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Dealing with Body Image concerns and Social Physique Anxiety?

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Growing up as a swimmer meant that my shoulders were perceived as "manly", I got criticised for not being "girly" enough, not that I felt like a typical girl anyway. So if you are reading this thinking how on earth would this person know anything about body image concerns? Then let me reassure you, I know exactly what it feels like to not be comfortable in your own skin.


A form of social anxiety that is experienced about the individual’s unfavourable physique-related evaluation by others is called social physique anxiety (Hart, Leary, & Rejeski, 1989). Worryingly these concerns can lead to lack of enjoyment towards exercise (Belling, 1992; Treasure, Lox, & Lawton, 1998), or even completely prevent individuals from exercising (Lantz, Hardy, & Ainsworth, 1997; Leary, 1992). For example, there were countless times when I deliberately put less effort into training to try to control my "manly" shoulders.



Body image concerns are very common amongst athletes but also amongst exercise enthusiasts. Individuals wanting to take up on exercise often struggle to stick with a programme because they do not feel comfortable in the gym environment. (Indeed, there are other places to exercise, just choosing the most common one). Think about walking into your gym, what do you see? First of all lots of mirrors.. not great for someone who is not happy with their own body. But also, the gym is practically separated into feminine/cardiovascular and masculine/free weights areas. Women might stay away from the free weights area because they see it as a masculine activity, this then reaffirms gender coding as there are only a small number of women lifting weights (Salvatore and Marecek, 2010). There is also an increase in a number of men speaking up about their experiences of body image concerns as well. Because most men train in the same area, they will undoubtedly compare themselves to each other leading to feelings of anxiety about their own physique.


Several interventions could help individuals struggling with their body image or experiencing social physique anxiety. For instance, keeping a journal of your thoughts and behaviours associated with it. Presumably, most of those statements would be somewhat negative, see if you can rephrase them and turn them into positive self-talk. Prepare some coping strategies for situations that are perceived uncomfortable by you, such as breathing and relaxation techniques. Try visualising the area where the exercise would take place to get more comfortable with the environment, try visualising yourself as exercising to gain self-confidence. 


References:

Belling, L. R. (1992). The relationship between social physique anxiety and physical activity. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Hart, E. A., Leary, M. R., & Rejeski, W. J. (1989). The measurement of social physique anxiety. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 11, 94–104.


Lantz, C. D., Hardy, C. J., & Ainsworth, B. E. (1997). Social physique anxiety and perceived exercise behavior. Journal of Sport Behavior, 20(1), 83–93.


Leary, M. R. (1992). Self-presentational processes in exercise and sport. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11, 94- 104.


Salvatore, J., Marecek, J., (2010). Gender in the gym: evaluation concerns as barriers to weight lifting among women. Sex Roles, 63, 556–567.


Treasure, D. C., Lox, C. L., & Lawton, B. R. (1998). Determinants of physical activity in a sedentary, obese female population. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 20, 218-224.