Researchers have been studying the measurement properties, correlates, and outcomes of social physique anxiety (SPA) for more than two decades. With roots in social anxiety, self-presentation, and body image affect, SPA is defined as the anxiety that an individual experiences when he or she perceives that others could be negatively evaluating his or her physique. Sport and exercise environments are inherently social and evaluative, and it has been argued that sport and exercise may foster preoccupation with self-presentation and anxiety about how the body appears to others.
Measurement of Social Physique Anxiety
Early research exploring the measurement properties of the Social Physique Anxiety Scale (SPAS) supported the use of the original 12-item scale and offered insight into a two-factor scale comprised of physique presentation comfort and expectations of negative physique evaluation. More recent research argued for a reduced 9-item scale deleting three of the five positively worded items and maintaining a unidimensional structure. Further testing of the measurement scale has provided evidence for the 9-item or an 8-item unidimensional scale. For younger adolescents, researchers have also advocated for a 7-item scale, essentially removing all positively worded items from the scale. The majority of researchers report using the 9 or 12-item scale.
Further support for the measurement of SPA has been presented with high internal consistency coefficients for the SPAS items (e.g., Cronbach’s alpha coefficients are consistently reported to be higher than 0.85) across samples ranging the age life span, gender, ethnicity, sport type, and exercisers. As evidence of construct validity, SPA has been moderately to highly correlated with a range of personality traits, anxiety, self-presentation processes, and body image dimensions.
Physique Anxious Always, or Sometimes? The Trait-or-State Debate
The original conceptualization of SPA was as a stable disposition or trait. In addition to linking SPAS scores with relevant personality traits such as perfectionism, Crocker and colleagues conducted a prospective longitudinal study with adolescents and demonstrated that scores on the SPAS were quite stable over three time waves 1 year apart. While the SPAS was developed with traitlike features in mind, several researchers have provided evidence of statelike properties both using the original scale and in the modification of the scale to target a more malleable physique anxiety. For example, SPAS scores were higher among college students reading hypothetical scenarios placing them in a fitness center when compared to a dining hall and library and reportedly higher among older adolescents when they were in the company of peers compared to being in an evaluative environment with their parents. Further reports suggest physique anxiety is higher among individuals when confronted with an opposite-sex exercise partner or fitness leader compared with a same-sex environment. With the development of a state SPAS and research evidence supporting both trait and state features of SPA, it is best that sport and exercise psychology (SEP) researchers employ the conceptualization and complementary measurement scale that best matches their research questions and study goals.
Age, Gender, and Weight Status Effects
There is cross-sectional evidence that SPA is highest among adolescents and young adults and lowest among older adults. Further research is needed to better understand the developmental features of the experience of SPA. Overweight men and women tend to report higher SPAS scores compared with age and gender-matched healthy weight counterparts. Furthermore, there is consistent evidence that females score higher on the SPAS than males. These differences are deemed to be true mean differences since multiple studies have demonstrated gender invariance of the SPAS, suggesting that there are no gender differences in the way the scale items are interpreted and completed.
There are no clear divides in SPAS scores among athletes compared with exercisers, nor among competitive versus recreational athletes. Nonetheless, consistent evidence suggests sport type is important in SPA experiences. Athletes in competitive aesthetic and subjectively rated sports such as figure skating, gymnastics, and some martial arts tend to report higher SPAS scores compared to athletes in non-aesthetic sports such as basketball and soccer. There is mixed evidence that the type of uniform worn in sport may also affect SPA experiences, with more revealing uniforms worn in the aesthetic sports and sports such as track and field, swimming, cross-country, and women’s volleyball. Therefore, it is important to tease out the relative (and cumulative) effects of sport type or sport constraint contexts on fostering or protecting from SPA experiences. Mandatory uniforms in physical education (PE) classes are also described as highly relevant sources of SPA among adolescents.
Peer group influences may perpetuate feelings of SPA. In a study by Diane E. Mack and colleagues, male and female adolescents who received encouragement to alter their physiques from friends in their peer groups, and who identified themselves as less attractive than their peers, reported higher SPAS scores. Cox and colleagues have focused on PE settings, finding that general feelings of acceptance and belonging within a peer group have been shown to help to buffer against SPA.
Other sources of SPA may include parents, teachers, coaches, and fitness leaders. For example, mothers of adolescent girls may trigger SPA through indirect commentary and controlling actions such as guiding physical activity (PA) and managing their daughters’ diets. Teachers and coaches who place an emphasis on appearance and weight are perceived to foster a more threatening physique-salient and evaluative environment. Additionally, the media may heighten experiences of SPA. In particular, there is evidence that SPAS scores increase when individuals (predominantly studies involving women) are exposed to appearance-salient advertising and decrease when individuals are exposed to health-based advertising. These findings are consistent when the exposure includes fitness videos, television commercials, or print media such as photos and posters.
