Lots of research has shown that young people’s peers have an influence on their body image — and it’s easy to assume that all “body talk,” with its tendency toward comparison, is bad for self-esteem. But a new study shows that what people talk about matters, and that talking about exercise could actually make women feel better about their bodies.
For a study published in the journal Sex Roles, researchers Louise Wasylkiw and Molly E. Williamson talked to 75 pairs of female undergraduates, each of whom were close friends. They asked each woman how much she and her friend talked about weight loss, exercise, appearance, and food or eating habits. They also surveyed the subjects about their own level of body satisfaction, and, interestingly, how satisfied they thought their friends were with their bodies.
The study authors had expected that all body-related talk would be associated with lower body satisfaction. And indeed, they found that women who spent a lot of time talking to their friends about weight loss did feel worse about their bodies. However, those who talked a lot about exercise actually were more satisfied with their bodies than average. They speculate that talking about what the body can do, rather than what it looks like, might make women less self-critical.
Wasylkiw and Williamson also found that women’s perceptions of their friends were an important predictor of satisfaction — specifically, women who thought their friends felt bad about their bodies were more likely to feel bad about their own. The perception mattered more than the reality — how the friends actually reported that they felt — though women were pretty decent at guessing how their friends felt about their looks.
It’s not necessarily true that all exercise talk is healthy. It’s possible to be addicted to exercise, and an emerging genre of online “fitspo” (images and blog posts promoting extreme fitness) may be as damaging as the more infamous “thinspo.” But average talk between friends about workouts appears to be beneficial — and significantly healthier than talk about weight loss.