HIGH RATES OF VARIOUS DISORDERS OF BODY IMAGE, SUCH AS EATING DISORDERS, AND THE DIFFICULTY TREATING THEM, COULD HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE WAY WOMEN INTEPRET FEEDBACK ABOUT THEIR LOOKS FROM OTHERS. WE KNOW THAT WHAT IS INTERPRETED AS TEASING OFTENTIMES PRECIPITATES A SPIRAL DOWNWARDS IN TERMS OF LOW MOOD AND SEEKING UNWARRANTED PROCEDURES. CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST DR RAJ PERSAUD REPORTS ON NEW RESEARCH DUE TO BE PUBLISHED SHORTLY WHICH EXAMINES THE ISSUE FEEDBACK ON APPEARANCE. SO – DO YOU KNOW HOW TO GIVE A COMPLIMENT?
HOW TO SPEAK TO A WOMAN ABOUT HER BODY – THE LATEST ADVICE FROM PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH IS – VERY CAREFULLY
New psychological research finds that women interpret what is regarded as essentially ambiguous feedback about their appearance, in a radically different way, to opinion on other aspects of their selves. We need to become more aware of the deep psychological pitfalls that lie within supposedly relatively innocuous conversations about appearance.
Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych, a Harley Street Consultant Psychiatrist with a special interest in body image.
It’s a difficult predicament for any man.
You are about to go out for a special date with your wife, or partner, or girlfriend.
As she fragrantly descends from her dressing room, and you catch sight of her for the first time this evening, she is obviously expecting some feedback about her appearance. (Here’s a big tip for all you men out there, this is very much the case, even if she doesn’t ask you what you think).
The requisite amount of enthusiasm is required here. Unfortunately, most chaps gain a sense that no matter what they say, they can’t quite seem to generate the mandatory level of reassurance, or zeal, required. Particularly, what is essential to ensure the evening subsequently passes in a pleasant interpersonal fashion.
Few of us can muster the eloquence of Tom Cruise in the marvelously witty film Jerry MacGuire, where he enthuses in awe as Rene Zwellenger arrives for their date, ‘That’s not a dress, that’s an Audrey Hepburn Movie.’
One of the issues here is that the male of the species usually believes they have indeed expressed fervor and keenness at their date’s appearance, but it just never seems to be enough.
New research on female attitudes to body image conducted by psychologists Sylvia Herbozo and Kevin Thompson at the University of South Florida, may have provided a clue into this problem.
The study entitled ‘The effects of ambiguous appearance-related feedback on body image, mood states, and intentions to use body change strategies in college women: An experimental study’ highlighted an intriguing aspect of the problem. Most feedback we get in life about anything we do is essentially ‘ambiguous’. But, perhaps, particularly so when it comes to looks. Or any high stakes predicament. Politeness and circumspection means that we can never be entirely sure what someone means when they appear to praise us. For example, they might be damning us with faint praise. (How many of us have felt this after a compliment from a competitive colleague?)
So what can seem as a compliment by the giver may not be taken that way by the receiver.
The study, due to be shortly published in the prestigious academic journal Body Image, probed the thorny issue of feedback over ambiguous appearance. The novel experiment deployed an intriguing twist in that female twins were used as confederates of the experimenter, posing as representatives of two organisations. One, an Academic center that helped students with their studies, the other, a Cosmetic Surgery Clinic. The idea was to probe whether someone purportedly from the organization concerned with appearance, would have a significant impact on the women in terms of various aspects of their psychology, despite the fact no explicit comment was made to the female participants that there were any issues over their looks.
None of the women taking part in the social psychology experiment were aware that it was all a ‘set up’. That the interviewers they were speaking to were not in fact who they said they were.
The research has fascinating implications for many who work with those concerned about their looks. In particular, it raises the question that may not have been properly considered before, which is how merely interacting with someone who just has a logo on their shirt (as in the case of this experiment) and who represents a cosmetic surgery organization, could profoundly effect women drawn from the general pubic. There are all sorts of marketing and public relations issues raised for the cosmetic surgery industry, as well as raising awareness of the sensitivities involved as discussing their appearance is a high stress situation for most women. There are also key implications for those who work in the field of eating disorders and body image disturbance, in which I have been operating for some years now.
