…but does it have to be?
This piece was written by one of our contributors; PhD student in Exercise Sciences – Garcia Ashdown Franks.
Imagine you are going for a swim at your local pool on a hot summer’s day, when suddenly you see a group of females who you feel are younger, fitter and more attractive than you. Suddenly you aren’t so keen to swim anymore, and head back to your towel, trying your best to cover up.
As human beings, we have an innate biological drive for social comparison for evolutionary reasons. This drive can be unconscious and we can compare ourselves to others without even realising it (1). While these comparisons are highly tied to envy and may be connected to ill-health and unhealthy behaviours, these feelings are not all bad and can be harnessed in a positive way. The following article will explore how envy and appearance based comparisons can affect our health and health-related behaviours (i.e. exercise), and provide suggestions for ways to cope with these emotions in a positive way.
Envy is defined as, “a negatively valanced self-conscious emotion that arises from awareness and strong longing for a socially desired object or trait that is possessed by another individual (2).” The emotional experience of envy can involve many unpleasant emotions such as hostility, inferiority and resentment towards the envied individual (3,4). In the example above, that situation might make you feel envious and consequently inferior to those females.
Furthermore, research supports the idea that there are two forms of envy. Benign envy tends to be aimed at improving oneself or feeling admiration for another, while malicious envy has the goal of bringing down the envied person from their superior position, and is commonly associated with feelings of hostility and ill-will (2, 3, 5, 6, 7). Relatedly, social comparisons, can be upward (comparing self to someone they perceive is superior), or downward (comparing self to someone they perceive is inferior). The emotional experience of envy is very similar to an upward social comparison (2,4). In essence, social comparisons are the cognitive component, i.e. the mental process of thinking and understanding, prior to the emotional experience of envy.
As envy is a self-conscious emotion, it occurs in contexts which are interpersonal, and is driven by social motives (8). Sport and exercise environments are both highly social and evaluative, as they provide opportunities for comparisons to be made based on body shape and appearance, as well as body performance and physical skill (1, 9, 10). A pool can also be one such highly evaluative context.
Envy can also be viewed specifically as body-related envy (6). This type of envy can come about when someone experiences an unfavourable social comparison when they compare themselves to someone they feel has a superior body or appearance to themselves (3, 6, 11).
Body-related envy can involve feelings of inferiority, hostility, resentment and injustice towards the person who is viewed as superior (4, 6, 11). As with envy in general, it can involve both a benign and a malicious state (6).
Links between physical appearance comparisons and health/health behaviours:
Social comparisons and envy have been linked to various health behaviours and outcomes. One study found that after women were exposed to an attractive woman, it made them more likely to want to enhance their appearance. This relationship was found to be explained by state envy, meaning that the social comparison lead to envy, which led to desire for appearance enhancement. In that study, envy predicted greater willingness to undertake dangerous behaviours such as take a risky diet pill, and predicted more positive views towards cosmetic surgery (12). Similarly, a study found that female students exposed to media figures subsequently reported higher motivation for invasive cosmetic enhancements, and this behavioural motivation was associated with greater feelings of envy (13).
One study found that compared to other types of comparisons, comparisons based on physical appearance were more likely to be upward and compared to someone dissimilar, and were linked to greater envy, less inspiration and less pride (14). Interestingly, those who reported a better quality of life and body image reported greater inspiration and less envy after physical appearance comparisons (14).
It has also been found that the two different types of envy are differentially related to well-being, such that in one study, benign envy predicted wellbeing, while malicious envy negatively predicted wellbeing (15). Interestingly, a decreased sense of trait self-control fully mediated (i.e. explained) the relationship between malicious envy and negative well-being (15).
A large study pooling several studies together (meta-analysis) found that social comparison was consistently found to be a predictor of body dissatisfaction (16), such that comparing oneself unfavourably (upwardly) to someone else can lead to dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance (16).
Body-related envy can also affect the ways in which we process information and experiences and make us more likely to socially compare. For example, those who are more prone to it have stronger brain activations when observing the body of another individual, and have more efficient cognitive processing of cues related to physique (17).
It appears that there are different health behaviours associated with body-related envy between males and females. Among males, those who felt more negatively about their appearance were more engaged in exercise when they made more body-related upward social comparisons, i.e. compared their body, physical appearance or features to someone they felt was superior. Conversely, among females, those who felt more negatively about their appearance were less engaged in exercise on days when they made more body-related upward social comparisons. Interestingly, this study found that among those who positively evaluated their own appearance, there was no significant relationship between body upward social comparisons and exercise (18). This could be related to the findings of a separate study which found body-related upward social comparisons were related to increased exercise only when the motivation for exercise was to avoid guilt or manage appearance (6).
The relationship between negative appearance evaluations and more upward social comparisons may be explained by the fact that those with more negative evaluation are more attuned to stimuli related to the body and the appearance (e.g., a body-related upward social comparison target). Inherently, those with negative evaluations of themselves are more likely to compare themselves with others, as mentioned in the Pila and colleagues study above (17). So, if you feel worse about yourself, you may be more attuned to notice those attractive females at the pool, more likely to compare and thus more likely to feel worse afterwards.
It is evident that envy and social comparison have the potential to lead to dangerous health behaviours and health outcomes, however they don’t have to. It is important when thinking about envy and comparison to acknowledge that they are evolutionary and are thus part of our human nature. A helpful way of dealing with these feelings can be through self-compassion, an overall attitude of kindness and understanding throughout one’s disappointments and struggles (19). Research has found that body-related social comparisons are negatively related to how much one appreciates their body, however the use of self-compassion can negate this (20). There is evidence to suggest that self-compassion interventions are effective in the area of body image (21).
How to deal with social comparisons
- Notice when you compare- while humans have evolved to compare themselves to others that are perceived to be superior, we can often get caught up in unhelpful patterns of comparing. Try to notice when you are making these comparisons.
- By building up this awareness, we can begin to ask ourselves if the stimuli we are exposed to is really necessary, or is adding any value to our life. We can begin to alter what we expose ourselves to, with the aim of surrounding ourselves with stimuli, content and individuals that bring us positive feelings.
- Reflect on what may be causing these thoughts or negative feelings- Can the experience of envy be used in a motivating and healthy way?
- Consider reducing your exposure to it, if you recognise it is not positively contributing to your mental health or well-being. For example, if you follow a specific person or account on Instagram that consistently makes you feel negative about yourself when you see their posts, unfollow them
- Remind yourself that it is human to compare! Show yourself kindness and understanding
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