Social Physique Anxiety

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.

Sport Type

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.

Social Triggers

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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