Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Psychological need satisfaction and body image

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Psychological need satisfaction and body image:
What is the relationship between psychological need satisfaction and body image?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Body image is an important part of our self-concept (Brichacek et al., 2018). It has been defined as "the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say the way in which the body appears to ourselves", but it has been deemed more complex than just a picture in our minds (Selvi, 2018). Adolescents are more susceptible to having body image issues as this is a time of identity development. However, that isn't to say others won't experience body image issues. For example, research conducted in the United States showed that 25% of male children/adolescents were concerned about their muscularity and leanness and expressed a desire for having toned and defined muscles (Linardon, 2020). In a study conducted on Australian male children/adolescents, 17% were unhappy with their body (Linardon, 2020). Around 50% of young American females, around the age of 13, were unhappy with their body. This increased to around 80% by the time they were 17 years old (Linardon, 2020).

Psychological need satisfaction emphasises that there are three innate and universal needs that are crucial for motivation. These needs include autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Orkibi & Ronen, 2017; Selvi, 2018).

This chapter looks self-determination theory and self-discrepancy theory to explain the relationship between psychological needs and body image.

Focus questions
  • What psychological theory explains psychological need satisfaction?
  • What is the relationship between psychological needs and body image?
  • What psychological theory help us understand body image?

Psychological need satisfaction[edit | edit source]

Psychological need satisfaction is a mini theory of self-determination theory and focuses on three needs. These three psychological needs include autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Selvi, 2018) and are classified as organismic needs (Reeve, 2018). The well-being of an organism depends on its environment as it offers resources that promote wellness such as food, water, social support and intellectual stimulation. When environments are supportive and provide what is needed, organisms thrive (Reeve, 2018), whereas, if the environment is not supportive and thwarts the fulfilment of the needs it can produce maladaptive behaviour (Selvi, 2018).

"Just as plants need water and sunshine to grow, the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs is deemed essential to psychological thriving" (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013)

Figure 1. Self-determination theory: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a broad theory of human motivation and assumes that individuals have a natural tendency for psychological growth (Thomaes et al., 2017). SDT states that individuals have an innate tendency to adjust their behaviour based on choice and interest, and strive to grow and understand themselves by integrating new experiences, by promoting their needs, desires, and interests, and by connecting with others and the outside world (Brichacek et al., 2018; Legault, 2017b).

According to SDT, self-determined motivation results from the fulfilment of three fundamental needs; autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Thøgersen-Ntoumani & Ntoumanis, 2007).

Autonomy[edit | edit source]

Autonomy is a core psychological need. It can be explained as the sense of free choice, having control over their behaviours and actions, rather than being coerced or pressured (Orkibi & Ronen, 2017; Selvi, 2018). Everyone will naturally strive to have their need for autonomy to be fulfilled. This is done through being continuously involved in interacting with their environment and receiving the support they need in order to flourish and grow (Legault, 2016). Autonomy-supportive environments enable the development and satisfaction of the need for autonomy through offering them a choice and the opportunity for self-direction (Legault, 2016).

When individuals produce actions and behaviours that are consistent with their values, interests, and beliefs, they experience autonomy as this need has been satisfied (Selvi, 2018). When this need is satisfied, individuals are more interested, engaged and overall happy (Legault, 2016). However, if an individual experiences a lack of autonomy need satisfaction, it produces a lack of control over one's life (Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2010). When this need is neglected or thwarted, individuals feel alienated, helpless and in some cases, hostile or destructive (Legault, 2016).

Competence[edit | edit source]

Competence is another core psychological need. It refers to the need to experience efficacy, mastery and skilfulness (Orkibi & Ronen, 2017). Humans have an innate tendency to develop themselves. This means they strive to interact efficiently with their environment to experience a sense of effectance and enhance their abilities in order to reach their intrinsic potential. Competent-supportive environments produce the satisfaction of the need for competence by allowing the individual the opportunity to make, and learn from, mistakes and failures (Legault, 2017a).

When individuals feel effective in performing a task which is important for them and increases their perceived competence, interest and engagement is enhanced which produces increased self-worth (Chen et al., 2015; Legault, 2017a). However, if they feel incompetence in their abilities and the environment diminishes their perceived competence, they will feel a sense of failure, and will produce doubts about their efficacy (Legault, 2017a; Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2010).

Relatedness[edit | edit source]

Relatedness is the third core psychological need. It refers to experiencing a sense of belonging, closeness, connected to, caring for and being cared for by others, and accepted by important people in their lives (Kluwer et al., 2020; Orkibi & Ronen, 2017).

