Body positivity may reduce eating disorder risk

Publication Date

People are looking for ways to think positively, to embrace themselves for who they are. And Catherine Walker, visiting assistant professor of psychology, wants to help.

Catherine Walker, visiting assistant professor of psychology

Catherine Walker

“Young women are given many models of how to focus on the body’s appearance, and to criticize it,” Walker said. “Google trends show a three-fold increase in searches for body positivity-related content from 2015 to 2017, and a 17-fold increase since 2010.”

“Many young women have grown up in a ‘petri dish’ of unrealistic appearance-focused body ideals,” she continued. “These women (and increasingly men) don’t actually have a framework for how to appreciate their bodies. My study is part of a program intended to help build that framework, to teach young women to appreciate their bodies for more than just appearance.”

Walker’s study will build on previous research that’s shown that gratitude for one’s body — for what it enables us to do physically, creatively and communicatively — can reduce eating disorder risk factors and the onset of conditions likes anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. “This will be the second study to date to assess the combination of mirror exposure and focus on body functionality,” Walker said. “The first was conducted by Julia Brooks ’17 as part of her senior thesis.” The findings were recently presented at the International Conference on Eating Disorders.

Walker will ask study participants to look at themselves in a full-length mirror once a week and focus on what their bodies allow them to do and experience. They will also be asked to keep a journal and write in it three times a week, concentrating again on the positive things their bodies do for them.

“I hope to ascertain whether pairing mirror exposure and a focus on gratitude for one’s body is an effective means of reducing eating disorder risk factors,” Walker said. “The study currently only includes females because young women are at greater risk for eating disorders.”

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, Walker said. If individuals can be prevented from developing the disorder in the first place, the social and emotional cost savings — not to mention the monetary savings of years of treatment — are very high.

The study is part of a larger pilot program Walker is running, called “In the Mirror: Functional Appreciated Bodies.” The program is being designed to easily translate into an app-based format for greater reach.

“Most young Americans use their cellphones to search for answers to medical and mental health issues, yet no empirically supported body image applications exist to date,” Walker said. “If young women can look for and find an app that helps navigate them through ways to appreciate their bodies, buffering the impacts of appearance — focused media — then it may help prevent later onset of eating disorders.” Walker’s efforts are supported by a grant from the National Eating Disorder Association.


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