Do Women Have Different Body Perceptions Than Men?

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Recent findings from a team of Australian researchers indicate that women have different patterns of body dissatisfaction than men, and those gender-specific problems may increase risks for the onset of anorexia.

For largely social reasons, significant numbers of men and women feel dissatisfied about the overall appearance of their bodies or the appearance of specific body areas. In a study published in April 2015 in the Australian Journal of Psychology, researchers from four Australian institutions compared the typical patterns of body dissatisfaction among women to the typical patterns found among men. These researchers concluded that women commonly have patterns of body dissatisfaction that distinguish them from men and may contribute to thought processes consistent with an anorexic frame of mind.

Body Dissatisfaction

Psychologists use the term body dissatisfaction to identify a tendency to view your body shape negatively and/or a tendency to view your body weight negatively. Broadly speaking, a person who consistently or repeatedly holds negative opinions regarding his or her body has increased chances of developing a diagnosable eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder. In addition, a person with a high level of body dissatisfaction who develops an eating disorder will likely have worse symptoms of that disorder than other affected individuals with lower levels of body dissatisfaction. Body dissatisfaction can also contribute to the onset of an obsessive-compulsive ailment known as body dysmorphic disorder.

Inevitably, body dissatisfaction is at least partially based on unfavorable comparisons with the bodies of other people. In turn, social comparisons of body weight and body shape are inevitably largely based on the dominant beauty standards within a culture or population segment. Arguably, body shape- and body weight-related social pressures reach an early life peak in adolescence. In a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researchers from two American universities compared the body dissatisfaction levels of teenage boys and teenage girls. Among other things, these researchers concluded that body dissatisfaction in boys starts to drop during their adolescent years, while body dissatisfaction in girls starts to rise considerably.

Weight-Related Dissatisfaction vs. Non-Weight-Related Dissatisfaction

For some people, concerns about weight play a major role in the onset and persistence of body dissatisfaction. However, others mainly focus their feelings of dissatisfaction on their body shape. As a rule, an individual who focuses his or her dissatisfaction on weight-related issues has an increased chance of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Conversely, an individual who focuses his or her dissatisfaction on shape-related issues has an increased chance of developing body dysmorphic disorder (which is characterized by a preoccupation with minor body flaws or perceived body flaws that don’t actually exist).

Women’s Body Perceptions

In the study published in the Australian Journal of Psychology, researchers from Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, Monash University, St. Vincent’s Hospital and University of Melbourne used a project involving 226 men and women to compare the typical levels and patterns of body dissatisfaction in the two genders. The researchers specifically looked for gender-based differences in body weight-related dissatisfaction and body shape-related dissatisfaction. In addition, they looked for gender-based differences in a personality trait called negative emotionality, which centers on a tendency to react badly to stress and/or experience “down” emotional states or angry emotional states.

The researchers concluded that women generally have a higher level of body dissatisfaction than their male counterparts (which is not surprising, given the diverging trends in dissatisfaction levels that appear in adolescence). In addition, they concluded that, when men and women feel dissatisfied about their bodies, they tend to focus on different body areas. Crucially, the researchers also found that women who are very dissatisfied with their appearance commonly focus their attention on weight-related concerns, not shape-related concerns. In turn, this emphasis on weight generally mirrors the thought processes found in people affected by anorexia nervosa. Interestingly, the researchers also found that men mildly or moderately dissatisfied with their bodies typically have higher levels of negative emotionality than women with similar degrees of dissatisfaction.

The study’s authors believe that their findings reveal a gender-specific pattern of body concern that may make women susceptible to weight-related eating disorders rather than shape-related body dysmorphic disorder. They urge mental health professionals to look for indications of weight-related body dissatisfaction and negative emotionality in their clients/patients.

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