Relational Body Image: Developing an Understanding of How and Why Body Image Changes Across Specific Relationships
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Studies show that social relationships strongly influence body image and that an individual’s body image changes with social-contextual factors. Nevertheless, research has conceptualized and measured body image as an internal, intrapersonal concept even though, in social psychological research, there is a strong tradition of viewing the self and self-related attitudes as interpersonally-based. In my program of research, I suggest that these social psychological perspectives may be relevant to our understanding of body image. Drawing on this work, I developed a novel, relational conceptualization of body image. I coined the term relational body image to indicate that an individual may experience changes in their body image across their close relationships based on the perceived characteristics of the other person. My primary research objective was to obtain empirical support for the existence of relational body image. A secondary objective was to expand and deepen my conceptualization of relational body image using a diverse range of theories and methods relevant to the study of relationships. My program of research consisted of three studies with cis-gendered college women. In Study 1, I devised a way to measure relational body image by incorporating egocentric network methods and adapting existing trait body image-related measures into relationship-specific measures. Using these methods, 87 women generated a list of people in their social networks and 10 close others were randomly selected. Participants then provided ratings of their body image and eating behaviours with each of their 10 others and reported on the body image-related characteristics of those people. Multilevel modelling provided initial support for relational body image, demonstrating that a given woman’s body image fluctuated across her relationships and was predicted by the other person’s perceived characteristics. In Study 2, I explored individual differences in relational body image and tested the hypothesis that women who are more body-dissatisfied would experience more extreme changes in their overall body image levels across their relationships. In a sample of 189 women, results from multiverse analysis supported this hypothesis. Findings thus pointed to the particular relevance of relational body image for body-dissatisfied women. In Study 3, I aimed to further enhance my conceptualization of relational body image by exploring the subjective experiences of body-dissatisfied women. In a one-to-one interview, 18 women rated their body image with seven close others. A graph depicting each woman’s personal body image with their seven others was created and used to prompt discussion about their subjective experiences of relational body image. Reflexive thematic analysis identified one overarching theme, which suggested that relational body image is made up of a complex configuration of different factors within a specific relationship. Three subthemes indicated that these different factors: give rise to a general expectation for how the other person will view one’s body; are constantly in-flux; and differ in how much power they exert on the individual. Study 3 thus added novel methodological support and further theoretical nuance to my conceptualization of relational body image. Overall, my program of research was successful in integrating a wide range of theories and methods to provide empirical support for relational body image. Potential applications are widespread. Indeed, results suggest there may be merit in assessing, preventing, and treating body-image related concerns with a focus on specific relationships. In addition, my program of research provides a framework for how to derive and test novel concepts within body image research. In particular, the current program highlights the downstream empirical benefits of conducting research that is strongly and broadly theory-driven and investigated through diverse methodologies. Research on relational body image thus has applied, theoretical, and methodological implications.
Cite this version of the work
Sydney Vail Waring (2023). Relational Body Image: Developing an Understanding of How and Why Body Image Changes Across Specific Relationships. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/19603