your body functionality right now, spending some time in positive reflection about your body may prove to be a meaningful investment. As women in their 40s and 50s who contributed to MeaningFULL conclude:
“I face myself daily, and so I feel thankful for a unique upbringing that allows me to live in the following truth: I will not wait for my body to be smaller to do things and live fully. Otherwise I will miss out on life.” —Laura’s story in MeaningFULL
“I now love myself. Yes, I know that’s a big word, but I see loving oneself as liking, being kind to, and accepting the many parts of self, inside and outside—like how you would treat someone you love.” —Veronica’s story in MeaningFULL
“I respect my body. I love what it does for me and the adventures it takes me on. I only have one, and I have much gratitude towards it for never giving up on me. It takes care of me, and for the rest of my life, I will do the same.” —Shannon’s story in MeaningFULL