Research Says Women Feel Less Crappy About Their Bodies Than They Used To

But it's not clear yet whether it's cause for celebration.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

If there is an unofficial rule of modern womanhood, it’s that you must develop a fraught -- if not outright hostile -- relationship with your body. The thin-ideal is an inescapable force in our society, and its effects can be devastating.

But new research provides a glimmer of hope. Weight-related body dissatisfaction has steadily decreased among women since the early 1980s, according to a review being presented at the annual American Psychological Association Convention this week.

In other words, women may not feel as sh*tty about their bodies as they used to, even as Americans are getting larger.

The researchers analyzed more than 250 studies published on people’s perception of their weight between 1981 and 2012. Altogether, the studies they reviewed included more than 100,000 participants.

Not surprisingly, women tended to feel worse about their bodies, weight-wise, than men. But the researchers also found that women’s unhappiness with their bodies ― measured by using a body dissatisfaction scale ― decreased by about half a standard deviation unit during that 30-year span. To provide some context, Bryan Karazsia, an associate professor of psychology at The College of Wooster in Ohio and an author on the study, likened that change to going down (or up) 50 points on the SAT.

“It’s a pretty substantial decrease across time,” he said.

Yet Karazsia also cautioned that it is too soon to celebrate.

“I have two young girls and when I initially looked at the findings I thought, ‘This is good! This is hopeful!’ I want body dissatisfaction to be going down for my own family and for women generally,” he said.

And it is entirely possible that efforts to promote body diversity in media representations of women (however rare it may still feel), and to push back against the damaging idea that women can never be too thin have indeed helped women feel better about their bodies.

However, it’s also possible that the quest for thinness is being replaced by a different, no-less damaging pursuit. In a second part of their review, Karazsia and his colleagues combed through 81 studies ― spanning 14 years ― that focused on specifically on body image as it relates to muscularity. They found that men reported greater body dissatisfaction than women when it comes to their muscles (or lack thereof), and that overall, people don’t appear to be feeling better, or worse, about their muscularity.

What the researchers were unable to measure, however, is how people felt they stacked up when it comes to leanness ― a combination of being both thin and toned. There simply have not been enough studies looking at body image as it relates to that new lean ideal, Karazsia explained.

“Women want to be thin and toned, and I think the next question we have to ask is ‘is that a dangerous phenomenon?’ You hear about ‘fitspiration,’ which some people think is good, because it can drive health,” he said. “But the problem is that health should not be an appearance-based goal.”

So are women really embracing their bodies more than they used to? Or has society just traded one screwed-up, unattainable ideal for another?

Man, we hope not.

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Gina Rodriguez

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