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Predictors of self-objectification in new female fitness center members.

This study aimed to ident5 predictors of self-objectification among exercising women. A brief questionnaire incorporating demographic questions and measures of self-objectification was completed by 133 new female fitness center members (aged 16 to 68 years) upon joining a fitness center and 12 months later. Results demonstrated that young women who remained fitness center members had greater self-objectification at 12 months than women who ceased their memberships. Furthermore, both initial age and reasons for exercise predicted subsequent increases in self-objectification. Specifically, being younger, as well as being more motivated by appearance-related reasons to exercise, predicted self-objectfication at 12 months. These findings suggest that young women exercising within the fitness center environment may be at an increased risk of developing self-objectification, one of the predictors of negative body image and disordered eating


There is no doubt that there are a host of physical and psychological benefits to participating in regular physical activity. For example, evidence shows that regular exercise increases longevity, immune function, and musculo-skeletal health (Biddle & Mutrie, 2008). Research has also demonstrated that physical activity has a positive impact on affect (Reed & Ones, 2006) and levels of depression (Rethorst, Wipfli, & Landers, 2009). In addition, meta-analyses of the relationship between exercise and body image also reliably demonstrate that exercise has the ability to improve body image (Campbell & Hausenblas, 2009; Reel et al., 2007). Research shows that across their lifespan physically active men and women are more satisfied with their bodies than their inactive counterparts (Loland, 2000).

Despite these benefits, however, two-thirds of the world's population do not participate in sufficient regular physical activity (Biddle & Mutrie, 2008). In addition, not all individuals benefit from physical activity. It has been suggested that a number of factors, such as the type of exercise (lean vs. non-lean) and reasons for participation (weight focused vs. health focused), might impact upon whether exercise acts as a protective factor against body image and eating concerns (Ackard, Brehm, & Steffen, 2002; Smolak, Murnen, & Ruble, 2000). In general, female exercisers have greater drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction and eating pathology than exercising males as well as both male and female non-exercisers (Penas-Lledo, Sancho, & Waller, 2002; Wolf & Akamatsu, 1994). For some young women (aged 16-21 years), instead of experiencing the psychological benefits previously mentioned, the more they exercise, the worse they actually feel about themselves in terms of their body satisfaction and self-esteem (Tiggemann & Williamson, 2000). This finding has been attributed to reasons for exercise, whereby younger women tend to exercise more for appearance-related reasons such as to lose weight or to tone up rather than for functional or health-related reasons (Tiggemann & Williamson, 2000). Recent research supports this suggestion by demonstrating that it is not necessarily the frequency or amount of exercise that is important, but rather the cognitions that women hold for doing exercise (e.g., Adkins & Keel, 2005; Cook & Hausenblas, 2008; Mond, Hay, Rodgers, & Owen, 2006).

There are a host of reasons why people may choose to exercise, such as enjoyment, weight control, stress relief and improving body tone. According to some authors (e.g., Furnham, Badmin, & Sneade, 2002; Strelan, Mehaffey, & Tiggemann, 2003), these reasons can be collapsed into three conceptually distinct domains: physical health-related reasons (e.g., to improve physical fitness and health), mental health-related reasons (e.g., to reduce stress or for enjoyment), and appearance-related reasons (e.g., to lose weight or improve appearance). Of these, wishing to maintain or improve physical appearance is cited as one of the most common reasons for exercising (Leary, 1992). This is particularly the case for young women, and appears to decrease with age (Davis, Fox, Brewer, & Ratusny, 1995).

Exercising to influence body weight and shape has consistently been associated with increased body image dissatisfaction, self-objectification and greater eating disturbance, while exercising for more functional reasons such as health and fitness has been associated with increased body satisfaction (Adkins & Keel, 2005; Furnham, et al., 2002; Ingledew & Sullivan, 2002; McDonald & Thompson, 1992; Mond, et al., 2006; Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, & Rodin, 1988; Strelan, et at, 2003). Accordingly, the impact that women's motivations for exercise can have on the development and maintenance of body image concern is an important question to address (Ackard, et at, 2002; Calogero & Pedrotty, 2007; Mond, et at, 2006). Under the framework of Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), the present study examines the effect of different reasons for exercise on subsequent self-objectification.