When individuals feel connected to others and their community, experience a sense of belonging and closeness, and are accepted, it satisfies their need for relatedness and thus increases well-being and psychological thriving. However, if they are rejected by others and their community and the need is thwarted, individuals may feel excluded, disconnected, isolated and lonely (Chen et al., 2015).

Body image[edit | edit source]

Body image is important to our self-concept and is deemed more complex than just a picture in our minds (Brichacek at al., 2018; Selvi, 2018). Body image includes perceptual, cognitive, affective, and behavioural aspects that interact with cultures, the media, the individual’s social environment, and individual factors. This interaction then leads to positive and negative body image (Selvi, 2018). Having a positive body image is typically associated with higher self-esteem, self-acceptance, quality of life, and healthy behaviours, whilst having a negative body image is associated with many negative consequences, such as body-dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and, substance abuse (Selvi, 2018).

Figure 2. Pop magazine cover. This shows how body image is reinforced through the media.

Whilst body image is mostly an internal feeling, it can be influenced by external factors. According to the tripartite model, parents, peers and the mass media provide three pathways through which body image ideals are communicated and reinforced (Selvi, 2018). There are many cultural and societal influences that also effect body image and produce consequences. Most of these consequences include eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Cultural and societal effects[edit | edit source]

Each culture has their own set of body ideals, and what is classed as attractive varies from culture to culture. These ideals are enforced upon young girls and women; however, male body image ideals do exist it just has received less attention (Stojcic, Dong, & Ren, 2020). Over the last century, the desired female body size and shape has changed (Bakhshi, 2011). For example, in the Western societies' past, the female body was characterised with a full stomach, rounded hips and breasts. This body ideal was desired as it represented wealth, prosperity and health, and a symbol of fertility (Bakhshi, 2011). In modern society, women are now encouraged, but also somewhat expected, to be thin in order to be sexually attractive and successful (Bakhshi, 2011), and men are encouraged to be lean and muscular (Markland & Ingledew, 2007).

This emphasis on being thin in Western culture may be specific to that culture, as many non-Western cultures see no value in being thin and is often seen as unattractive. For example, Chinese Americans who identify with more Chinese values place more importance on psychological traits and behavioural manners when defining male and female attractiveness (Dotse & Asumeng, 2015). In Arabic cultures, thinness is considered socially undesirable and larger body sizes are a symbol of fertility and womanhood (Bakhshi, 2011). Barroso et al (2010) found that African American men and women were more attracted to overweight and larger individuals. Hispanic women value other aspects of their appearance such as style and grooming, which leads to accepting a variety of body shapes and sizes (Bakhshi, 2011).

Case study

Silverstein et al (1986) conducted a study that looked at the content of 33 television shows and 8 monthly magazines over the course of the year, along with fashion magazine photographs between 1901 and 1980 and films from 1932 to 1980. What they found through this study was that there was a shift toward a slimmer ideal and a greater emphasis was placed on women to be slimmer. Although this analysis was conducted quite a while ago, it still is relevant because this ideal is still very much present today.

Figure 3. Barbie dolls portray these unrealistic beauty standards

By adolescence, girls are more concerned with their looks and appearance than boys and consider themselves less attractive than boys do (Sujoldžić & De Lucia, 2007). These feelings of pressure from society are enhanced through the use of social media (Brichacek et al., 2018). Sites such as Facebook and Instagram can be quite powerful for body satisfaction because they are image-based and allow selective construction of an idealised self (Brichacek et al., 2018). Females learn from a young age that their appearance is a pivotal part of their worth, this is through exposure to barbie dolls which portray these unrealistic beauty ideals expected of girls (Anschutz & Engels, 2010). Therefore it is more important to them to develop this image of themselves that is idealised by others, rather than developing an authentic self (Dorian & Garfinkel, 2002).

Consequences[edit | edit source]

Body dissatisfaction

Body dissatisfaction is defined as "a discrepancy between perceptions of reality vs. those of an ideal and is made up of an individual's own subjective experiences of their appearance" (Bakhshi, 2011). The basic premise of body dissatisfaction lies within a discrepancy between the perceived self and the ideal self (Vartanian, 2012).

Grabe and Hyde (2006) investigated body dissatisfaction levels among Asian American, Black, Hispanic and White women. In regard to White women, they found that their body dissatisfaction levels didn't change when compared to Asians and Hispanics, however, they find increased levels of body dissatisfaction when they were compared with Black women. They also looked at Black women's body dissatisfaction levels compared to Hispanics and found the latter to have higher levels of body dissatisfaction. Hispanics and Asians levels were compared, and they found that they had similar levels of body dissatisfaction.

