The way we feel about our bodies changes across our relationships, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo asked young women to indicate the way they perceive their bodies and whether that perception changes when they are with different people from their social circles, including family members and friends.

The data suggested that the level of acceptance we feel from other people, the way we see our body size in comparison to theirs, as well as how preoccupied the other people are with their own body appearance affects the way we feel about our bodies when we are with them.

“It is important to know whether body image changes across relationships because body image is a key predictor of self-esteem in women,” said Sydney Waring, a PhD candidate in psychology at Waterloo, and the lead author of the study on relational body image. “More positive body image also improves mental health outcomes and a person’s quality of life.”

In addition to body image, the study also found that specific relationships affected eating habits.

“We know that poor body image is a risk factor for eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue,” said Waring.

The study participants reported having healthier body image and eating patterns in relationships with others whom they perceived to be relatively more accepting of their body, less body preoccupied, and more similar in size to them. 

“We are trying to help people give thought to the different people they are interacting with and how other people may affect the way they feel towards themselves,” said Allison Kelly, a professor of Psychology at Waterloo, and senior author of this study. “The findings also suggest that our qualities and behaviours could have an impact on the body image of the people around us.”

Study participants each answered questions about 10 different personal relationships from their social circle. Most of the specific relationships were with women. The study appears in the journal, Body Image.

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