Objectification Theory is based on the notion that within Western cultures women are always potentially objectified, constantly the subject of another's gaze, or continually being evaluated (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). The theory postulates that constant exposure to sexual objectification socializes some women to become preoccupied with their physical appearance and to use it as a measure of their self-worth. These women internalize an observer's perspective of the self and come to view themselves as objects in terms of their appearance, rather than valuing their internal attributes and abilities (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). This process has been termed self-objectification (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Self-objectification is a form of self-consciousness that consists of habitually monitoring one's physical appearance and has been linked to a host of negative health consequences for women such as depression and disordered eating (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Miner-Rubino, Twenge, & Fredrickson, 2002; Noll & Fredrickson, 1998). Self-objectification has also been linked to exercising for appearance-related reasons (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005a, 2008; Strelan, et al., 2003).

In Australia, fitness centers provide a common exercise location for approximately a third of physically active women (Slater & Tiggemann, 2006). In addition, after walking, aerobics is cited as one of the most frequent forms of exercise for women (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007). However, fitness centers also generally provide an atmosphere in which women's bodies are constantly on display. Female fitness participants, in particular, are often surrounded by a plethora of full-length mirrors, media (e.g., posters, music videos) that depict the ideal body, and other women's bodies (often in tight, revealing clothing) with which to compare themselves. Continual exposure to such an environment may be harmful for women's body image. Indeed, there are a number of lines of evidence that suggest that fitness centers may be potentially objectifying environments that promote increased self-objectification and body image disturbance among women (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005a, 2005b, 2008; Strelan, et al., 2003).

Prichard and Tiggemann (2005b) have established that fitness center members are motivated to exercise more by appearance-related reasons, and that they objectify to a greater extent than non-fitness center members. Within a general sample of female undergraduate students, Slater and Tiggemann (2006) demonstrated that female fitness center members displayed greater drive for thinness and perceived themselves as subjectively more overweight than non-fitness center members. In an examination of self-objectification amongst female aerobic participants at fitness centers, an increased amount of time spent exercising within the fitness center environment was also correlated with greater self-objectification, in comparison to time spent exercising outside of the fitness center environment (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005a, 2008). Taken together, these findings suggest that exercising within the fitness center environment may not be associated with the usual positive benefits of exercise.

The above correlational research (e.g., Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005a, 2005b, 2008) is consistent with the notion that exercising within the fitness center environment may promote appearance-related reasons for exercise and could lead women to self-objectify to a greater extent. However, it is equally plausible that women already high on self-objectification might exercise for particular reasons and choose to do so at a fitness center. The cross-sectional designs utilized in previous research do not allow the determination of the temporal relationships between these variables. Only a longitudinal study tracking the self-objectification, body image and reasons for exercise of women from when they first join a fitness center could help determine the temporal relations.

Age may be another key factor to consider. Research has shown that younger women are more likely to exercise for appearance-related reasons (Tiggemann & Williamson, 2000). For older women, as the importance of the body lessens (Grogan, 2008), so too does the desire to engage in exercise as a body change strategy. Furthermore, young women are still developing their feminine identities (Noll & Fredrickson, 1998). Accordingly, adolescence and early adulthood may be a time where women's bodies are increasingly scrutinized, making this a critical period for the potential development of self-objectification as self-objectification itself decreases with age (Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001).

The purpose of the present study was to examine potential predictors (age, reasons for exercise, attendance at the fitness center) of self-objectification in a female fitness center sample. A longitudinal analysis was employed to allow for an investigation of temporal precedence. Thus, the present study measured women's self-objectification at two time points 12 months apart. Given the conceptualization of fitness centers as potentially objectifying environments, it was predicted that for young women (aged 16-28) who remained fitness center members, levels of self-objectification would increase over the one-year period. It was also hypothesized that exercising for appearance-related reasons would predict increased self-objectification at 12 months.



The sample consisted of 240 new female fitness center members, ranging in age from 16 to 68 years (M = 30.98, SD = 11.61). They were recruited by sales staff when they first joined one of seven different fitness centers around metropolitan Adelaide, South Australia. Follow-up data were available for 133 participants.


