Help us fund much needed research: Body image concerns

Change your mind



Change your mind, not your body!

A lot of our body image concerns, as well as our attempts to modify the body ( e.g. binge eating, plastic surgery) are actually attempts to feel better about ourselves. Our aim is to fund research than can help us understand why we try to change our body as a means to changing our mind, and whether there are instead healthier ways of changing the mind (sometimes via the brain). In research projects with prestigious universities (UCL, King’s College, Royal Holloway), NPSA will investigate brain and psychological mechanisms that can help individuals enhance their internal body awareness and hence build a stronger resilience against unhelpful, externalised influences, such as media and fashion images of the body ‘as advertised’.

We have launced a fund-raising campaign on Zequs (equivalent of JustGiving) and we have only 30 days to reach our target of £2000. To support the cause, and offer something to you, our research team will upload one related scientific finding per day, pointing to the potential of using science and psychological interventions to combat body image dissatisfaction in society, as well as obesity and eating disorders.

Link for the campaign:

Message of the day: 28th January 2015

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are widespread and have serious physical and psychological impacts on those affected. Their causes are complex and varied, but (unsurprisingly) concerns about body image have been identified as an important factor in these illnesses (Cooley & Toray, 2001). Unhealthy concerns about one’s physical appearance can lead to body avoidance, where a person dresses in baggy clothes for example, or avoids looking in the mirror; to excessive body checking, such as constantly and critically looking in mirrors; and / or being acutely aware of not matching the ideal body images constantly being portrayed in the media around us (and which most of us bear no resemblance to!).

The practice of Mindfulness promotes patterns in thinking which directly challenge the unhelpful behaviours described above. Mindfulness is a type of meditation which encourages the individual to direct their attention to whatever they are physically or emotionally experiencing in the present moment, in an accepting and non-judgemental way. Over time, an individual may become less critical of themselves – not constantly comparing themselves to others or ideals – and less preoccupied with scrutinising or avoiding the sight of their own body.

On this basis, Alberts, Thewissen and Raes (2012) hypothesised that increased levels of mindfulness would be likely to be associated with lower levels of concern over body image. A sample of 26 adult women were assessed for their baseline levels of mindfulness and body image concern, using standardised questionnaires. All women had reported some type of difficulty in their relationship with food or controlling their weight, but none were diagnosed as having a clinical eating disorder. Half of the women were then given an 8 week mindfulness training course, with daily exercises to promote awareness of their physical sensations and thoughts relating to eating, food and their bodies. At the end of the study, the women who underwent the training showed a significant increase in mindfulness, and a significant reduction in body image concern, relative to the control group.

These findings therefore suggest that encouraging the practice of mindfulness could be a valuable step towards combating negative body image, and the more serious eating disorders it can lead to.

Cooley, E., & Toray, T. (2001). Body image and personality predictors of eating disorder symptoms during the college years. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 30, 28–36.

Alberts, H.J.E.M., Thewissen, R. and Raes, L. (2012). Dealing with problematic eating behaviour. The effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on eating behaviour, food cravings, dichotomous thinking and body image concern. Appetite, 58, 847-851.

Message of the day: 27th January 2015

Problem: Cultural expectations dictate that girls should be thin and boys should have muscular bodies. This ideal seems to be the source of body image concern in adolescent boys and girls, in a period of their lives when the importance of their appearance is heightened. Such concerns might lead to disordered eating, or to full-blown eating disorders later in their lives. One of the factors for this concern is appearance-related (negative) teasing by family members and friends. A recent study (Shaefer, & Salafia, 2014) showed that such teasing by the mother, father, the siblings and peers was significantly associated with body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls, and with higher drive for muscularity in boys; this was found for boys and girls of all shapes and sizes.

Solution: it is important that clinicians become aware of the influence that appearance-related teasing has on young persons. Intervention programs and therapists, for example, when working with adolescents, should include all family members, investigate how they contribute to the adolescent’s body image, and educate them about the effect of teasing.

For more information: Schaefer, M. K., & Salafia, E. H. B. (2014). The connection of teasing by parents, siblings, and peers with girls’ body dissatisfaction and boys’ drive for muscularity: The role of social comparison as a mediator. Eating behaviors, 15(4), 599-608.

Message of the day: 26th January 2015

Most of us know the feeling of being dissatisfied about certain parts of our bodies, be it that we think our thighs are too fat, our bums too big etc. But as our campaign hopes to demonstrate, we can change our minds to help us feel more positive about our bodies. One way, as we saw here (Message of the day: 16th January 2015) is to challenge beauty norms. Today’s message focuses on how we can also improve our own perception of ourselves.

