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Body Image and Gender Difference: A Study of Epic Proportions
Body image is defined as “The subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body”, with a statement as broad as this it is easy to see how there are discrepancies when it comes to how one chooses to view themselves. The constant input of ideal body types from the media and outside sources bombards one’s mind and can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and a longing for change. This study aimed to closely examine body image, gender differences, and confidence to perform physical activity in relation to students attending their first-year program at university. This correlation is important to study because it addresses topics such as body image and the role physical activity plays in the lives of individuals which can be applied to everyday life.
Predicting that females will have a stronger relationship with negative body image than males is a valid expectation when it is formed on the basis that women have a biological predisposition to higher body fat percentages, along with societies idealized standard of beauty which increasingly insists on women being thin (Cash, Morrow, Hrabosky & Perry, 2004). The study Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Male and Female First-Year College Students (Lowery et al., 2005) supports this prediction. Men displayed more positive body image than women, which may be influenced by societal expectations for women being more extreme than those for men. These findings are consistent with other studies (Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1988) where despite the majority of both male and female participants selecting an ideal body that differed from their perceived figures, twice as many females had chosen an ideal figure that was two or more figures apart from their perceived figure. Compared to men, women reported more body surveillance, greater body shame, a greater discrepancy between their ideal and real body figures, and more dissatisfaction with their weight and physical appearance (Lowery et al., 2005).
Evidence in studies also suggests that there is a positive relationship between physical activity and body image (Alfermann & Stoll, 2000) (Campbell & Hausenblas, 2009). A six-month exercise program composed of 24 males and 24 females, compared to a control group, produced results that showed that the exercise group improved in physical self-concept significantly in comparison to the control group. Further analysis determined that the only variable that differed considerably between males and females was perceived physical fitness (Alfermann & Stoll, 2000). All other dependent variables were similar between participants of both sexes at the beginning of the study. Therefore, while both males and females increased in positive body image consistently with each other throughout the study, the difference in body image between men and women also remained consistent throughout the study. Another similar study (Sánchez-Miguel, Leo, Amado, Pulido, & Sánchez-Oliva, 2017) showed that not only did females have a more negative body image than males, regardless of the effects of physical activity, but that intrinsic motivation towards exercise was greater in males while amotivation was more prominent in females. Research suggests that this may be explained due to women’s tendency to associate body dissatisfaction with the concept of self-esteem (Furnham, Badmin & Sneade, 2002), which could potentially discourage women from exercising, while male self-esteem seemed to have no correlation with body dissatisfaction, thus had no effect on motivation to exercise.
Additional research can be used to associate poor self-esteem adversely influencing women’s lower levels of motivation to exercise with the consensus that females have a more negative body image. A relevant study showed patterns that indicated that those with a higher positive body image were more likely to engage in physical activity in comparison to those with a predominantly negative body image (Kruger, Lee, Ainsworth & Marcera, 2008). Dr. Kruger’s study, Body Size Satisfaction, and Physical Activity Levels Among Men and Women, tested the correlation between body image and physical exercise. The results of this study found that 55.8% of men and 53.3% of women with positive body image exercised regularly. Regardless of participants actual weight, those who were satisfied with their body had a higher probability of engaging in physical activity than those less satisfied.
The main questions this study is looking to answer are; how satisfied are students with their bodies, are confidence to manage and perform physical activity, body mass index (BMI) or actual physical activity levels related to body-image satisfaction in this population and lastly, do men have more positive body-image satisfaction than women. It is also predicted that females will have lower body satisfaction and overall body image scores than males based off prior results from other similar studies.
The sample for this study consisted of 112 first year students, with 73 females and 39 males. Ranging in ages from 18-24, the average age for females was 18.5 and the average age for males was 18.7, with an overall average age of 18.6 years.
