What does your partner think about the way you look? How does this affect the way you think about your body? Based on the idea that individuals in a relationship can heavily influence each others’ body image, researchers from Texas A&M University recently developed and tested a training program to help couples improve their communication and attitudes related to body image. As a result, the researchers assumed, the training program would prevent eating disorders.
The study, released online last week in the journal Body Image, described the training program as 2 sessions, each 2 hours in length. The couples who participated were all heterosexual college students in exclusive relationships. Each couple engaged in a structured discussion with a study leader on issues such as communication within the relationship and healthy vs ideal body image, exercise, and eating behaviors. The couples were asked to apply the discussions to specific aspects of their own relationship. Furthermore, the couples discussed how their own body dissatisfaction affects the relationship, including sexual experiences, and participated in role plays aimed at promoting healthier communication.
So how did the training program affect the couples? The researchers compared the couples to another group of college students who didn’t participate in the training (control group). They found that women who were part of the prevention program, as compared to the control group, reported feeling less pressure to meet an idealized thin body type and felt better about their bodies one month after the training program.
However, there were no significant differences between women in the couples program and the control group when it came to changes in eating disorder symptoms. Women in both groups reported a similar decrease in eating disorder symptoms which makes it impossible to say that the couples training program could have caused a decrease in eating disorder symptoms.
We have no idea how the program affected men because the study excluded them from the analysis of changes in body image and eating disorder symptoms. This is unfortunate given that we know many men suffer from eating disorders.
While it’s possible that a better designed study might show that the same couples training program helps prevent eating disorders, there may be an inherent flaw in the assumption that improving body image via a 4-hour training program can lead to the prevention of an eating disorder.
Photo credit: Emily Meyers