A study published in the journal Body Image suggests that reflecting on one’s mortality may be beneficial for women’s body image. The study found that women who participated in a death reflection exercise in the lab reported greater satisfaction with their body weight than those who did not.
Body dissatisfaction is widespread among women and is broadly understood to be a consequence of how women are socialized. The understanding is that women learn to equate their physical appearance with their self-worth and feel dissatisfied when their bodies do not match up to the unrealistic beauty standards presented in the media. Study authors Jessica M. Alleva and her team proposed that thinking about one’s mortality might interrupt these adverse thought processes, and in doing so, might improve body image.
Contemplating one’s death has been linked to various psychological improvements. For example, near-death experiences have been found to encourage an improved perspective on life through shifted priorities, greater compassion within relationships, and increased autonomy. It is believed that thoughts about mortality can promote a shift from extrinsic values (e.g., status) toward intrinsic values (e.g., family). Alleva and her colleagues set out to explore whether a death reflection exercise might promote a similar shift that leads to improved body image.
The researchers recruited 158 female university students to complete a questionnaire assessing their intrinsic and extrinsic values. A subset of the women then read a descriptive scenario that had them imagine themselves dying in an apartment fire. The women were then asked a series of prompts that probed their feelings regarding their imagined death. These questions including asking them to describe their life up until this point and to imagine how their family would react to their death.
An active control group did not partake in the death reflection exercise but were simply asked to describe how they feel when thinking about their own death. A second control group reflected on an unrelated unpleasant topic (visiting the dentist).
All participants then completed a series of questionnaires assessing their body satisfaction, body appreciation, broad conceptualization of beauty, endorsement of cultural appearance ideals, and the importance they place on their physical appearance.
When the researchers analyzed the results, they found that the women in the death reflection group showed greater weight satisfaction compared to the group that reflected on an experience unrelated to their death. Moreover, women who were high in beauty orientation showed greater shape satisfaction in the death reflection group than in the active control group.
“When women reflect on their own death,” Alleva and her colleagues discuss, “it could put appearance concerns into perspective, reducing the overall importance that they place on their physical appearance. Further, realizing that one’s body will one day die could encourage women to feel more satisfied with, and appreciative of, the body that they have right now, as is—regardless of whether or not it meets societal appearance ideals.”
The authors say that although death reflection appeared to improve women’s shape and weight satisfaction, the exercise was not found to broaden the respondents’ conceptualization of beauty or to ease their endorsement of cultural appearance ideals. The researchers suggest that these concepts may be more heavily internalized and thus more difficult to change. They suggest that future research should consider whether repetition of such death reflection exercises might lead to positive changes in these more deeply-ingrained thought processes.
Alleva and her associates emphasize the fact that death reflection exercises may not be suitable for all individuals, given that thoughts of mortality can trigger negative feelings at the same time as psychological improvements. They say that it will be important for future research to evaluate the negative consequences of death reflection and counterbalance these with the benefits of the exercise.
The study, “The potential benefits of death reflection for improving women’s body image”, was authored by Jessica M. Alleva, Melissa J. Atkinson, Sabine Schwarten, Anuschka Theden, Moon I. Waldén, and Carolien Martijn.