The Fine Line Between Weight and Body Image
The relationship between weight gain or loss and body image is complex and not well understood. On one hand, having a self-identity tied too closely to a flawed body image can contribute to disordered eating. An anorexic both believes she is fat and expects she will only be worthy of love if she maintains an unrealistic and unhealthy thinness. On the other hand, valuing one’s personal appearance can help motivate healthier diet and exercise choices.
Understanding the effect of a particular weight loss intervention on body image is potentially useful, both in devising more sustainable interventions and in avoiding unhealthy or counterproductive approaches.
The Dimensions of Body Image
As Hai-Lun Chao at Chung-Hwa University of Medical Technology, Tainan, Taiwan, found, however, little data exists on the relationship between specific weight loss interventions and body image.
- Out of 149 studies on weight loss identified by a literature search, only 25 included a body image evaluation.
- Nine of those failed to include a treatment comparator group.
- Ultimately, only seven studies directly examined the effect of a weight loss intervention on body image for both a treatment and a comparator group.
Among these seven studies, there were a variety of different weight loss interventions, as well as a variety of body image assessment methods. The number of study participants varied, as did the BMI range considered. For these reasons, the authors of the meta-analysis discussed here warned that firm conclusions are difficult.
Nonetheless, they did identify several trends as worthy of further investigation. Body image has two dimensions, evaluative and investment.
- The evaluative dimension measures the individual’s assessment of their appearance – whether they are satisfied or not satisfied with their body, and whether their image reflects objective measures. An overweight person who perceives themselves as skinny and a thin person who perceives themselves as fat are both suffering from an inaccurate body image evaluation.
- The investment dimension of body image determines the extent to which the person’s self-worth is tied to his or her body image. An overly strong investment in body image can drive dysfunctional pursuit of unrealistic perfection, while a weak investment can leave the person without motivation to make positive changes.
Continued Research Is Needed
More research is needed to see how specific interventions affect these two dimensions. It does appear, though, that interventions focused on exercise or self-regulation of eating tended to improve the individual’s investment in their body image. For example, exercise might cause a person to focus on what the body can do, rather than appearance alone.
Few studies consider both the physical and psychological effects of weight loss intervention. There is enough data to make it clear that the two aspects are inextricable from each other, though. The author suggests further research should consider which weight loss interventions are associated with improved body image.
What You Really Need to Know
In summary, body image matters. If someone loses weight, but their body image doesn’t improve, they are less likely to maintain their new lifestyle. But not all weight loss interventions are created equal – some improve body image more than others.
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1. Chao, HL, “Body Image Change in Obese and Overweight Persons Enrolled in Weight Loss Intervention Programs: A Systematic Review and MetaAnalysis,” (2015) PLoS ONE 10(5): e0124036. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124036.
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