Body Awareness, Body Image, and Well-Being: Two Studies of British Adults

Somatic Psychology

There have been several British studies conducted in recent years regarding the body image of British subjects. These are of interest not so much about the body image of the average British person, but more so about a new measure of body awareness–the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA)–can be used to explore the structure of body image and the latter’s relationship to well-being. These are very important topics and the British researchers are to be acknowledged for their contributions.

But, before we can get into all of that, some groundwork must be provided.

As I discussed in another blog-lecture—What Does Body Awareness Mean to You? Part II: The Objective View—body awareness is composed of exteroception or the awareness of sensations from outside of the body and interoception which perceives signals from the inside of the body. Interoception is further subdivided into proprioception which deals with body movements and posture and visceroception which tells us about the stirrings of our internal organs. Interoception is a fundamental aspect of body awareness and is critical for maintaining homeodynamic balance. Maintaining physiological balance is based on responding to sudden needs as signaled by body sensations. The brain areas most involved in organismic self-regulation are the insula lobe and the anterior cingulate cortex. These give us a large part of our body experience and neurotransmitters in both of these structures modulate body awareness and contribute to our sense of well-being (Farb et al., 2015). Interoception and exteroception together create our body schema. This experience–as it is multisensory in nature–includes the visual perception of the body. The schema experience is then evaluated by the mind and emotional responses are produced thus creating positive or negative body image. Most research into body has focused on exteroception. Interoception has three functional aspects. First there is interoceptive accuracy which is our base level sensitivity to body sensations. Interoceptive sensibility is the conscious assessment of aware experience. Finally, there is interoceptive awareness (IA) which is the degree of correspondence between a person’s level of interoceptive accuracy and verbal self-report of that experience.

The first key to the British research was the relationship between IA and various aspects of body image using the MAIA measurement tool. IA itself is a complex experience which focuses on positive and negative attention toward body sensations. Given this, Mehling et al. (2012; 2018) developed the MAIA to assess eight distinct dimensions of IA:

  1. the ability to notice positive, negative and neutral bodily sensations;
  2. the ability to hold these sensations in awareness;
  3. the awareness between emotional experience and physical sensations;
  4. the use of body awareness to modify distress;
  5. the inclination to focus on bodily sensations for meaning and relevance;
  6. the degree to which the body is experienced as a dependable source of information;
  7. the tendency to focus or block sensations of pain or discomfort;
  8. the degree to which a person worries about pain or discomfort.

They then used it to test the body awareness and body image of a large subject pool of British adults. The study comes from an online sample of 646 British adults (447 women) between 18 to 76 years who completed the MAIA and other body-self relations scales (Todd et al., 2019). Statistical analysis showed significant connections between IA and five facets of body image after controlling for sex, body mass index, and age. These five facets are body appreciation, body functionality appreciation, body pride, appearance orientation, and overweight fixation. This is a major finding in that it gives more detail as to how a person’s degree of body awareness relates to how they perceive and feel about their bodies.

Next, the finding that specific areas of the body image contribute to the experience of well-being. This second study is also of great interest as it confirms that positive aspects of body image contribute to a healthy sense of well-being. Another online sample of 1,148 British adults completed questionnaires about various facets of body image–body appreciation, body image flexibility, body pride, body acceptance from others–along with a multi-dimensional measure of general well-being. Results showed that after controlling for age and body-mass index–that body appreciation was strongly related to a sense of well-being (Swami et al., 2018).

Closing Thoughts

These investigations have several features of interest. First, they are both based on sizeable samples and that is always a plus. Also, they included men in their studies as, up until recently, most body awareness studies tend to focus on women. Next, they used very sophisticated measurement instruments. In the Todd et al., 2019 study, there is the testing of an intriguing new measure of body awareness to analyze body image. It showed that the experience of one’s body feelings being safe and reliable relate to body pride and that the appreciation of the body’s functionality depend on the quality of one’s body awareness. The Swami et al. 2019 study more clearly connects the sense of well-being with several facets of positive body image experience; a very intriguing and potentially useful accomplishment. Lastly, these studies have value because they focus on one specific nationality.

These two studies show how awareness, body image, and a positive sense of being healthy are key factors for mental and physical health. Many health problems relate to distorted interoception such as emotional distress, addiction, eating disorders, chronic pain, dissociation, somatoform disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Awareness-based, mind-body techniques can provide powerful tools with which to rehabilitate body awareness disturbances (Farb et al., 2015). The five facets of body image may each provide a more precisely focused avenue toward improving body image and well-being.

Good show, Great Britain. May God save the King.

Paul Shane, Ph.D., LMT

Director, Academic Content

References

Farb, N., Daubenmier, J., Price, C., Gard, Kerr, C., Dunn, B., Klein, A., Paulus, M., & Mehling, W. (2015). Interoception, contemplative practice, and health. Frontiers of Psychology 6, http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763.

Mehling, W., Price, C., Daubenmier, J., Acree, M., Bartmess, E., & Stewart, A. (2012). The multidimensional assessment of interoceptive awareness (MAIA). PLoS One, 7, e48230. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0048230

Mehling, W., Acree, M., Stewart, A., Silas, J., & Jones, A. (2018). The Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness, Version 2 (MAIA-2). PLoS One, 13, e0208034. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0208034

Swami, V., Weis, L., Barron, D., & Furnham, A. (2018). Positive body image is positively associated with hedonic (emotional) and eudaimonic (psychological and social) well-being in British adults. The Journal of Social Psychology 158(5), p. 541-552.

Todd, J., Aspell, J., Barron, D., & Swami, V. (2019). Multiple dimensions of interoceptive awareness are associated with facets of body image in British adults. Body Image 29, p. 6-16.

Updated and revised 05-02-24.