The approach used for this study was a one-time qualitative online questionnaire filled out by the first year students enrolled in the course. The questionnaire assessed the psychological variables by using a modified version of the self-efficacy measures (Shields & Brawley, 2007) to look at confidence to manage and perform physical activity. It also uses The Adult Body Satisfaction Questionnaire based on the body-cathexis scale (Secord & Jourard, 1953) to measure body image, and The Godin Leisure-Time Exercise Questionnaire (Godin, 2011) to measure physical activity. Finally, it calculates BMI (measured by weight in kg/height in meters squared) and individual demographics such as age and sex. The results were then combined into a spreadsheet that compiled all of the given information (sex, age, height, weight, level of physical activity, years in sport, confidence levels and individual physical appearance satisfaction). This method of data collection is seen as an accessible way of composing a large set of data quickly and easily.
The study conducted was cross-sectional involving first-year students completing a one-time, anonymous, online questionnaire specific to body image, confidence, physical activity, body mass index and demographics such as age and gender. The participants were asked to rank their satisfaction on a scale of 1-7 relating to specific questions. Some of the questions included; In the past 4 weeks how satisfied have you been with your overall level of physical fitness? In the past 4 weeks, how satisfied have you been with your physical ability to do what you want or need to do? In the past 4 weeks, how satisfied have you been with your overall physical appearance? The dependent variable was the students completing the online questionnaire. The independent variable was the questionnaire that was created for the study, this is because the questions did not change at any point, therefore, staying consistent throughout the study no matter whether the students completed the questionnaire or not.
Table 1 shows the total number of students enrolled in first-yearthat completed the survey. The table has been separated by gender as well as combined to give an overall view. Demographics such as age, height, weight, and body mass index have also been included to give background information as to who is representing the population. In general, there is an observable difference in the number of females versus males that participated in the study as can be seen in Table 1.
Table 2 represents the male, female and overall average involvement in sport and physical activity, as well as reported confidence levels and body satisfaction. On average with regard to the population, females had a slightly lower body satisfaction score when compared to males, as well as a significantly lower reported confidence than the males. Overall females scored lower than males in each category. This data shows that students had an overall body satisfaction of 64.29%, with males averaging 73.29% and females averaging 59.57%. This shows that in the population males have a 13.72% higher body satisfaction than females and an overall more positive body image.
Both male and female students were represented as different populations in this study, using a two-sample equal variance T-test with a two-tail distribution the average body satisfaction of male and female students at Acadia University was calculated. The test had an alpha value of 0.05 (probability of rejecting the null hypothesis when the hypothesis is true) and a p-value of 0.0002 (the result of the T-test). The null hypothesis (Ho) should be rejected because the p-value is less than the alpha value, also represented as 0.0002 ≤ 0.05. The null hypothesis is that neither male or female students will have any difference in body satisfaction when compared to each other.
The Pearson’s correlation (represented by r) was used to calculate the strength of a relationship between two variables. Average body satisfaction and total physical activity for the entire population presented a moderate, positive, linear relationship (r= 0.22). For males, the relationship is weak, negative, linear (r= -0.1) and with females, the relationship is moderate, positive, linear (r= 0.38). Average body satisfaction and BMI overall shows a moderate, negative, linear correlation (r= -0.19), males presented a moderate, positive, linear correlation (r= 0.24) and females presented a strong, negative, linear correlation (r= -0.39). Average body image satisfaction and confidence to manage PA (physical activity) presented an overall strong, positive, linear correlation (r=0.48), males presented a weak, positive, linear correlation (r= 0.13) and females presented a strong, positive, linear correlation (r= 0.48). The correlation between body image satisfaction and confidence to perform PA (physical activity) presented an overall moderate, positive, linear correlation (r=0.3) men presented a weak, negative, linear correlation (r= -0.11) and females presented a strong, positive, linear correlation (r= 0.32).