The very careful way discussion about appearance has to be entered into mitigates against much unskilled therapy being successful.
The study was prompted by the intriguing previous finding that positive comments on women’s appearance, results in distress levels almost exactly the same as negative! The odd result implies that content of a comment about female appearance may be relatively irrelevant to its impact. Could it be that just raising awareness of appearance is sufficient to induce such a fraught, or complex, set of emotions in women that they don’t process commentary from that moment on, in the same way as they might about any other subject?
The evidence is that just drawing attention to their bodies, as compliments or criticisms are likely to do in equal measure, is enough to generate more surveillance of women’s physical selves, and this in turn leads on to more dissatisfaction.
In the University of South Florida social psychology experiment, the key measures were the participants’ intentions to try and change their bodies following their interaction with the cosmetic surgery representative as opposed to the control condition (academic centre rep) using various means. Ranging from dieting to surgery.
The key finding was that interacting with the cosmetic surgery rep did result in shifts towards intending to change their appearance, despite the fact the ‘cosmetic surgery condition’ did not involve any attempt to give feedback to the participants that there was any need to alter their bodies. The feedback on appearance they were receiving was very carefully controlled to ensure it was ambiguous.
Interesting to note; the confederates were identical twins chosen specifically to have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of approximately 19. Depending on whose tables you look at the authors of this study argue this falls marginally above the underweight range, which they put at below 18.5. The confederates were not ‘dressed up’. Each wore a polo shirt with jeans.
The experimenters chose relatively slim women to play the role of supposed stoolie researcher because they wondered if ambiguous feedback wasn’t interpreted as such if a woman is interacting with some one interpreted as thinner or more desirable than them.
The only difference at all in their carefully controlled appearance was the company logo on the polo shirt being worn. Each confederate twin sported polo shirts matching the company that they were pretending to represent (either ‘‘South Tampa Center for Cosmetic Surgery’’ or ‘‘South Tampa Center for Academic Enhancement’’).
The confederate explained that free consultations were currently on offer for students. Some of the services offered and listed on the flyer were discussed briefly. For example, for the appearance-related condition in the experiment, the twin was trained to say ‘‘Hi, I’m a representative for the South Tampa Center for Cosmetic Surgery. We are currently offering a free consultation for USF students.’’ The confederate then gave a flyer, with the center’s contact information and procedures available. She highlighted a few of the procedures commenting, ‘‘Some of the procedures that we offer include: Botox, breast enlargement, liposuction and tummy tuck. You should take advantage of the free consultation being offered.’’
The experimenters argue that this feedback was essentially ambiguous, in that it could be interpreted in a neutral, or negative manner
The key qualifier the experimenters accept is necessary when evaluating the results, is that the subjects taking part being students, were probably unusually anxious about academic performance and this means the control condition may have unduly ‘swamped’ the data with higher anxiety than would otherwise have been the case. In other words, it’s possible that with a different control condition, women would have exhibited and even stronger tendency to be effected by ambiguous feedback on their appearance.
The bottom line finding is that when you think you are being ambiguous, when it comes to women, you probably aren’t in their eyes. How they are affected by any information about their bodies has to take into account exquisite sensitivity in this area. Some deft psychology is going to be required in order to engage them in a positive and not counterproductive manner.
The fact that essentially ambiguous feedback from a cosmetic surgery representative lead to significant shifts in female intentions to change body appearance, suggests that great subtlety is required when attempting to engage women in various prospects for procedures or treatments, which will alter their looks or the way they think about themselves.
The next time you think you were clear, when giving someone else feedback about their appearance, consider what alternative theories the listener might hold about what you meant!
DR RAJ PERSAUD FRCPsych IS CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRST AND CONSULTANT EDITOR OF THE BEST SELLING BOOK ‘THE MIND: A USERS GUIDE’ PUBLISHED WITH THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF PSYCHIATRISTS AND BANTAM PRESS. HE IS EMERITUS VISITING GRESHAM PROFESSOR FOR PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF PSYCHIATRY