We have already heard that boosting self-esteem, by improving our general evaluation of ourselves, can improve body satisfaction (see Message of the day: 13th January 2015). But what about going a step further to focus specifically on being kind to ourselves? Being understanding and non-judgmental of our shortcomings is captured by a psychological construct termed self-compassion. Higher self-compassion is linked to being more accepting of ourselves. Might higher levels of self-compassion be connected to higher body satisfaction as well?

Researchers in Canada found that self-compassion was indeed related to women’s concerns about their bodies. Across two studies, they demonstrated that women scoring higher on a measure of self-compassion – and especially on items relating to how judgmental they were of themselves – had fewer concerns about their bodies. This was found even when controlling for women’s levels of self-esteem, indicating that there may be a unique benefit in being kind to ourselves. Although this study assessed the degree of self-compassion women generally had already, rather than boosting their self-compassion in the study, do give it a try: Be kind to yourself, and change your mind, not your body!


Reference: Wasylkiw, L., MacKinnon, A. L., & MacLellan, A. M. (2012). Exploring the link between self-compassion and body image in university women. Body Image, 9, 236-245.

Message of the day: 25th January 2015

Could the use of more plus size models change women’s obsession with thin bodies?

We live in a society where, though the media, we are surrounded by models and celebrities who are super-slim and as a result there is a general climate of obsession with thin bodies. The question is:

Will people’s attitudes towards body image change if there is more diversity in the body shapes and sizes portrayed in the media?

Researchers from Durham University, Newcastle University and VU University Amsterdam studied more than 100 women and found that women who habitually preferred thin models were significantly less keen on thin bodies after being presented with plus-size models. On the other hand, when women were shown images of thin models, their preference shifted even more towards thinness. In addition, positive and negative associations with weight were explored. When women were presented with aspirational images of plus-size models, paired with plain images of underweight women, their preferences shifted away from thinness.

The findings suggest that using plus size models can indeed rebalance our attitudes about what is considered to be beautiful and healthy and decrease the obsession with being super-slim. ‘Normalising’ female models in the media could be a first essential step towards changing our minds instead of our bodies and feel happier and more satisfied with the way we look!


For more information: Boothroyd, L.G., Tovée, M.T. & Pollett, T. (2012). Visual Diet versus Associative Learning as Mechanisms of Change in Body Size Preferences. PLoS ONE 7(11)

Message of the day: 24th January 2015

Remember the positive side of body image


When thinking about body image we often think about its negative aspects, such as how it can generate body dissatisfaction and lead to feelings of incompetence. But there’s another side to body image…an often neglected side…a positive side. This neglected side of body image is important, because accentuating a positive body image may actually be important for the prevention and treatment of body dissatisfaction. Fortunately, researchers at The Ohio State University provide some valuable insights into what characterises and helps generate a positive body image. The researchers used a qualitative research method (called Grounded Theory) to analyse interviews with women who had a positive body image, together with a group of body image experts. They found that a positive body image involves an overarching love and respect for the body, which involves several characteristics such as appreciating the unique beauty and functionality of the body, filtering information in a body-protective manner, defining beauty broadly, and highlighting the body’s assets while minimising perceived imperceptions. The importance of unconditional acceptance from significant others, and surrounding yourself with people who also have a positive body image also emerged as factors that help develop and maintain a positive body image. As Angela (a participant in the study) so eloquently says “I don’t think just because you’re small, you’re beautiful or just because you’re big, you’re not beautiful. I feel like I’m beautiful still even if I’m a little different from [societal] standards” (see source below, pg. 111). So lets surround ourselves with people like Angela, and change our minds, not our bodies.




Wood-Barcalow, N. L., Tylka, T. L., & Augustus-Horvath, C. L. (2010). “But I like my body”: Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women. Body Image, 7, 106-116. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2010.01.001

