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Handbook of Positive Body Image and Embodiment Interview

Tracy Tylka & Niva Piran joined us for an interview on their book, Handbook of Positive Body Image and Embodiment: Constructs, Protective Factors, and Interventions. What follows are our questions in italics, and their thoughtful responses.

As two leaders in the field of eating disorders with unquestioned expertise in many areas, you came together to develop the Handbook of Positive Body Image and Embodiment: Constructs, Protective Factors, and Interventions. What led to this idea?

Having worked in the fields of positive body image (Tracy) and embodiment

(Niva) for over 15 years, we felt that a comprehensive handbook could support researchers and practitioners in incorporating a positive lens to the study of the way people live in their bodies, related protective factors, and to enriching health promotion and therapy interventions. We felt that a handbook could work towards this goal, first, by covering a broad domain of topics so it can provide a comprehensive resource for scholars and practitioners. Second, the handbook could comprise a platform featuring the work of international leaders from around the globe. Third, the handbook could facilitate further progress in the field by inviting contributors to describe not only knowledge accumulated to date, but also draw pathways for future progress. As co-editors, we believe that the volume achieved this goal and are very thankful for the authors’ strong contributions to the handbook.

How did you choose the chapter topics and their respective authors?

In choosing the 38 chapters of the handbook, we aimed to provide a state of the art, comprehensive, research-based resource that addresses the breadth of innovative theoretical concepts and related practice in positive ways of living in the body and sets agendas for further expansion. For that purpose, we invited international scholars who have led the way in addressing each of the targeted content areas. The book includes three main sections that we deemed important to progress in the field, namely: constructs and related measures that represent positive and resilient ways of living in the body, protective factors in the social arena, and interventions.

Constructs that reflect positive ways of living in the body are important for assessing well-being and resilience, expanding goals of prevention and therapy, and conducting research about etiology, outcome, and protective factors. The first section (9 chapters) introduces constructs that address positive ways of living in the body, including body appreciation, experience of embodiment, intuitive eating, broad conceptualization of beauty, mindful attunement, attuned exercise, attuned sexuality, and body image flexibility. Readers gain an understanding of the constructs and their measurement, and awareness of possibilities for further research and application.

Protective factors in the social arena are crucial to the understanding of etiology and to making changes at all levels of the social environment towards effective health promotion, prevention, and therapy. While, to date, most of the literature has focused on risk factors, the handbook aims to provide readers with chapters at the forefront of knowledge about protective factors. The organization of the 15 chapters in this section reflects the research-based integrated model of protective factors described by the Developmental Theory of Embodiment. The section starts with positive physical experiences related to joyful and mindful exercise, connection to desires, and safety. The next group of chapters examine the cultivation of resistance towards adverse constraining social molds and stereotypes (such as objectification, gender role, or the construction of race) on body image and embodiment. The last group of chapters addresses the quality of relational connections and the experience of social power with others in cultivating positive body image and embodiment via protective peer, family, online environments, and among individuals with visible differences. Readers will become familiar with ways to encourage positive (and counter adverse) social, relational, and other environmental experiences with protective factors and ideas for continued research and practice in these areas.

A positive lens can inform therapy and prevention interventions that have focused to date on reducing risk factors, negative body image, and eating symptoms. For this reason, the third section of the book (14 chapters) delineates ways in which approaches to therapy (e.g., ACT, EFT, compassion-based therapy) and prevention (e.g., media literacy, mindfulness) link to positive body image and embodiment. It can, similarly, highlight the particular role of yoga and other movement-based approaches in enhancing embodied well-being. Moreover, protective factors can suggest paths for constructive social transformations through changes to existing laws, policies, and norms. Readers will become acquainted with approaches to practice that enhance resilience, protective factors, and prevention.

Tracy, can you please speak briefly about positive body image?

Positive body image is not simply the reverse of negative body image. While negative body image is often defined as appearance dissatisfaction, positive body image is broader than appearance satisfaction—or simply liking the way we look. It reflects feeling positively about our body regardless of its consistency with media appearance ideals. It goes beyond our attitudes about our appearance to respecting our body and appreciating how it functions. Importantly, we don’t have to like everything about our appearance to have a positive body image.

Positive body image contains many facets. Overall, our research-based definition of positive body image reflects an overarching love and respect for the body that allows us to: (a) appreciate the unique beauty of our body and the functions that it performs; (b) accept our body, including those aspects that are inconsistent with idealized images; (c) feel beautiful, comfortable, confident, and happy with our body, which is often reflected as an outer radiance, or a “glow”; (d) emphasize our body’s assets rather than dwell on its imperfections; and (e) interpret incoming information in a body-protective manner whereby most positive information is internalized and most negative information is rejected or reframed.

