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Body Image In Cross Cultural Psychology

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Within Cross Cultural Psychology (CPP) there has been significant research focusing on body image in an attempt to understand further what this means. Currently there is no clear cut definition on what body image is, but CPP focuses on the variations in human behaviour in regards to cultural contexts (Berry et al., 2002). It acknowledges the relationship between cultural contexts in human development and the behaviours established within an individual through growing up in a culture (Friedlmeier, Chakkarath & Schwarz, 2005). Most definitions of the approach include the term ‘culture’, this is defined in numerous ways, it is a “set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours shared by a group of people” (Spencer-Oatey & Franklin, 2012). This recognises an understanding of the cause and effect relationships between culture in coherence with behaviour and cultural experiences (Berry et al., 2002). Furthermore, with the addition of research methods and theories found in CCP, it creates better understanding to cross cultural aspects that can have an effect on body image and therefore can alter certain behaviours.

Methodological research in CCP is concerned with the comparison of two or more cultural groups in relation to psychological variables (Matsumoto & Van De Vijver, 2011). This provides a pathway that assesses the role of culture and the effect it has on varied behaviours with reference to CCP as well as other domains of psychology.

The existence of Body Image (BI) ideals is suggested to be universal however, culture plays a role in shaping and influencing factors that contribute to body ideal perceptions. There are many manipulating factors of BI, these vary across cultural contexts. BI research has agreed that it does not have a set definition, but rather, it is a multidimensional phenomenon (Cash & Pruzinsky, 2004). There are several possible explanations as to why individuals of different cultures experience BI and the extent it is faced: cognition, affective, attitudinal and other variables (Slade, 1994). Nevertheless, these reasons do not discuss the CCP in its entirety. Two approaches that do attempt to explain body image cross culturally are the Social Approach and the Developmental Approach. Both aim to identify the role of social environment and the progression and conceptualisation of BI respectively.

This essay is going to examine BI through CCP by identifying research methods and theories. By acknowledging the different aspects in various cultures creates greater understanding to the development of body image.

BI is based on individualistic perceptions. Schilder (1950) recognises BI not only as a perceptual construct but also as a reflection of attitudes and associations with others. As a result of this, investigators have developed various instruments and theories to assess an individual’s degree of positive or negative BI (Cash, 2012). Methods vary from simple figural stimuli like silhouettes; to more elaborate technologies where participants alter BI based on their own body perceptions (Cash, 2012). However, to gain significance in cross-cultural research, researchers need to ensure that materials and measures are understood in each cultural location (Smith et al., 2006). Methodological forms have been conceptualised to assess BI.

The most widely used method for collection cross-cultural psychological data are questionnaires (Smith et al., 2013). The Body Appreciation Scale (BAS) is a measure of positive BI (Ng, Barron & Swami, 2015). In westernised cultures the BAS has a unidimensional structure (Swami, Viren, Tomas, 2008) thus, it is deemed appropriate across all cultures. This is supported by a study conducted by Swami, Ng and Barron (2016) where they found that a translation of the BAS had the same dimensional factor and therefore facilitated cross-culturally. This is a strength to CCP as it can be used in various cultures in various languages with similar responses. However, further research has suggested that it may not be cross-culturally equivalent and modification to the dimensions of the scale is needed to best fit cultural reflections on BI (Ng, Barron & Swami, 2015).

In comparison to the one-dimensional structure of BAS, alterations have been made to conform to a two-factor structure which were labelled ‘General Body Appreciation’ and ‘Body Image Investment’ (Swami et al., 2008). Results found that there is a possible cross-cultural difference to positive BI. This suggests that even though scales have been used to measure BI in various cultures accurately, there are still benefits to altering the scale to best fit the culture so it is best understood (Smith et al., 2006). Thus gaining the most reliable and valid results. Altering the scale to increase reliability and validity benefits CCP as it is a sound methodology that can be reproduced to assess BI issues regardless of where the research is taken place.

Through the methods used to assess BI, research has been conducted to help define body image. Body image methods and theories has allowed for both positive and negative theories to explain BI. One negative evaluation of body size and shape is Body Dissatisfaction (BD), it is defined as a person’s negative thoughts and feelings about his/her body (Grogan, 2016). To assess and understand potential factors of BI and BD across cultures, assessments of potential attitudes need to be addressed, this can be doing using visual media (Boothroyd et al., 2016).

Visual media can range from magazines to television, all of which include idealised imagery. The media’s promotion of thin ideal has been found as a causational factor to high levels of BD (Cohen, 2006). BD is a key predictor in the development of low self-esteem, depression and is a risk factor for clinical diagnosis of an eating disorders (Grabe, Hyde & Lindberg, 2007). McCabe et al (2011) measured BD across cultures, significance was found in cross-cultural differences in response styles yet there were strong cultural similarities in body satisfaction. In addition to this, it was found that even with similarities, there are still differences across cultural groups in regards to the body image due to how it is portrayed in Western media (McCabe et al., 2011). In westernised cultures, individuals have been subjected to more visual imagery than other cultures. Boothroyd et al., (2016) found that BI ideals are in the media are visual manipulations that can be exposed through classical conditioning. Associating features of more desirable traits for example: the aspirational body image in comparison to neutral stimuli; with the context in which the images are seen (Boothroyd et al., 2016). With visual imagery more poignant in westernised cultures, classical conditioning is a more common theoretical explanation to BD as more associations to media can be made.