Message of the day: 23rd January 2015

Is fat talking causing body dissatisfaction?
The problem:  Body dissatisfaction is increasingly becoming a public health concern because of its potential role in the development of eating disorders. Body dissatisfaction usually arises from sociocultural pressures promoting thinness, such as appearance conversations, or fat talkingFat talk can be defined as a form of derogatory talk focusing on weight and shape frequently undertaken by girls and women. The five most common fat talking topics are: (a) self-comparison to ideal eating and exercise habits; (b) fears of becoming overweight; (c) how eating and exercise habits compare to others; (d) evaluation of others’ appearances, and (e) meal-replacements and muscle building strategies. There is now consistent evidence that fat talking is a correlate of body dissatisfaction (Sharpe, Naumann, Treasure and Schmidt, 2013).
The solution: Body image lessons in UK schools.
The body dissatisfaction of teenage girls could be improved by training teachers to deliver classes in body image. In the pilot study, 261 teenage girls at secondary school level in UK were given a course of six lessons on positive body image (Sharpe, Schober, Treasure and Schmidt, 2013). This programme focused on ideals of beauty, unhealthy interactions with peers – such as “fat talking”, or making negative comments about weight – and practical measures for boosting mood and self-esteem. This had significant effects on their body image and self-esteem compared with the regular curriculum (187 teenage girls). Remarkably, Interventions delivered by teachers would have wide reach, be easy to implement and be of minimal cost.
Sharpe, H., Naumann, U., Traesure, J. and Schmidt, U. (2013). Is fat talking a causal risk factor for body dissatisfaction? A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2013; 46:643–652.
Sharpe, H., Schober, I., Traesure, J. and Schmidt, U. (2013). Feasibility, acceptability and efficacy of a school-based prevention programme for eating disorders: cluster randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 203, 428–435.


Message of the day: 22nd January 2015

Plasticity of Self in Eating Disorders


As previous posts have highlighted, body image concerns affect both men and women and are frequent amongst otherwise healthy individuals. Such concerns and related eating behaviours take more serious forms in psychiatric eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, one of the greatest challenges for modern health professionals. This is partly due to the multiple factors involved in these pathologies, including neurobiological factors, family dynamics and the surrounding post-modern culture that enforces a cult of objectifying the body.


Joint research undertaken by British and Australian major universities used the Rubber-Hand illusion, in which people can be induced to experience a rubber hand as their own, to investigate body awareness in anorexic patients.


The study found that subjects diagnosed with eating disorders experienced the illusion more strongly than healthy controls. Moreover, the degree to which the subject experienced the illusion was correlated with the severity of their eating disorder pathology. The authors concluded that these patients’ body awareness may be more affected by visual information than healthy controls, and thus one could hypothesise that their body image is more susceptible to external influences. While this conclusion is negative at face value, it also suggests positive external influences may be able to help these patients reduce their body image distortions. Future research could thus explore such findings to design appropriate interventions.


Eshkevari E, Rieger E, Longo MR, et al. (2011) Increased plasticity of the bodily self in eating disorders. Psychological Medicine. (42) 4: 819-828.

Message of the day: 21st January 2015

Do your New Year resolutions include dieting? Have you ever gone on a diet successfully only to find that you returned to your original weight some time later? Have you ever blamed yourself for regaining the weight you worked so hard to lose? Well, blame no more.
Diets continue to be highly popular and to support highly lucrative industries. However, in the majority of people they just do not work.

Many systematic and carefully controlled studies have shown that the so called ‘life-style modification’ diets, where you try to change what you eat and how much you eat according to some recommendation, only work in the short-term. People may show significant weight loss in initial months, but most of this weight is regained in the majority of people in the following months or years.
Specifically, one study showed that the proportion of people who successfully and consistently maintained 100% of reduced weight during a 4 to 5 year period after diet completion was only 3% (Kramer et al., 1989). Another study showed that only 28% of people maintained a loss of at least 10% of initial body weight at 4 years (Christiansen et al., 2007). Finally, a recent meta-analysis in the US (a study that examines, re-analyses and evaluates the results of all similar, previous studies on a given topic) found that 4.5 years post the successful completion of hypocaloric diets, with or without exercise, only an average 3.2% reduction of initial weight was maintained (Anderson et al., 2001).

Of course, pursuing a healthy life-style and treating obesity are important goals. However, it is increasingly clear that lifestyle modification diets are not the answer to such goals. The exact physiological and psychological reason why weight loss is so hard to maintain remain unknown and are likely to be complex (e.g. Blomain et al., 2013; Sumithran & Proietto, 2013). A current influential hypothesis is that our organism has developed evolutionary prescribed mechanisms to protects us against weight loss more vigorously than from weight gain, in order to ensure that we survive during periods when food is scarce. The latter periods were more common throughout our history, and still are in many parts of the world. Thus, when we go on a diet our organism may assume we are starving and ensures we regain the weight as soon as possible. Thus, in countries were an abundance of food is available, and hundreds of companies compete for our appetitive attention, diets do not seem to be the answer to overeating and obesity. Wherever the future answer lies, blaming yourself for lacking the will power to maintain weight loss seems wholly unnecessary.
Anderson, J. W., Konz, E. C., Frederich, R. C. and Wood, C. L. (2001) Long-term weight-loss maintenance: a meta-analysis of US studies. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 74, 579-584

Kramer, F. M., Jeffery, R. W., Forster, J. L. and Snell, M. K. (1989) Long-term follow-up of behavioral treatment for obesity: patterns of weight regain among men and women. Int. J. Obes. 13, 123-136.

