To Foster a Healthy Mindset and Body Image, Offset Negative Messages
Dr. Mary Inman
There’s nothing like filtered TikToks and photoshopped celebrity images to make us dissatisfied with our own bodies. And boy, does modern media deliver a constant barrage.
Dr. Mary Inman, professor of psychology and department chair, knows that affirmation is a powerful antidote.
In multiple strands of research with colleagues and Hope College students, she’s identifying social dynamics that can ease people’s unhappiness about their body type, and their anxiety that others may reject them because of their weight.
“It’s so pervasive now for young people to be dissatisfied with their bodies that this dissatisfaction is called normative discontent,” the social psychologist explains. One might ask, Is this normative discontent primarily a Western thing? “Cross-cultural research suggests yes,” she reports. She cites other psychologists’ findings that the more people see other people’s bodies, the less satisfied they are with their own. For instance, in a study of Muslim women who wear hijabs versus those who don’t, researchers found greater dissatisfaction among the latter.
Steering clear of “fat talk” is key, Inman says. She means conversations in which people disparage their own appearance or body-shame others. For example, she says, for young women comments as simple and common as I look fat in these jeans can be damaging.
“I’m trying to figure out some of the possible ways to help people quiet the negative messages that they hear and they might internalize,” Inman says. “My work is showing that self-affirmation is proving helpful. People want to feel like a person of worth. The idea is that when they feel validated in non-appearance-based ways, seeing media images of thin or muscular people does not threaten their body esteem.”
Inman joined the Hope College faculty in 1999. Her teaching load includes Social Psychology, Research Methods, and sections of the department’s introductory course. Early in her career, she did research on interpersonal conflict involving people’s perceptions of discrimination. She continues that line of research, but her decision about 10 years ago to focus more on body image wasn’t as abrupt a lane change as it may seem.
“I shifted into body image to study intrapersonal turmoil,” she says. She wants to establish whether and how religion plays a part, and what interventions can buffer people’s internal worries. She hopes to identify what it is about religiosity that can be harmful or helpful to an individual’s body image and anxiety level.
With two student researchers, she documented whether a person’s satisfaction with their own body changes when they view “Hollywood images” of “ideal bodies.” Their study of male and female Hope students found that it does, and not for the good. Then Inman and her students had them read body-affirming statements from a religious perspective, such as With God’s gifts of love and joy, I am able to accept and embrace the body I have been given. A second group read similar content that didn’t mention God. A third group read irrelevant trivia. She found that satisfaction with their bodies rebounded more markedly among those who read body-affirming religious statements than for the people reading other types of statements, and more so for women than for men.
In multiple strands of research with colleagues and Hope College students, psychologist Dr. Mary Inman is identifying social dynamics that can ease people’s unhappiness about their body type, and their anxiety that others may reject them because of their weight.
Inman notes that feelings of self-worth can be contingent on seven domains: appearance, competition, academic competence, virtue, family support, others’ approval and God’s love. Appearance and others’ approval are considered the most powerful factors contributing to poor body image. Inman’s research has found that seeking others’ approval by doing things to please them is “reliably related” to low body esteem. In another study published with two Hope graduates, she showed that body affirmations with religious overtones (more so than non-religious affirmations) protected body esteem for women who base self-worth on appearance or others’ approval. Inman notes that the affirmations increased feelings of being loved, which predicted body esteem.
With her department colleague Dr. Charlotte vanOylen-Witvliet, she showed that basing self-worth on appearance is reliably related to poor body esteem in men and women. Their work showed that this “basing self-worth on appearance and body esteem” relationship nearly disappeared for men who reported feeling loved, supported, and nurtured by God.
“The church tells us that God accepts us, flaws and all. Then my standard ought to be an attitude of being grateful and doing the work God calls me to do, not accepting the standards of Hollywood — being muscular or thin. Then, ultimately, my self-talk should change.”
In a 2022 article in the Journal of Religion and Health, Inman and two other Hope students found a reliable relationship between an individual’s weight rejection anxiety and their body dissatisfaction. Inman’s team explored whether affirmation from others in their church might weaken the effect of weight anxiety on body dissatisfaction (seeking a thin/muscular body) and body esteem.
“The theory part is that if people feel they’re not being accepted by the secular society — The cashier is judging me because I’m buying donuts, cake and Cheetos, or I’m not being selected for the team because of my weight — then they might gravitate toward church as a place of affirmation, and might start feeling more affirmed at church,” Inman explains. “The church tells us that God accepts us, flaws and all. Then my standard ought to be an attitude of being grateful and doing the work God calls me to do, not accepting the standards of Hollywood — being muscular or thin. Then, ultimately, my self-talk should change.”
Inman found that women who felt affirmed in their church reported less ill effects of weight anxiety on their body satisfaction (they were less likely to seek a thin body ideal), yet some negative self-talk (indicating low body esteem) continued. “In this sample, feeling affirmed from one’s church community did not stop weight-anxious women from their negative self-talk.” she says. “It is fascinating and challenging work with big implications for young people’s mental health.”