Our Western society highly values beauty, which it tends to define as being young and skinny.
These definitions of beauty and ideals of beauty—communicated through, for instance, TV, movies, and social media (eg, Instagram, Facebook)—are often internalized by people, who then judge themselves harshly for falling short.
Not surprisingly, poor body image affects mental health and relationships, including relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. How? Perhaps through projection biasessuch as the mistaken assumption that others share our negative opinions of ourselves.
For instance, if we feel disgusted by our body’s flaws and imperfections, we might assume the opinion is shared by strangers, friends, and even those closest to us (eg, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife).
To explore the link between poor body image and relationship quality in greater detail, we will consider the findings of a paper by Hockey and colleagues, published in the July issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
In brief, the paper’s findings show women who had a “poorer body image perceived their partner to be less attracted to them (irrespective of their partner’s actual attraction to them, or how attracted they were to their partner), which in turn was associated with lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.”
Negative Body Image and Projection Bias
Before continuing, let me define poor body image.
Poor body image might be used to describe a variety of feelings, perceptions, and behaviors: the importance of the body’s appearance (eg, weight, shape) for self-esteem, general body dissatisfaction, and constant checking of perceived body imperfections. These imperfections include facial proportions, breast size, bone structure, rolls of fat (regardless of the person’s weight), and various skin concerns like cellulite, acne, stretch marks, and wrinkles.
While some individuals with poor body image engage in excessive mirror checking or reassurance-seeking, others engage in avoidance behaviors, like wearing baggy clothes or avoiding the beach. Needless to say, body image issues are no less of a concern for these avoidant individuals.
As noted earlier, negative body image is associated with numerous mental health symptoms (eg, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem). Body image issues are more prevalent in women, particularly those with eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder.
The causes of negative body image are not well understood. Many factors may contribute to negative body image—factors such as the media, cultural norms, family pressure, and personal mental health issues, including psychological trauma (eg, major loss, sexual abuse).
Let us now discuss the studies by Hockey et al. The first investigation evaluated the relationship between projection biases, body image, and relationship satisfaction; The second investigation extended the results of the first (eg, by assessing sexual satisfaction as well).
Investigating Body Image and Relationship/Sexual Satisfaction
Sample: 197 heterosexual couples, the average age of 23 years (range of 18 to 45 years), mean relationship length of three years, 61 percent married or living together, and over 50 percent Caucasian.
- Body satisfaction: Two items from the Short-Form Partner Ideal Scales asked whether participants felt they had an “attractive appearance” and a “nice body.”
- Perceptions of partner attraction: Same as above, except the focus was on the romantic partner’s ideals (ie, whether the person’s partner would think they had a nice body).
- Attraction: Items asking if the person thought his or her intimate partner had a nice body and an attractive appearance.
- Relationship satisfaction: The short version of the Perceived Relationship Quality Components Inventory was used. Its seven items assessed trust, love, passion, intimacy, romance, commitment, and satisfaction. Example: “How much do you trust your partner?”
Sample: 97 heterosexual couples, the mean age of 25 years (range of 18 to 56 years), average relationship length of four years, 73 percent living together, 90 percent Caucasian.
- Body mass index (BMI): BMI is a measure of body weight and height, used to determine if a person is underweight, of normal weight, overweight, or obese.
- Body satisfaction: Adapted from the Body Image Scale. Some example items are, “Do you find it difficult to look at yourself naked?” “To what extent do you generally feel attractive?” and “To what extent do you feel satisfied with your body?”
- Perceptions of partner attraction: “How attractive do you think your partner thinks you are?”
- Attraction: “How attractive do you think your partner is?”
- Relationship satisfaction: The 16-item couple satisfaction index was used to assess relationship satisfaction and evaluate one’s relationship (interesting/boring, sturdy/fragile, etc.).
- Sexual satisfaction: “How sexually satisfying is the relationship to you?” and “How rewarding or unrewarding is your partner’s contribution during sex?”
Results of Study 1 and 2
How women felt about their bodies, analysis of data showed, “strongly predicted their assumptions about the degree to which they met their partner’s physical attractiveness ideal standards (Study 1) and the degree to which their partner was attracted to them (Study 2). ” In addition, women with poorer body image assumed their “partner was less attracted to them, which often predicted lower relationship satisfaction (Studies 1 and 2) and sexual satisfaction (Study 2).”
Poor Body Image and Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction
In summary, body image projection bias may explain how body image affects relationship and sexual satisfaction in romantic relationships. Specifically, women dissatisfied with their physical appearance assume their romantic partner feels the same way. Therefore, they feel less relationship satisfaction. So, concerning relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction, what mattered most to the women in the study were their feelings about their own body rather than their attraction to their romantic partner,
For men, attraction to their romantic partner was what mattered the most because it was positively linked with their relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction, and in the second investigation, even with their romantic partner’s sexual satisfaction.