Eating disorders

Having repeated exposure to these unrealistic standards of what makes females and males attractive that is encouraged and enforced produces an enormous amount of pressure on young men and women to lose weight or gain more muscle (Mask, 2011).

  1. Anorexia: is an illness that is characterised by a restriction of food which leads to a low body weight that is dangerous, an intense fear of gaining weight, body image disturbance and the inability to see the life-threatening implications of thin state they are in (Phillipou, Castle, & Rossell, 2018). Anorexia has been found to be more common in females than males. The lifetime prevalence of this disorder has been found to be 0.3% to 1%, although European studies have found the prevalence to be 2-4% (Moore & Bakor, 2020).
  2. Bulimia: is more common in adolescent females and is characterised by engaging in binge-eating and inappropriate behaviours that prevent weight gain, such as vomiting (Jain & Yilanli, 2020). The prevalence of this disorder in the United States is 0.9% among adolescents, 1.5% among women, and 0.5% among men. The prevalence in countries such as North America, Australia, and Europe has been found to range from 0.1% to 1.3% among males, and 0.5% to 2% among females (Jain & Yilanli, 2020).
Case study


“My eating disorder started when I was fourteen. I was significantly overweight and decided that it was time for a lifestyle change. It started out innocently, disguised as healthy eating and regular exercise.At that stage, I had lost enough weight to be considered healthy. But I became addicted to the number on the scale decreasing.

My healthy lifestyle was demolished. I began purging, absolutely everything that I ate, be it an apple or lasagna. My weight decreased even more, but I wasn’t satisfied with how I looked.

That’s when the restricting began. It was a very abrupt change, going from eating a lot of calories a day, to not eating for two days, to not eating more than a tablespoon of soup a week.

In October 2015, I reached my lowest weight. My parents took me to a general hospital where I was put on a drip, to try and make me gain some weight. I was then transferred to an inpatient facility for three weeks. Immediately after I was discharged, the behaviours snuck in again. My weight was dropping again, and I was put on a drip again for two days until my parents could secure a place for me at a long term inpatient facility. I was in treatment for six months."


Mental illness

  1. Anxiety produces many unpleasant feelings for an individual. These feelings can include worry, distress, uncertainty, fear, and loss of control (Turel et al., 2018).
  2. Depression is characterised by a constant feeling of sadness and lack of interest in activities that were once pleasurable (Manaf et al., 2016).

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Self-discrepancy theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Self-discrepancy theory.

Self-discrepancy theory states that there are three domains of self (Vartanian, 2012). The actual self is made up of the individual's perceptions of their own qualities. The ideal self refers to the characteristics that the individual would like to have or aspire to have, and lastly, the ought self refers to the characteristics that the individual believes that have the right to possess (Vartanian, 2012). When individuals notice differences between their actual self and personal self-guides it can cause dissatisfaction, feelings of failure, shame, anxiety or depression (Yu & Jung, 2018).

Many researchers focusing on body image look at the discrepancy between how one sees themselves and how one would ideally like to be, whilst taking note that the ideal self might reflect an internalisation of society's standards of attractiveness (Vartanian, 2012).

Self-discrepancy theory can be related to body image because of the cultural norms that are formed around the standards and expectations of what is attractive (Vartanian, 2012). It is important to note that these standards are unrealistic for the majority of the population to achieve without the help of cosmetic surgery or self-starvation (Vartanian, 2012). Therefore, when an individual compares their actual self with the ideal that has been enforced from society, they will most likely not meet that standard which results in body-related self-discrepancy (Vartanian, 2012). When this discrepancy is surfaced, the individual links their failure to meet these body ideals with their self-concept (Bessenoff, 2006).

Psychological need satisfaction and body image[edit | edit source]

It has been suggested by Ryan and Deci that the preventing of need satisfaction can lead to feelings of distress and the production of self-defeating behaviours such as refraining from eating (Thøgersen-Ntoumani & Ntoumanis, 2007; Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2010). When an individual hasn’t satisfied their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, they are more likely to suffer from body image concerns that can include a drive for being thin and body dissatisfaction (Thøgersen-Ntoumani & Ntoumanis, 2007).

Evidence suggests that unsatisfied psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness may be connected to the onset of disordered eating behaviours (Bégin et al., 2018). Satisfying the psychological needs has been shown to be related to eating a healthier diet, whereas thwarting and neglecting the needs has been linked to unhealthy weight control behaviours and symptoms of disordered eating (Bégin et al., 2018).