Exposure to media such as TV commercials and magazine models which feature a thin body ideal, increases the likelihood of dissatisfaction to occur, in some extreme cases it can lead to eating disorders (Tiggemann & Slater, 2004). However, it could be assumed that more exposure can lead to desensitisation as viewers are accustomed to the images they see regularly, research found that women who are familiar with Western media still have a negative response (Boothroyd et al., 2016). In comparison to this, samples in other cultures have shown preferences for heavier women which is substantially different to the thin ideal appreciated by the Western cultures. This links to media exposure as the idealised body within western cultures is that of a thin, model physique which creates an association between thin ideals and western cultures. This is further supported by research conducted by Tovee, Swami, Furnham & Mangalparsad (2006), it was found that Zulu migrants in the United Kingdom (UK) showed preferences for the ideals most recognisable with native Caucasians than Zulus that remained in South Africa. Thus showing that migrants in the UK have an increased exposure to thin ideals promoted in the media, which in turn allows them to adopt the preference of westernised ideals. Therefore, it can be suggested that the CCP approach accurately determines the initial preference to BI given by specific cultural ideals. Yet, this can be also be altered through media exposure heightened by the environment lived in.

In coherence to culture status, those who remained in South Africa associated a low body mass index (BMI) to ill-health (Tovee, Swami, Furnham & Mangalparsad, 2006), whereas high BMI in cultures like the UK is deemed as poor health. In addition, low BMI in cultures like the UK is indicative of high socio-economic status (Boothroyd et al., 2016). All of which supports the notion that Westernised cultures are exposed to idealised BI and therefore have a preference specific physiques. Other cultures on the other hand, would deem that unhealthy and thus prefer a ‘heavier’ physique.

This is supported further by a cross-cultural study conducted by Swami and Tovée (2005). They found significant differences in preferences for physical attractiveness amongst various socio-economic developments. Urban participants preferred images of lower body mass index than rural participants (Swami & Tovée, 2005). These findings relate to the sociocultural theory as it explains the preference of body size and image in a social and cultural context. Therefore, the CPP approach accurately depicts differences between culture and body image.

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Similarly to CCP, the Social Approach recognises BI attitudes to be complex, dispositional ways of thinking and feeling (Cash, 2012). In Western cultures, self-esteem declines during adolescence, a possible explanation being changes to BI (Clay, Vignoles & Dittmar, 2005). As discussed before, in the context of sociocultural factors, exposure to unrealistic media images allows for BD to occur. It was found that experimental exposure to ultra-thin or average magazine models lowered BD and self-esteem. A trend also heightened by the awareness and internalisation of sociocultural attitudes to BI as well as social comparison to the media models (Clay, Vignoles and Dittmar (2005).

The Sociocultural Theory acknowledges the dissatisfaction that may occur due to the perception of the ideals promulgated by Western cultures as well as the concept of the thin ideal being a reward of attractiveness (Morrison, Kalin & Morrsion, 2004). This again correlates to the role of models in the media as there is an absence of females who deviate from the thin ideal. Societal cultures can be assessed by the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire (SATAQ).

SATAQ was developed to assess recognition and acceptance of “societally sanctioned standards of appearance” (Heinberg, Thompson & Stormer, 1995). Research has found that SATAQ supports its use to measure Western values and ideals of appearance (Llorente, Warren, Eulate & Gleaves, 2013). This further supported by research conducted by Swami (2009) in Malaysia where results stressed the need for locally developed scales in order to defer from the reliance on scales developed in the West. Thus, suggesting that there is not universality in sociocultural attitudes to body image and therefore independent measures need to take place to accurately assess the cause and effect of body image.

However, reliability of SATAQ was tested among four ethnic groups. Warren, Gleaves and Rakhkovskaya (2013) found that the score reliability was high as the factors were all similar among all ethnic groups. Further research supports SATAQ as high levels of validity and reliability were found in non-Western population of Jordanian women, allowing for the use of the scale to be performed in other non-Westernised populations (Madanat, Hawks & Brown, 2006). Thus, in contrast to previous research, it provides evidence to support the use of SATAQ in different ethnicities and cultures and therefore suggests that even with variation in BI and its portrayal in specific cultures, it is a reliable method.

As stated, Social Comparison Theory (SCT) can be used to determine BI perceptions among individuals. SCT was developed by Festinger (1954), it identifies the role of comparing opinions and abilities to those similar to them. There has been a large amount of research concerning SCT and its influence on BI. It has been found that it acknowledges: self-evaluation, self-improvement and self-enhancement (Krayer, Ingledew & Iphofen, 2008); all of which are recognisable to BI. Krayer, Ingledew and Iphofen (2008) found that peers are the most relevant comparison targets and are important when making references to self and body image due to the need to be accepted.

