K-State researcher discovers compliments go a long way to improve body self-image in women

05/17/05

MANHATTAN, KAN. --When many women look in the mirror, they see themselves as a collection of body parts -- and they don't like what they see.

Everywhere we look, we are bombarded by the media telling us how we should look and it affects our body image. Even cartoon characters are drawn a certain way, often sending an unrealistic message -- especially to women -- about the way they are supposed to look. It's enough to cause some women to suffer from anxiety, depression and to be ashamed of their bodies.

According to research done by a recent Kansas State University master's degree graduate in social psychology, a compliment can go a long way in easing a woman's anxiety over her looks. Courtney Fea said a kind word can reduce a woman's shame about her body if she looks at herself negatively.

"What we found was that for women who look at themselves as bodies, if you compliment them, they do feel better about themselves," Fea said. "And it doesn't matter what kind of compliment you give them; it doesn't matter if you compliment them about how they physically look or about who they are as a person."

Fea will present a paper based on her research, "Effect of Trait Self-Objectification on Body Shame, Appearance Anxiety and Unipolar Depression" at the American Psychological Society's convention May 27 in Los Angeles.

"It's a really exciting opportunity," Fea said. "It's nice to be able to present at a big, prestigious conference like this, and to be able to present on such a new and novel topic."

Although self-objectification has been discovered in girls as young as 4-5 years old, Fea's research focused on older subjects who often voice concerns like "my arms are too flabby" or "my hips are too wide."

"It's those things that they indicate the most embarrassment about," Fea said. "We used college students because not only is it a convenient sample, but it seems to be in the midst of the early 20s that the body anxiety and appearance shame is really observable and really well defined."

Fea would like to use the study to develop awareness that such a small thing like a compliment can do so much for boosting a woman's confidence and reduce their likelihood to experience depression about their body.

"Anyone can offer a compliment and it's really simple to do," Fea said. "In our case we only gave people one compliment and that was enough. So you can imagine if people are aware, like parents who are raising their daughter, they know 'wow, if I just give them one compliment,' that she's less likely to feel depressed or experience anxiety. Imagine what it would be like if parents gave their child or teenager compliments frequently."

Although all her research has been involved in women's issues, Fea admits she stumbled upon the topic. She hopes to eventually earn a doctorate degree in this area and would like to further her research by examining what the effect would be if giving people one compliment, which Fea did in her research, versus several compliments, would have a larger effect.

"The area isn't new but the way of studying it is new," Fea said. "People are just starting to put the pieces together. They knew beforehand that women got depressed and women had body shame but now they're really trying to figure out how to stop this."

Fea acknowledges that there is a fine line between a compliment and harassment, with that dividing line being determined by the recipient of the compliment. She emphasized that the compliments, do not have to be based on a woman's appearance. Fea hopes that based on this research, people take into greater consideration how they talk to each other.

"I hope they keep in mind we can have a great impact on those around us," Fea said. "I hope the impact will be for the better and not for the worse."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt