With all of the pressure for women to look taut, thin and forever young, self-objectification is unfortunately par for the course these days. Now, researchers are starting to think that judging ourselves harshly isn’t just affecting our mental states — feeling body shame may actually cause us to become physically ill.
The thinking is that strict beauty ideals — which contribute to body shame — often make women feel bad about their bodily functions (like menstruation and sweating). This may cause women to be less responsive to those bodily functions, since they’re trying to conceal them, which could in turn compromise their health. To investigate, researcher Jean Lamont from Bucknell University conducted two small studies.
In the first study, Lamont had 177 undergraduate women answer a questionnaire, with statements like, “When I’m not the size I think I should be, I feel ashamed,” “I am confident that my body will let me know what is good for me” and “I often feel vulnerable to sickness.” Participants were asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each statement. Lamont then used the answers to measure the subjects’ feelings of body shame, how responsive they were to their bodies and how well they evaluated their own health.
Then, the women reported how many infections they had experienced in the last five years — things like bronchitis, yeast infections and pneumonia — as well as how often they experienced physical illness symptoms, like nausea, headaches and diarrhea. Each woman also rated her own health on a scale of one to five.
But Lamont wanted to see how the findings would hold up over time and make sure that results weren’t influenced by a woman’s depression, smoking habits or BMI. So she conducted a longitudinal version of the study that controlled for those three variables. In this version, she had 181 undergraduate women answer the same questionnaire from the first study at two points during the semester, once in September and once in December (“a time period in which infectious diseases such as the flu, bronchitis, etc., are expected to increase,” according to the study).
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.
After analyzing both studies, Lamont found that women who had higher levels of body shame reported decreased self-rated health and an increased number of infections since their teenage years. The findings held up even when controlling for depression, smoking and BMI. Plus, the second study showed that, for women with higher levels of body shame, infections increased between the first and second times the questionnaire was distributed. This suggests that the body shame women reported in September could have contributed to the infections they experienced in December.
Why does this happen? Lamont suggested this correlational pattern: Feeling body shame predicts poor physical health, because those feelings may lead women to be less responsive to their bodies and do a worse job of evaluating how healthy they are.
These findings beg the question: If many, many women report feeling bad about their bodies, how much of a health toll is that body shame really taking? That’s something we don’t know yet — the scale of this study was pretty small and the findings do have some limitations, since Lamont relied on people to remember specifics about their health (ahem, recall bias).
Still, these studies suggest that feeling bad about our bodies could potentially harm our physical health, and provide insight into why that might happen.
If nothing else, let this serve as even greater motivation to love the body you have now. Feeling guilty about that extra cookie, or putting yourself down because you don’t measure up to airbrushed models or celebrities may do more than put you in a crappy mood.