Talk About Your Body!
By Alex Danvers
Charlotte Markey only had one couple get in a fight as a result of her study—mildly surprising, given that she forced same-sex romantic partners to rate what they thought their partner’s ideal body shape was in front of each other.
During her SPSP Annual Convention session, “Health, Actually: Exploring Health Behaviors and Health Support Processes within Romantic Relationships,” Markey presented on the work her and her colleagues have conducted, including a series of studies on the impact of relationships on ideal body image. Although many people feel pressure to have a certain ideal body image in general, less research has examined for whom we want to have that ideal body. Among married couples, spouses may be a particularly important reference point for valuing our bodies.
Her earlier research, which focused on heterosexual couples, used a pictorial scale to ask wives about how they perceive their bodies, what their ideal body would look like—and how they think their partners perceive their bodies and what their partners’ ideals for them are. She also asked husbands to rate perceptions and ideals of their wives.
The husbands and wives tended to converge on ratings of perceptions—but surprisingly, women were often wrong about men’s perceptions of ideals for their body. Men’s ideal for their wives bodies were, on average, very close to their current perceptions of their actual bodies.
Following up on this, she found that women who were in longer term relationships tended to be less accurate about what their husbands’ ideals for them were. When a relationship was new, she found little discrepancy—probably because individuals were being more vocally positive about their partner’s appearance. After 5 years, the gap had widened considerably.
This led Markey to think about body image communication. Perhaps part of the issue couples were having wasn’t that people were unhappy with their partner’s body—they just stopped talking about it.
In her next research project, Markey was planning to study homosexual couples. But she wanted to apply her insights from heterosexual couples and body communications. So she designed an intervention.
So she had couples perform the body-rating task alone—and then in front of their partners. Then she asked them to have a conversation about body image. The results were encouraging.
Partners who talked more changed their views about their ideals about themselves.
“Some of the women thanked us after the task,” said Markey. It turns out, just being open and honest about how both people are feeling ends up making everyone feel better about their body.
Alex Danvers is a PhD student in social psychology studying emotions in social interactions. He uses dynamical systems and evolutionary perspectives, and is interested in new methods for exploring psychological phenomena.