In addition, average body satisfaction and total MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) presented a moderate, positive linear relationship (r= 0.38). When the population was split into male and female it showed that males have a weak, negative, linear relationship (r= 0.09) and females have a strong, positive, linear relationship (r= 0.54). Overall average body satisfaction and confidence presented a strong, positive, linear relationship (r= 0.44) when the population was split into male and female, however, the results change slightly. Males presented a weak, positive, linear relationship (r= 0.045) and females present a strong, positive, linear relationship (r= 0.46). These results indicate that the relationship between average body satisfaction and reported confidence is a much stronger correlation for females than males. Average confidence to manage PA (physical activity) and years in sport is a moderate, positive, linear relationship (r=0.37). The correlation between confidence to perform PA (physical activity) and years in sport have a moderate, positive, linear relationship (r= 0.22), with very little difference when the population was split into male and female. The correlation scale is based on r≤ 0.2 representing a weak correlation, 0.2 ≤ r >0.4 representing a moderate correlation and r >0.4 being a strong correlation.
As shown in Graph 1 females tend to decrease in body satisfaction as BMI increases.
As shown in Graph 2 males tend to increase in body satisfaction as BMI increases.
The overall findings showed that first-year students have an overall body satisfaction of 64.29%, where males tend to score 73.29% in contrast to females who average 59.57%. This shows that in the population males have a 13.72% higher body satisfaction than females and an overall more positive body image. This supports the original hypothesis that females will have a lower body satisfaction and overall body image scores than males.
When looking at the relationship between average body satisfaction and total physical activity there was a moderate positive relationship for the overall population. Looking at the men, the relationship was weak and negative and for the females, it was similar to the overall population with a moderate positive relationship. This means that for women there is a connection between how they feel about their bodies and the amount of physical activity they do in a week, the opposite can be said for men. Looking at the correlation between body satisfaction and body mass index shows that on average there is a moderate negative relationship. Meaning that the lower the BMI the higher the body satisfaction, this is especially true for females. Body image satisfaction and confidence to manage physical activity had an overall strong relationship but when the population was split up into men and women it showed that the correlation was much stronger for females than it was for males. Meaning that for women the more comfortable they are in their bodies the more comfortable they are managing physical activity. Similar to the last findings when looking at body image and confidence to perform instead of managing physical activity females had a much stronger correlation between the two variables than men did.
As predicted, this study found that women tend to have more negative body image than men. These findings are consistent with several studies that also concluded that males displayed higher body satisfaction than females (Lowery et al., 2005; Alfermann & Stoll, 2000; Kruger et al., 2008). The results of this study also suggest that societal expectations for women to be thin could be a factor in why females exhibit negative body image more than men. The findings of this study show that when BMI increases, average body satisfaction decreases in females, but increases in males or is unaffected by BMI. This directly corresponds with the findings of (Lowery et al., 2005) who found the same correlations. Additionally, our results which found a lower average confidence to perform in females (72.60) than in males (86.15) coincide with those of (Alfermann & Stoll, 2000) which stated that when there were no sex differences in dependent variables, they found a significant difference in perceived physical fitness where in females were much lower than males. Another similarity between our study and the one of (Alfermann & Stoll, 2000) is that of increased body satisfaction in those who are more physically active regardless of gender. Alfermann explains, “…exercise intervention conditions had improved body image compared to control conditions…” (Alfermann & Stoll, 2000) which can be translated in to our study, which takes place in day-to-day life, by concluding that those who exercise more regularly would similarly resemble that of those partaking in the exercise and those who exercise less would closer resemble the control group.
Due to the fact that these findings are similar to the results from other studies, it is not hard to believe these results. With that, these findings can be applied to real-world scenarios focusing on body image in general for both men and women or looking more closely at the effects (positive and negative) physical activity has on women. Due to the fact that this study was conducted on first-year students ranging from ages 18-24, it would be easy to apply these principles to others of the same age range or close to it. It would also be possible to use these findings to try and proactively educate girls about these findings at a young age. This could potentially help them learn to be more satisfied with their bodies throughout their lives, which would hopefully pass on to future generations.
It is important to note that even though this study follows the trend of other similar studies there are always discrepancies, and due to the fact that this data is based solely on a one-time survey there is definitely room for error. Meaning that there is no way to draw a final conclusion, simply use this information as an additional source. A next step to build off of this study could be to add 2nd, 3rd and 4th-year students, which would expand the population giving a broader understanding of the results.
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