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Body image across the globe: the powerful effects of living in the countryside… wherever you are in the world

A person standing in a field holding a sack of crops over their head, with trees and mountains in the distance

ARU is at the centre of the largest ever study into body image across 65 different nations. You may be surprised to hear what sort of impact it can have for all of us...

The power of a positive body image

How you feel about the way your body looks may seem like a small detail in the mayhem of modern life. But what if it had an impact on your health, or even your life expectancy?

Researchers at ARU have established that having more positive body image is strongly associated with better psychological wellbeing.

This in turn is linked to a range of other benefits, such as good eating habits and health vigilance. It also has a negative association with issues such as depression and anxiety.

Going global

Now, for the first time, this relationship between body image and wellbeing has been assessed across a diverse range of nations.

In the largest study of its kind, the Body Image in Nature Survey (BINS) involved 56,968 participants across 65 different countries.

It focused on body appreciation using a scale specifically developed to question how people accept and respect their own bodies, while rejecting conventional physical ideals.

Viren Swami

The crowd-funded study involved a global team of 253 scientists, led by Prof Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology in ARU's School of Psychology and Sport Science.

"This is the first time that we’ve shown that any body image instrument works across a diverse range of cultures and languages," he says.

And he believes the findings highlight the importance of developing ways to promote body positivity around the world.

"For me it’s a public health concern because of the outcomes of negative body image. If you don’t treat it, it becomes a serious health condition.

"Conversely, promoting more a positive body image and helping individuals to respect themselves for what their bodies are able to do, rather than what their bodies look like, means they’re likely to experience better lives, more likely to exercise, more likely to eat healthily."

Natural benefits

Across the different nations, there were some definite trends to emerge. Researchers found that body appreciation was higher in participants who lived in rural areas, irrespective of the country. This echoes previous studies which have looked at the psychological value of connecting with nature.

"The other thing that we think might be going on is that people in rural areas might be under less pressure to work on their body," Viren explains.

"In urban settings people might be under greater pressure to focus on what their body looks like and engage in beauty practices. And a lot of those might not be as pertinent in rural settings where individuals might be able to focus more on what the body is doing for them, rather than what it looks like."

A healthy distance

Body appreciation was also generally higher in participants who were single, rather than in a long-term relationship. However, there were also some notable differences across the 65 countries.

A country’s cultural distance from the United States was a notable factor – what’s known as the “WEIRDness distance” in psychology terms, as Viren elucidates.

"We found that the greater this WEIRDness distance, the higher the body appreciation was for that sample.

"We think it might be that WEIRD cultures are essentially those that focus on the body. It tells you ‘this is what you need to look like’. And if you don’t do those things, you’re not going to be considered either feminine or masculine."

Malta came top of the list for body appreciation scores, followed by Taiwan and Bangladesh. The UK languished near the bottom, along with India and Australia.

The research team is planning to do further analysis into cross-national differences in life satisfaction in the coming months.

See also

Main image credit: Pat Whelan via Unsplash