Can beauty concerns promote positive body image?

In light of research (e.g. Williams et al., 2013) indicating that beauty concerns can be utilised to reduce unhealthy behaviours such as tanning, smoking and more recently, alcohol consumption, a central question remains about the ethics of doing so. In other words, in a society where appearance increasingly defines who you are, and unrealistic beauty standards are a distinct marker of social class (Grogan, 2016), is it responsible of researchers to further emphasize this?

Beauty, and particularly youthfulness, has long been the main standard on which women (and increasingly men, albeit not to the same extent) are judged (Wolf, 1991), but perhaps never as intensively as in a time where media images are omnipresent. Walter (2010) goes as far as suggesting the 21st century to be the era of “new sexism” - related, but not identical to, Glick & Fiske’s (1996) concept of Benevolent Sexism - where traditional aspects of patriarchy such as objectification and sexualisation of women are re-branded as empowering personal choices, perpetuated by women themselves. Women are strongly discouraged from any form of natural ageing, with plastic surgery offering a very real option to do so (Grogan, 2016). Given what Self-Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) suggests about the detrimental effects highlighting women’s appearance can have on everything from their mental health to math’s performance, it is crucial that researchers who utilise concerns about beauty and aging in research, strive to do so in an ethical manner.

Within body image research, the focus is increasingly shifting away from a traditional perspective of negative body image to the promotion of a positive body image, among young people as well as adults (Wood-Barcalow et al. 2010). Research on whole-body scanning has indicated that technical solutions can be used to increase body satisfaction, particularly among women, although long-term results are inconclusive (Grogan et al., 2013). Looking at appearance-focused behaviour change techniques such as facial morphing, is it possible that this could be utilised in a way to promote positive, rather than negative perceptions of ageing? A crucial aspect of the facial-morphing technique is that participants receive two aged photos: one which is based on the health-damaging behaviour in question (e.g. smoking or UV exposure) and a comparison photo based on natural ageing (without UV smoking or UV exposure). Preliminary results of research on attitudes to UV exposure and facial morphing among older women that is currently being conducted at Manchester Metropolitan University indicates that the comparison between the two photos can result in a positive evaluation of the natural aging process. As well as expressing negative evaluations of the UV-exposed photos, it appears that this participant group was pleasantly surprised by the naturally aged photo, indicating that they felt positively about the way they are likely to look when they're older. In addition to the comparison aspect, it is also possible that facial-morphing instils people with a sense of self-agency and self-efficacy, i.e. that their future appearance can be directly influenced by themselves (i.e. using sun protection) rather than aspiring to a beauty ideal presented in mainstream media that is largely unattainable (Grogan, 2016). This is incredibly encouraging, as it suggests that appearance-focused interventions such as facial morphing can be a positive influence, not only in prompting behaviour change and thus increasing chances of being physically healthy when older, but also in promoting a positive outlook on the aging process itself.

By Sofia Persson

Sofia Persson is a PhD researcher and associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her primary research interests include behaviour change techniques and body image among men and women.

Fredrickson, B. & Roberts, T. (1998). ‘The swimsuit becomes you: sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1) 269-284.

Glick, P. & Fiske, S. (1996). ‘The ambivalent sexism inventory: differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(3), 491-512.

Grogan, S. (2016). Body image. London: Routledge

Grogan, S., Gill, S., Brownbridge, K., Kilgariff, S. & Whalley, A. (2013) ‘Dress fit and body image: A thematic analysis of women’s accounts during and after trying on dresses’. Body Image. 10(3), 380-388.

Walter, N. (2010). ‘Living dolls – the return of sexism’. London: Virago Press.

Williams, A., Grogan, S., Clark-Carter, D., Buckley, E. (2013). ‘Appearance-based interventions to reduce ultraviolet exposure and/or increase sun protection intentions and behaviours: A systematic review and meta-analysis’. British Journal of Health Psychology, 18(1), 182-217

Wolf, N. (1990), The beauty myth. London: Vintage

Wood-Barclow, N., Tylka, T. & Augustus-Horvavth, C. (2010) ‘But I like my Body’ Body Image, 7(3), 106-118


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