Most research on positive body image has focused on body appreciation, functionality appreciation, and broadly defining beauty. These dimensions of positive body image are associated positively with psychological well-being (such as self-compassion, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness) and negatively with psychological distress (such as anxiety and depression). Having high body appreciation has been found to help prevent women from feeling negatively about their bodies after looking at appearance-focused media (such as images of thin models). It is also strongly linked to intuitive eating, an approach whereby individuals largely rely on their internal hunger and satiety (fullness) cues (instead of emotional or situational cues) to determine when, what, and how much to eat. The facets of positive body image have been found in research studying many samples, such as diverse cultural groups and those with spinal cord injuries.

Niva, can you please speak briefly about positive embodiment?

The ‘experience of embodiment’ construct reflects the quality of individuals’ experiences of living in their bodies as they engage with the world around them. In line with our mixed-method research on embodiment, the experience of embodiment depends on the quality of experiences on five dimensions: (a) body connection and comfort; (b) agency and functionality; (c) attuned self-care; (d) experience and expression of bodily desires.; and (e) inhabiting the body as a subjective site (vs. self-objectification).

Positive embodiment therefore involves positive connection with, and comfort in, the body, as well as experiences of agency and functionality in the world, both physically and through voice. Positive embodiment also entails practicing attuned self-care through attunement and responsiveness to physical, emotional, relational and other needs, and experiencing and expressing desire, both appetite and sexual desire, in a joyful, attuned, and self-caring way. Lastly, positive embodiment reflects subjective immersion in the body while resisting an objectified lens. Our research-based definition of positive embodiment is, positive body connection and comfort, embodied agency and passion, and attuned self-care.

Positive embodiment is associated with measures of well-being, such as self-esteem and life satisfaction, as well as with resistance towards adverse social pressures. In particular, individuals who live in their body positively stay positively connected to their bodies, often by engaging in protective self-talk that enhances self-acceptance, maintaining agency through criticality towards social pressures, being protective of their bodies and prioritizing attuned self-care, and resisting objectification, often by selectively engaging with constructive relational connections and social environments.

Tracy, the second section of this book highlights protective factors. How can individuals resist the socio/cultural pulls toward objectification?

In the Handbook, we discuss a two-pronged approach to resist the socio/cultural pulls toward objectification.

The first prong is working toward delegitimizing sexual objectification. Sexual objectification is a system that is based on gender roles that position women to be objectified (by disempowering girls and women and socializing them to focus on their appearance) and men to objectify women (by encouraging the ‘playboy,’ ‘aggressive,’ and ‘power’ gender roles). According to system justification theory, it is difficult to challenge systems, because individuals are socialized to support, defend, and justify them. Yet, we can begin to delegitimize sexual objectification by redirecting the threat. Instead of the threat being to sexual objectification, which leads to rationalizations for it (e.g., “It’s natural for men to desire women and be dominant”), we can position sexual objectification as the threat (e.g., “Treating anyone as a sexual object threatens their personal safety and basic freedoms”). We can also delegitimize sexual objectification by discussing its prevalence and offering ways everyone (not only the ones assaulted) can challenge it. The ‘MeToo’ movement provides hope that people are becoming aware of sexual objectification and are committed to reducing it. Additionally, we can delegitimize sexual objectification by helping people (and businesses) understand that their well-being and other outcomes (e.g., profits) are not dependent on sexual objectification being sustained. Last, we can delegitimize sexual objectification by helping people understand that they do not need to rely on sexual objectification to feel personal control. Promoting programs that redefine masculinity (as fostering male ways of caring, and male courage to speak out against injustice) and prevent rape (by positioning men as allies to women and supporting them through the traumatic process, such as Foubert and Perry’s ‘Men’s Program’) can help individuals understand that personal control can be fostered by challenging sexual objectification.

The second prong is arming individuals with skills to resist self-objectification, which entails internalizing sexual objectification and treating the self as an object. Two potential ways to achieve this goal are encouraging individuals to develop a contextualization schema and embodied identity. Developing a contexualization schema entails placing appropriate blame on the objectifier (e.g., “That is wrong to treat me as an object”) than to internalize the objectification and self-objectify (e.g., “My worth is dependent on my appearance”). We can also help girls and women replace an appearance-focused objectified identity with an embodied identity, which focuses on competence, abilities, aspirations, and achievements. Programs can be developed to facilitate a contexualization schema and embodied identity, or such interventions can be integrated within existing eating disorder prevention programs.

Niva, please link positive embodiment and social justice.

