Body dissatisfaction is the negative subjective evaluation of one’s body as it relates to body size, shape, muscularity or muscle tone, weight, and fitness. Body dissatisfaction is considered to be an important negative affective factor related to body image. Typically, dissatisfaction involves a perceived discrepancy between one’s current body and one’s ideal body that fosters negative emotions and discontent. Body dissatisfaction has been viewed as normative and has received growing research attention during recent decades. The surge in popularity is due in part to the increasing prevalence worldwide, as well as implications for the development of a range of maladaptive behaviors and emotions, such as decreases in self-esteem, self-regulations, physical activity, happiness, optimism, pride, and increases in disordered eating, depressive symptoms, and body-related shame and guilt.
Pressures for women to be thin and fit, and for men to be lean and muscular, can originate from numerous sources, including the media, parents, siblings, partners, and peers. These sources may provide direct or indirect pressures to attain the desirable physique.
Sociocultural pressures to attain a socially desirable physique are considered important risk factors for body dissatisfaction. In particular, media awareness, knowledge of ideals as presented by the media, or actions taken or comments made by family, partners, and friends to encourage a socially desirable physique are important facets of the sociocultural pressure to conform to the ideal body. Researchers have concluded that even short-term exposure to idealized media images of men and women’s bodies can lead to increased body dissatisfaction in both sexes. Theory and research also support modeling and negative communication as vehicles through which family and peers may influence body dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, the relationship between mass media and body dissatisfaction is complex, multiply determined, and bidirectional. It is important to recognize that a number of individual differences (internalization of the ideal physique, social comparison tendency, identification with models, appearance information, and critical body image processing) may moderate sociocultural pressures.
One of the most consistent findings in the literature is that women are significantly more dissatisfied with their bodies than men. Higher prevalence rates are reported for women compared to men across the lifespan and geographic region. Upward of 90% of girls and women are dissatisfied with at least one aspect of their physiques, with elevated body weight and size typically ranking the highest. Nonetheless, body dissatisfaction among men is on the rise. Some researchers have reported that over 90% of men also experience some degree of body dissatisfaction. Contrary to the findings for women, men’s body dissatisfaction focuses on muscularity and involves both ends of the weight continuum. That is, some men want to lose weight, while others want to gain weight.
Despite apparent gender differences, it is important to note that the majority of body dissatisfaction measures focus on evaluations of weight and shape at the expense of muscularity. Therefore, most measures of body dissatisfaction do not adequately assess typical concerns of men. It is difficult to draw concrete conclusions regarding gender differences in body dissatisfaction until the full spectrum of appearance and fitness evaluations represented by both men and women is considered.
Body dissatisfaction can manifest at a very early age. Survey findings suggest a significant proportion of young children express dissatisfaction with their bodies, but levels in childhood are relatively low compared with adolescence and adulthood. Generally, girls experience heightened body dissatisfaction at puberty, which intensifies during adolescence. The normal physical changes of increased weight and body fat push girls further away from the cultural ideal of a thin and fit physique. Typically, dissatisfaction in women remains relatively stable throughout adulthood. In older adulthood, some women report heightened dissatisfaction with physical functioning aspects of their bodies in addition to age-related deficits in appearance. The impact of aging on men is less consistent. Boys go through a short phase of relative dissatisfaction with appearance in early adolescence, but the physical changes associated with puberty shortly bring them closer to the masculine ideal (increased height and muscularity, broader shoulders). Similar to women, dissatisfaction plateaus during adulthood; however, some men may experience a period of discontent around middle age (“male menopause”). Similar to their female counterparts, males place greater investments in fitness and health as they age.
One of the issues in comparing different age groups with each other using a cross-sectional design is that historical or cultural ideals and experiences vary across time. Research in this area needs to use longitudinal studies that track cohorts over time as they age.
Given the emphasis on appearance within the gay subculture, considerable research has shown that gay boys and men constitute a group particularly vulnerable to body dissatisfaction. Homosexual men tend to report higher levels of body dissatisfaction compared with heterosexual men, whereas homosexual women have reported less body dissatisfaction than heterosexual women.
There are reported ethnic differences in body dissatisfaction among individuals from Western countries. This paradigm of ethnic differences suggests one’s meaning of the body is based on cultural and social group contexts. Most studies investigating ethnic differences concentrate on women. Body dissatisfaction is most frequent in Caucasian women and less frequent in Black women; however, this difference is small. Although research published in the 1990s reported that Hispanic and Asian women are typically more satisfied with their bodies than Caucasian women, new evidence suggests that there are minimal or no differences between Caucasian women and women of other ethnic origins. Researchers targeting variations in body dissatisfaction across ethnic groups indicate that Hispanic women are slightly more dissatisfied with their bodies compared to Black women. There is less work on ethnic differences in men’s dissatisfaction, although there is general agreement that Black men report higher levels of satisfaction than Caucasian men and have heavier body ideals for women and men than do Caucasian men. Overall, there may be less ethnic difference in dissatisfaction than was once thought.
Generally, people in stable, long-term relationships are more satisfied with their bodies than those who are single. This applies to all ages. With regard to less formal relationships, body dissatisfaction is more prevalent among adolescents who report lower quality of friendship and perceive less social support and less acceptance by peers. Also, women across the lifespan have reported quality peer relationships and social support protect them from body dissatisfaction.
Several studies have indicated that pregnant women have more positive views about their body than nonpregnant women. Even though pregnant women may still value the thin and fit cultural body ideal, their concerns about failing to match this ideal are typically reduced during this life event. Nonetheless, postpregnancy introduces many body image concerns focused on excess weight and lack of muscle tone. The prevailing emphasis on achieving prepregnancy weight and body shape may exacerbate body dissatisfaction.
Body Dissatisfaction, Sport, and Physical Activity
Generally, body dissatisfaction can act as both a motivator and deterrent for sport and physical activity participation. Several researchers have noted that participating in sport and exercise may serve as a protective function against feelings of body dissatisfaction. Physical activity can also improve older adults’ perceptions of the body by increasing perceptions of mastery of the body and refocusing attention onto health, fitness, and body function and away from concerns about physical appearance. Nonetheless, the relationship between body dissatisfaction and physical activity varies with the sport and cultural context. Some aesthetic sports, such as gymnastics, cheerleading, and ballet, place high importance on the culturally derived ideal body. In these cases, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience higher levels of discontent related to their body. Furthermore, some athletes report lower body dissatisfaction in the context of their sport, whereby their physiques have functional sport-specific value but greater body dissatisfaction outside of sport, where their athletic physiques are inconsistent with ideal societal standards of appearance and body shape. Less is known about the dose– response relationship between physical activity and body dissatisfaction.
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- Swami, V., Frederick, D. A., Aavik, T., Alcalay, L., Allik, J., Anderson, D., et al. (2010). The attractive female body weight and female body dissatisfaction in 26 countries across 10 world regions: Results of the International Body Project I. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 309–326.