Bégin et al (2018) found that women who are more self-determined are less likely to support the sociocultural pressures towards being thin, to be dissatisfied with their body image, and to adopt bulimic symptoms. In other words, self-determined women will not comply with the pressures to be thin, they won’t feel dissatisfied with their body image, thus not engaging in bulimic or other disordered eating symptoms.

Autonomy and body image[edit | edit source]

Autonomy satisfaction is produced when the individual has a choice and control over their behaviours and actions. This means, in relation to body image, that satisfying your need for autonomy is produced from not feeling a sense of pressure to conform to the set ideals around how you should look and having control on whether they want to change their body. It also means that the individual values and has an interest in eating a healthy diet therefore, leading to this need being satisfied as this behaviour coincides with their beliefs, values and interests (Mask, 2011). However, autonomy need prevention can lead to a struggle to control one’s appearance which is established by body image concerns (Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2010). This also means that if the individual has no free choice and is coerced, they may participate in behaviours that are considered maladaptive to gain that control and free choice back into their life. For example, they may engage in disordered eating to reach the desired body image that has been pressured on them to gain that control again and feel as if they are 'choosing' to engage in this behaviour, and it is their decision.

Competence and body image[edit | edit source]

Competence satisfaction is produced when an individual experiences effectance. In relation to body image, this need is met when an individual performs a task that is important to them and enhances their intrinsic potential.  For example, engaging in exercise may be an important task to someone because it makes them feel good, so they continue to partake in this activity for their own personal enjoyment, rather than exercising to meet their desired body image. This will increase the individual’s self-worth, and well-being.

The thwarting of the competence need reflects feelings of inadequacy. Therefore, when an individual doesn’t eat due to body image concerns, they have a sense of control which can lead them to feeling competent (Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2010).  Someone who wants to satisfy this need but has experienced a discrepancy between how they look and how they want to look, will partake in activities such as disordered eating, excessive exercise, and may even go through cosmetic changes to meet these set ideals they have produced for themself. By engaging in these behaviours, the individual is more likely to experience low self-esteem and ill-being because the environment they are in produces feelings of incompetence.

Relatedness and body image[edit | edit source]

Relatedness satisfaction is produced when an individual feels accepted, close and significant to others. In relation to body image, this need will be met when the individual is accepted by others and their community for who they are, and don’t expect them to conform to the society’s standards of beauty. However, if this need is not satisfied the individual will feel isolated and lonely. Experiencing these feelings can lead to a struggle for body control in an attempt to gain social acceptance and approval by meeting societal standards of ideal beauty (Thøgersen-Ntoumani et al., 2010).

Being rejected by close friends and family about their body image can lead to maladaptive behaviours in order to conform to these standards in the hopes of gaining their approval on how they look. If they continue to be rejected it can lead to many negative outcomes such as anxiety and depression. These outcomes can also delay the need for relatedness to be satisfied because they may not feel comfortable leaving their house because of how they look, which leads to further isolating themselves and thus they are unable to form these close bonds they so deeply desire.

Quiz questions[edit | edit source]

1 Does the media have a significant effect on how people think they should look?


2 Sophie is unsatisfied with how she looks and her close friends have rejected her appearance. Sophie now has lost contact with her friends and rarely leaves the house anymore. She is completely isolated. Sophie constantly looks at photos of celebrities and magazines and wishes that she looked like them. In order to do that, Sophie has started engaging in restrictive eating. Sophie’s environment is thwarting which psychological need?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Psychological need satisfaction is a useful part of our motivation, and self-determination theory helps with the understanding of how satisfying these needs will produce growth, integrity and overall well-being. We are constantly driven to fulfil the needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness; however, this is only achieved when our environment is supportive of these needs.

For example, fulfilling the need for autonomy requires the environment to allow the individual to make their own choices, and in relation to body image that could be deciding to eat healthier to maintain their body image perceptions in a positive light. To fulfil the competence need, the environment is required to allow for mistakes to be made but doesn’t enforce incompetence or inadequacy onto the individual, so in relation to body image that could mean not continuously reminding the individual how they don’t look a certain way as this can produce feelings of being inadequate which subsequently can lead to many dangerous behaviours, such as restrictive eating. Being accepted by our friends and family for how we are, and not forced to conform to the many unrealistic beauty standards we see throughout our lives will fulfil the need for relatedness, as we will feel close to those around us and not isolated because of our appearance.