Christiansen, T., Bruun, J. M., Madsen, E. L. and Richelsen, B. (2007) Weight loss maintenance in severely obese adults after an intensive lifestyle intervention: 2- to 4-year follow-up. Obesity 15, 413-420.

Blomain, E. S., Dirhan, D. A., Valentino, M. A., Kim, G. W., & Waldman, S. A. (2013). Mechanisms of Weight Regain following Weight Loss. ISRN Obesity, 2013, 210524. doi:10.1155/2013/210524
Sumithran, P & Proietto, J. (2013). The defence of body weight: a physiological basis for weight regain after weight loss. Clin. Sci. 124; 231-41.

Message of the day: 20th January 2015

Am I fat or just pregnant?

Problem: Typically, weight gain during pregnancy is not only a natural, but also often a necessary part of being pregnant (Devine, Bove & Olson, 2000). It has been proposed that during pregnancy, matter does seem to take over from the mind (Wiles, 1994). Although each case is different, women often have no choice in physical bodily changes, like the expanding belly (and cup size!), inevitable stretch marks and swollen feet. Despite the maternal body being typically represented as a natural state of femininity, there tends to be a general pressure to stay “healthy” during pregnancy and “get your body back” after birth (Dworkin, & Wachs, 2004). Some women even feel disembodied during pregnancy, experiencing a loss of control with the pregnant body “refusing to obey”, while other women thoroughly enjoy the physical changes, and most having mixed feeling on the experience (Warren & Brewis, 2004).

Possible solutions: One possibility to try and focus on your baby, rather than your body. As Dwoekin & Wachs (2004) explain, body changes are essential for the development of a growing baby, and after birth, the pregnant body has been through a lot and needs time to recover. Research has also found that it may help to view pregnancy as a way to free women from the common norms associated with body image, and give way to the uncontrollability of the maternal body that reminds us of the most primal aspect of human life (Warren, & Brewis, 2004).

For more information:

Devine, C. M., Bove, C. F., & Olson, C. M. (2000). Continuity and change in women’s weight orientations and lifestyle practices through pregnancy and the postpartum period: the influence of life course trajectories and transitional events. Social Science & Medicine, 50(4), 567-582.

Dworkin, S. L., & Wachs, F. L. (2004). “Getting Your Body Back” Postindustrial Fit Motherhood in Shape Fit Pregnancy Magazine. Gender & Society, 18(5), 610-624.

Warren, S., & Brewis, J. (2004). Matter over mind? Examining the experience of pregnancy. Sociology, 38(2), 219-236.

Wiles, R. (1994). I’m not fat, I’m pregnant’: The impact of pregnancy on fat women’s body image. Women and health: Feminist perspectives, 33-48.

Message of the day: 19th January 2015

The problem: Body dissatisfaction, i.e. experiencing negative thoughts and esteem about one’s body, can lead to negative consequences, such as depressed mood and disordered eating. Research on this topic has mainly focused on children in adolescence, or late pre-adolescence, but rarely on children of younger age. However, body dissatisfaction has been observed even in girls 5-7 years old (Davison, & Birch, 2002), while children as young as 4 years display aversion towards “chubby” figures (Cramer, & Steinwert, 1998). The thinness ideal for girls is, of course, present in their wider cultural and social environment (e.g. advertisements), but also in their toys: an example is the Barbie doll, with the unattainable and unhealthy weight and body proportions. Such toys, due to their iconic status, become very salient role models for young girls. A study showed that very young girls show increased body dissatisfaction when exposed to images of Barbie dolls, but not when exposed to images of average body shaped dolls (Dittmar, Ive, & Halliwell, 2006). It also showed that from 8 years onwards, girls had already internalized the ultrathin beauty model and, when exposed to the normal body shaped doll, their desire to be thinner increased.

The solution: preventing the internalization of the ultrathin ideal. This can be achieved by encouraging dolls with normal proportions to be mass marketed: a promising example is the Lammily doll, which was crowdfunded. It is also important to allow educational programs to target very young girls.

For more information: Cramer, P., Steinwert, T. (1998). Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19, 429–451.

Davison, K. K., & Birch, L. L. (2002). Processes linking weight status and self-concept among girls from ages 5 to 7 years. Developmental Psychology, 38, 735–748.

Dittmar, H., Ive, S., & Halliwell, E. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year old girls. Developmental Psychology, 42(2), 283-292.

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