Self-Perceptions and Social Physique Anxiety Experiences
High SPAS scores have been associated with low physical self-perceptions related to body weight and appearance; low perceptions of competence for PA, healthy eating, and PE skills; low perceptions of autonomy; and lack of enjoyment of sport, exercise, and PE. Body dissatisfaction, body surveillance and monitoring, and social comparison have been consistent correlates of SPA experiences.
Coping With Social Physique Anxiety: Physical Activity Avoidance or Engagement?
Given the self-presentation and social anxiety foundations of SPA, it is not surprising that a predominant strategy for managing physique concerns is behavioral avoidance (i.e., avoiding the situation or event that is likely to elicit the feelings of anxiety). In sport, behavioral avoidance may result in an athlete dropping out of his or her sport. There is evidence that adolescents who experience high SPA in PE classes are more likely to avoid classes by skipping PE altogether or seeking parental notes excusing them from class. Exercisers who feel that the fitness center is a threatening environment for physique evaluation may avoid exercising, or engage in less effective fitness routines to avoid certain locations within the gym (e.g., avoid the free weight area, or the aerobics floor). In fact, there is consistent research that mirrored exercise environments perpetuate SPA, and individuals report avoiding these areas—perhaps at the expense of proper form and exercise function.
When avoidance of the sport and/or exercise situation is not feasible, there are reports that individuals high in SPA will manage the threatening context by covering up their physiques to avoid the possible evaluations by others. For example, adolescent girls reported wearing loose-fitting clothing in PE classes and at the gym, and a common strategy at the beach or swimming pool is to cover a bathing suit and avoid exposing the body unless necessary. Women who have had mastectomies for breast cancer report using prosthetics to hide the surgery and exercise or participate in sport in non-formfitting clothing.
There is qualitative and quantitative evidence that individuals reporting high SPA are likely to avoid PA situations that provide opportunities for physique evaluation. There is also evidence that SPA may motivate some individuals to engage in PA. This dichotomy of avoidance and engagement has led to an overall finding of ambiguous associations between SPA and PA outcomes. Some reports suggest a negative association (as SPA increases, PA decreases, as in an avoidance model), others a positive association (i.e., an active engagement model), and there are also findings of no significant associations. In an attempt to explain these ambiguous findings, researchers have linked SPA experiences to reasons for exercise and specific behavioral regulations. Higher scores on the SPAS have been consistently associated with more externally regulated reasons for exercise, such as exercising to gain some reward (e.g., weight loss, social affiliation) or to avoid self-conscious emotions such as feeling guilty or ashamed. These findings have been supported in PE contexts among youth. Furthermore, profiles have been identified whereby youth who report relatively high SPAS scores combined with high external regulation for PE reported the lowest leisure time PA behavior and the least enjoyment of PE compared to those reporting low SPAS scores and high autonomous regulations.
Other Health Outcomes
In addition to the association between SPA and PA, researchers have also linked SPAS scores to disturbed eating attitudes and reports of disordered eating behaviors among college women and various elite sport athletes. Athletes high in SPAS scores have reported higher competitive anxiety in their sports. There is also limited evidence that SPA is associated with depression in exercisers and non-exercisers.
Some recent reports have also associated physique evaluative threat, which may be analogous to SPA, to higher physiological markers of stress. Specifically, individuals in contexts manipulating physique threat have had high post-manipulation levels of cortisol, which is a hormone released by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These studies have demonstrated initial evidence that SPA may have long-term health implications since cortisol and heightened chronic stress are associated with a host of poor health outcomes (e.g., cardiovascular disease, immune system dysregulation, depression). Research studies focused on the long-term effects of SPA are needed.
The Future of Studying Social Physique Anxiety in Sport and Exercise Psychology
SPA experiences have been well defined and documented in SEP literatures. One of the challenges moving forward will be to determine the unique role of SPA within a comprehensive operationalization of body image affect, or body-related emotions. High correlations among SPAS scores and body shame have been reported, and it is likely that SPA experiences are highly tied to embarrassment and guilt. Using qualitative research findings as a guide, feelings of SPA may not be experienced frequently—a finding that is also supported by the consistent low scores on the SPAS scale (the mean values across studies are often below the midpoint of the Likert-type scale, suggesting slightly to moderately). It may be valuable to include measures of relevant and related self-conscious emotions in studies focused on physique salience, evaluation, self-presentation, and body image.
Furthermore, one of the biggest limitations in the SPA literature to date is the lack of longitudinal studies. Prospective studies are needed to provide insight on the developmental trends in SPA experiences, health outcomes, performance outcomes, and an understanding of the mechanisms that may help explain the association between SPA and behavioral outcomes among exercisers, nonexercisers, and athletes.
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