It is important to note however, that if an individual has persistent body image concerns and the environment promotes the thwarting and neglect of the basic psychological needs, then the individual will constantly feel down about themselves, and can produce maladaptive behaviour, rather than growing and feeling a sense of well-being.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Anschutz, D. J., & Engels, R. C. (2010). The effects of playing with thin dolls on body image and food intake in young girls. Sex roles, 63(9-10), 621-630.

Bakhshi, S. (2011). Women's body image and the role of culture: A review of the literature. Europe's Journal of Psychology, 7(2), 374-394.

Barroso, C. S., Peters, R.J., Johnson, R.J., Kelder, S.H., & Jefferson, T. (2010). Beliefs and perceived norms concerning body image among African-American and Latino teenagers. Journal of Health Psychology, 15(6), 858-870.

Bégin, C., Fecteau, A., Côté, M., Bédard, A., Senécal, C., & Ratté, C. (2018). Disordered eating behaviours through the lens of self-determination theory. Europe's Journal of Psychology, 14(3), 571.

Bessenoff, G. R. (2006). Can the media affect us? Social comparison, self-discrepancy, and the thin ideal. Psychology of women quarterly, 30(3), 239-251.

Brichacek, A., Neill, J., & Murray, K. (2018). The effect of basic psychological needs and exposure to idealised Facebook images on university students' body satisfaction. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 12(3).

Chen, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Beyers, W., Boone, L., Deci, E. L., Van der Kaap-Deeder, J., Mouratidis, A. (2015). Basic psychological need satisfaction, need frustration, and need strength across four cultures. Motivation and emotion,39(2), 216-236.

Dorian, L & Garfinkel, P. (2002). Culture and body image in Western society. Eating and weight disorders: EWD.7. 1-19.

Dotse, J., & Asumeng, M. (2015). Relationship between body image satisfaction and psychological well-being: The impact of Africentric values. Journal of Social Science Studies, 2(1), 320-342.

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Jain, A., & Yilanli, M. (2020). Bulimia Nervosa. StatPearls [internet].

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Linardon, J. (2020). The ultimate list of body image statistics. Retrieved from

Manaf, N. A., Saravanan, C., & ZuhrAh, B. (2016). The prevalence and inter-relationship of negative body image perception, depression and susceptibility to eating disorders among female medical undergraduate students. Journal of clinical and diagnostic researc: JCDR, 10(3), VC01.

Markland, D., & Ingledew, D. K. (2007). The relationship between body mass and body image and relative autonomy for exercise among adolescent males and females. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8(5), 836-853.

Mask, L. (2011). A self-determination theory perspective of women's body image and eating-related concerns in response to media portrayals of the female body. University of Ottowa.

Moore, C. A., & Bokor, B. R. (2020). Anorexia nervosa. StatPearls [internet].

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Silverstein, B., Perdue, L., Peterson, B., & Kelly, E. (1986). The role of the mass media in promoting a thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women. Sex roles, 14(9-10), 519-532.

Stojcic, I., Dong, X., & Ren, X. (2020). Body image and sociocultural predictors of body image dissatisfaction in Croation and Chinese women. Frontiers in psychology,11,731.

Sujoldžić, A., & De Lucia, A. (2007). A cross-cultural study of adolescents-BMI, body image and psychological well-being. Collegium antropologicum,31(1),123-130.

Th⊘gersen-Ntoumani, C., Ntoumanis, N., & Nikitaras, N. (2010). Unhealthy weight control behaviours in adolescent girls: A process model based on self-determination theory. Psychology and Health, 25(5), 535-550.

Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., & Ntoumanis, N.(2007). A self-determination theory approach to the study of body image concerns, self-presentation and self-perceptions in a sample of aerobic instructors. Journal of Health Psychology, 12(2), 301-315.

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Turel, T., Jameson, M., Gitimu, P., Rowlands, Z., Mincher, J., & Pohle-Krauza, R. (2018). Disordered eating: influence of body image, sociocultural attitudes, appearance anxiety and depression-a focus on college males and a gender comparison. Cogent Psychology, 5(1), 1483062.

Vansteenkiste, M., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). On psychological growth and vulnerability: basic psychological need satisfaction and need frustration as a unifying principle. Journal of psychotherapy integration, 23(3), 263.

Vartanian, L. R. (2012). Self-discrepancy theory and body image. Encyclopedia of body image and human appearance, 2(1), 711-717.

Yu, U. J., & Jung, J. (2018). Effects of self-discrepancy and self-schema on young women's body image and self-esteem after media image exposure. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 47(2), 142-160.

External links[edit | edit source]