In regards to CCP, cultural norms for thinness play a large role in BD and the acceptance of thin ideals in society is a result of the media (Strahan et al., 2006). When cultural norms were less prominent, a peer was more relevant and comparisons with peers resulted in a negative effect (Strahan et al., 2006). When cultural norms were relevant, a comparison with a model was made and exposure to the model resulted in negative feelings. Universally, social comparison in body image predicts dissatisfaction and the want to change one’s appearance (Morrison, Todd & Morrison, 2004).

In sum, research into SCT suggests that sociocultural norms of BI play an important role in individual’s assessments of bodies. When cultural norms decrease, there are less comparisons made, allowing individuals to internalise a more positive perception.

Body image dissatisfaction is a prevalent factor in modern society and has been described as a ‘normative discontent’ (Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2006). Body image can occur at any time in development but children as young as 6 have been studied and have been found to be dissatisfied with their bodies with an attempt at dieting (Dohnt & Tiggemann, 2004). Yet, most studies have been examined in Westernised cultures with sparse data arising from other cultural backgrounds. The psychopathology and development of BI has been emphasised more by Americans and British (Sharan & Sundar, 2015). Although both Western and non-Western cultures have BI concerns, further suggested a cultural difference between BI and its causes.

In addition, development of physical factors differs based on individual differences of for example: fat distribution may differ in Black, Asian and Caucasian populations (Parker et al., 1995). With this being said, difference in physical development may results in a variety of preferences on BI. As discussed Westernised cultures prefer a thinner body ideal which differs to other cultures like African and Latina which opposed the thin ideal (Viladrich et al., 2009). Thus, body ideals exist among all cultural groups but differ on content and the development of individual differences. However, if the BI contexts are substantial and important among cultural groups and ethnicities then dissatisfaction may develop further to eating disorders. This evidence suggests the CPP approach is accurate at determining cultural differences on body image and how it is perceived and developed.

Eating disorders have increased in the last 30 years with most incidences of eating disorder commonly found in Western countries and rare in other countries and cultures (Sharan & Sundar, 2015). Keel and Klump (2003) have found that culture seems to have an effect on eating disorders as a result of weight concerns. Research has found that sociocultural factors have an important influence in the pathogenesis of eating disorders. Yet, there are different eating attitudes and drive for thin body image among different cultural groups (Kayano et al., 2008).

Research has found that Asian and Afro-Caribbean have a lower prevalence rate of eating disorders in comparison to Caucasian women in the UK (Wardle, Bindra, Fairclough & Westcome, 1993). Overall, Afro-Caribbean individuals generally indicate a preference for larger ideal body size and sometimes wish to be larger (Cash & Pruzinksy, 2004). Thus, data suggests that those with less preference for thin ideals are protected from developing eating disorders as they desire a less ideal body type. Culture does seem to play a role in the development of BI preferences and eating disorders yet there are other contexts and roles that contribute. Consequently, this evidence may suggest the CPP as inaccurate at determining a cultural difference of body image.

Research has pointed the influence of culture and the role of family and friends in the Etiology of eating disorders (Haworth-Hoeppner, 2004). Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979) is an explanation to BI and its progression to eating disorders through the influence of socio-culture. The micro system within the theory identifies the immediate environment in which an individual develops in, interactions within this system are those that involve personal relationships; family (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The Ecological Systems Theory identifies the contextual factors that may affect the development of the child and increase its risk of BI and eating disorders (Davison & Birch, 2001). Pressure from family and peers relative to the microsystem have been found to be predictors of body change behaviours (Xu et al., 2009). In terms of culture, perceived pressure to change BI was found to be consistent with Western culture body image ideals. Mellor et al (2008) found that greater body image dissatisfaction was higher when pressure to lose weight was prominent. This is further supported by research that found that the pressure to be thin and BD are risk factors for bulimic pathology and other eating disorders (Stice, 2001). However, most research was conducted in a Westernise culture and may not be applied universally. Therefore, with limited research it cannot be definitive of whether specific contexts are culture bound in body image and whether they differ cross culturally.

To conclude, ethnicity and cross-cultural contexts all suggest that culture plays a major role in the construction and development of body image. Thus, there are no simple answers to BI as even though they are culturally situated and shaped it is also shaped by sociocultural and developmental factors. Yet there are cross-cultural aspects to explain body image and its influencing factors that considers the suitability of the approach and its cause and effect factors.

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Body Image In Cross Cultural Psychology. (2021, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 26, 2023, from
“Body Image In Cross Cultural Psychology.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2021,
Body Image In Cross Cultural Psychology. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 Sept. 2023].
Body Image In Cross Cultural Psychology [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 12 [cited 2023 Sept 26]. Available from:
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