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Northwestern University

Q&A: Jasmine Stephens

Psychology Class of 2015

Psychology Class of 2015

Jasmine Stephens found that messages designed to improve women’s body image often produce the opposite effect.

“You’re beautiful.” “You look great today!” “You’re gorgeous, inside and out.”

Earlier this year, the mirrors in Northwestern’s residence halls were filled with sticky notes encouraging students to feel good about their appearance. 

The handwritten messages were part of “Operation Beautiful,” a campaign to combat the self-esteem issues that often arise in a world that presents an unobtainable standard of beauty. 

But when Jasmine Stephens ’15 (left) took a closer look at the impact of such positive statements on female students in particular, she discovered that the words often had the opposite effect. She and Renee Engeln, a professor of instruction in psychology, presented their findings at the Association for Psychological Science Conference in May.

How did you measure the impact of “body positivity” statements on self-esteem?

We asked 113 female students to write down their thoughts for five minutes. Every 20 seconds, they would hear a chime. We asked them to think “I love my body” each time they heard the chime. We then compared their body-dissatisfaction scores with those of participants who were asked to think a neutral statement — in this case, “I am (blank) years old”— when they heard the chime. We found that body-affirming statements tended to lower the participants’ body satisfaction. 

Did you expect that result?

We did, actually, because previous research has found that when you ask people with low self-esteem to make positive statements such as “I am loved,” they’ll often make a counter-argument, which can result in lower self-esteem. 

Still, it was really disheartening. The actual experiment took only about five minutes, but that was enough time to show a significant decrease in body satisfaction. If they were asked to think, “I love my body,” they would go from making neutral statements, such as “I’m just sitting here,” to “I don’t really love my body, my thighs look gross, I need to go to the gym.” They spiraled. It was scary.

How did you get interested in this topic? 

Well, most girls have had issues with body image. Just going into a store or seeing magazines, we see an impossible standard that no one can live up to. I also have friends who’ve had eating disorders and depression, so that influenced my interest in this issue. 

What was it like to participate in the conference? 

It was amazing. It was so wonderful to see how inspired and passionate people are about their research. A few other Northwestern students also attended, and we would sit around every night and talk about all the talks we’d gone to. It was so “psych nerdy” in a beautiful way. 

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