Exposure to a natural environment, such as a park, appears to significantly enhance positive body image, according to a new multi-university study. A positive body image is one that involves respect for the body and a rejection of rigid ideals around appearance.
“There are several reasons why exposure to nature could be having this effect on positive body image. It might be that it distances people, physically and mentally, from appearance-focused situations that are one of the causes of negative body image,” said Dr. Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and lead author of the study.
“It is also possible that exposure to environments with depth and complexity restricts negative appearance-related thoughts. More specifically, natural environments effortlessly hold your attention — a process known as ‘soft fascination.’ This is often accompanied by feelings of pleasure, such as when you are drawn to the sight of a setting sun.”
The study involved five separate experiments conducted by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University (U.K.), Perdana University (Malaysia), and University College London (U.K.).
In three experiments, using different designs and measures, researchers asked university students in Cambridge and London to view photographs of both natural and man-made environments, with results revealing that exposure to images of natural environments — but not those that were man-made — resulted in improved body image.
A fourth study involved members of the public walking in both natural and man-made environments in and around Hampstead Heath in London, while the final study involved participants who were recruited as they were entering the park at Primrose Hill in London. Both of these experiments indicated that spending time in a natural environment led to significantly higher body appreciation.
“An environment that does not require undivided attention may provide people with cognitive quiet, which in turn may foster self-compassion such as respecting your body and appreciating it is part of a wider ecosystem requiring protection and care,” said Swami.
“Access to nature may also mean that individuals spend more time outdoors engaging in activities that focus attention on the body’s functionality rather than aesthetics.”
Previous studies have found that the natural environment has a strong, beneficial effect on both mental and physical health, while a number of activities such as sports, dance, yoga, and life drawing classes have been shown to enhance and develop positive body image. The new study may be the first to show that exposure to natural environments can also promote positive body image.
The findings are published in the journal Body Image.
Source: Anglia Ruskin University