There is an inextricable connection between societal structures of power and privilege and individuals’ experiences of living in their bodies, such that structures of power privilege particular bodies and disenfranchise others. The examination of protective factors that enhance positive embodiment can clarify this connection. If we look, for example, at the four protective factors that operate at the physical domain (Piran, 2017), namely: safety, engagement in joyful and attuned physical activities, validation and sanctioning of appetite and sexual desire, and opportunities to practice attuned self-care, all these are compromised within the context of social disenfranchisement. Women have less access to all these four protective factors compared to men (of same social location) and these challenges are greater for women who are poorer and those whose race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical disability expose them to harsher physical conditions and fewer social and economic resources.

We similarly found in our research that protective factors in the domain of social discourses relate to freedom from exposure to, and a critical stance towards, constraining social moulds. However, if we consider the constraining femininity-related discourses that construct women’s bodies as inherently deficient objects of gaze and the social expectations that women act demure (not take space or act assertively, and be other-, rather than self-attuned), we can understand the limitations that they impose on diverse women’s opportunities to act with comfort and agency in the world. In line with Patrician Hill Collins (1990), we have found that at the intersection of different dimensions of social location (e.g., gender and race), these constraining stereotypes coalesce, limiting further one’s opportunity to engage fully in the world.

Lastly, when we consider the domain of social power and relational connections, it is important to recognize that living in particular bodies at the intersection of varied dimensions of social location entails different degrees of social capital (or social power). Protective factors in this domain, namely: having equitable access to social resources and freedom from prejudicial treatment and harassment, social power unrelated to one’s appearance, access to empowering relationships as well as to membership in communities of equity, are more challenging for women, and even more so to women of varied race/ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical/mental disability. In addition, these adverse conditions further affect embodiment directly through shaping individuals’ living conditions.

A consideration of protective factors that enhance positive embodiment therefore clarifies the multiple challenges to positive embodiment among many members of society that reside within conditions of inequity. Changes to embodiment therefore requires sociocultural transformations informed by social justice, feminist, anti-oppressive, and human rights perspectives. Overall, enhanced embodiment will relate to embodied equity. Where do you see your handbook taking the eating disorder community?

We hope that the handbook will affect theory development, research foci and methodology, practices of prevention and therapy, and, possibly, encourage professionals to engage in social transformations.

From a theoretical perspective, the consideration of positive ways of living in the body enriches the conceptualizations of well-being and expands current understandings of intra-individual resilience. Similarly, the focus on individual protective factors, as well as on integrated theories of protective factors, expands etiological constructions of body image and embodiment beyond theories that have focused on risk factors.

Considering research foci and methodology, the delineation of measures of positive ways of living in the body and of protective factors opens opportunities for new research agendas in the domains of etiology, protective factors, and outcome evaluations. This will bring to the fore, we believe, the particular role of testing models of mediation in prospective and cross-sectional etiological and intervention research. Further, the emphasis on protective factors in the social environment may encourage researchers to utilize innovative approaches to assess systemic, and not only intra-individual, changes. Moreover, discovery-oriented qualitative research (or mixed-method research) can enhance new developments in the field.

In terms of therapy interventions, we believe that the incorporation of a positive lens can shift therapy work by delineating positive goals for treatment and by considering the impact of protective factors and social structures of power on the therapy relationships and process.

Regarding prevention interventions, we hope that the book will facilitate a look at the interaction between protective factors and prevention work encourage the study of changes in the social environment of participants.

Finally, we hope that a critical look at cultural factors will also encourage researchers and practitioners to engage in initiatives that aim at constructive changes to the social environment.

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About the authors:

Tracy Tylka, Ph.D., FAED, is a Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University, USA. Her research includes understanding, assessing, and modeling body image and eating behavior, including its cultural risk factors and protective factors, among various ages, sexual and gender orientations, and cultural backgrounds. She focuses on both positive and negative body image as well as adaptive and maladaptive eating. To date, she has 79 empirical publications and has written three books and 20 book chapters.  She has created several measures, including the Body Appreciation Scale (original and revised), the Intuitive Eating Scale (original and revised), the Functionality Appreciation Scale, the Interpersonal Sexual Objectification Scale, and the Male Body Attitudes Scale. She is the Editor-in-Chief for Body Image: An International Journal of Research and on the editorial board for Eating Disorders: Journal of Treatment and Prevention. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Eating Disorders.

Niva Piran is a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and Professor Emerita at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Dr. Piran is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, Canadian Psychological Assciation, and the Academy of Eating Disorders. She is a recipient of the 2018 Association for Women in Psychology Distinguished Publication Award for her book, Journeys of Embodiment at the Intersection of Body and Culture: The Developmental Theory of Embodiment (2017) and the co-editor of four books on body image, and the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. She is a frequent international speaker on embodiment, body image, and eating disorder prevention and treatment.


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