A questionnaire was created for the study. It was presented to participants in a color brochure entitled "Exercising at Fitness Centers", and contained questions on demographic information, reasons for exercise, and self-objectification.

Background Information

At both time points participants specified their gender, age, height, weight, and ideal weight. BMI was calculated by dividing participants' current weight (kg) by their height ([m.sup.2]). The discrepancy between their current and ideal weights (actual minus ideal) was calculated as an index of body dissatisfaction. Upon joining, participants were also asked how often they planned to attend the fitness center each week, and 12 months later they were asked to indicate how often they attended their fitness center each week.

Reasons for Exercise

Given the brevity of the questionnaire used in the present study, it was not appropriate to include the entire 24-item Reasons for Exercise Inventory (Silberstein, et al., 1988) utilized in previous research (e.g., Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008). Instead, participants were asked to rate the importance of the seven main motivations for exercising incorporated in the Reasons for Exercise Inventory (i.e., weight control, mood improvement, fitness, appearance improvement, enjoyment, body toning, and health). Participants responded on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all important) to 7 (extremely important). For ease of interpretation and to remain consistent with previous research (e.g., Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008; Strelan, et al., 2003), these reasons for exercise were then grouped into three sub-categories: appearance-related (incorporating weight control, physical attractiveness, and body tone), health/fitness, and enjoyment/mood improvement.

Objectification Measures

Self-objectification was measured using the Self-Objectification Questionnaire (Noll & Fredrickson, 1998) which assessed the extent to which participants valued their bodies in objectified, appearance-related terms as opposed to non-objectified, competency-based terms. Participants rank ordered 10 different attributes from the most important to their physical self concept, to the least important to their physical self concept. Five of the 10 attributes were appearance-related (firm/sculpt-ed muscles, sex appeah weight, physical attractiveness, body measurements) and the other five were based on physical competence (health, strength, physical coordination, physical fitness, energy level). Final self-objectification scores were obtained by subtracting the sum of the competency-based rankings from the sum of the appearance-related rankings. Potential scores ranged from -25 to +25 with higher and more positive scores indicating a greater focus on appearance, which is interpreted as greater self-objectification (Noll & Fredrickson, 1998).


Potential participants received a letter of introduction and an initial questionnaire from sales staff upon joining one of seven fitness centers around metropolitan Adelaide, South Australia. Interested participants completed the questionnaire at their leisure, and returned it via the reply-paid envelope provided. Approximately 700 questionnaires were distributed across the seven different fitness centers. Overall, 240 questionnaires were returned (34.29%), although it is unclear whether sales staff actually gave out all the questionnaires, or whether any questionnaires were 'misplaced' in the process. Thus it is likely that this response rate is an underestimation of the actual return rate.

Within the initial questionnaire, participants were given the option of providing their contact details for a follow-up questionnaire and to enter a raffle for a sports store voucher. Women who provided their contact details (N = 185) were mailed a follow-up questionnaire 12 months after initially joining a fitness center. Participants who returned their 12-month follow-up questionnaire were entered into a raffle for a sports store voucher. Overall, 144 (77.84%) participants from a possible 185 returned their 12-month follow-up questionnaires [11 of which were either returned blank or 'return to sender' and could not be used in analyses]. Thus, data were available for 240 new female members and 133 participants at 12 months.


Characteristics of the Sample

Participants had an average BMI just above the range of normal (M = 25.34, SD = 5.23), and wished to be approximately 8.37 kg (SD = 7.70) lighter than their current weight. Upon joining, participants had levels of self-objectification (M = -5.75, SD = 12.46) similar to those reported by non-members (e.g., M = -5.18, Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005b), and other active samples (e.g., M -6.10, Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008).

Attrition analyses were conducted to ensure that there were no significant differences at baseline between participants who provided follow-up data (N = 133) and those who did not (N= 107). There were no significant demographic differences between the groups on age, BMI, or weight discrepancy (all t's < 1.33, p > .05). Likewise, the two groups did not differ at baseline in terms or self-objectification, t(237) = 1.84, p> .05. Both groups of women were also equally motivated to exercise for appearance-related reasons upon joining, t(238) = 1.12, p > .05. The only significant differences between groups were that participants who provided follow-up data exercised significantly more for enjoyment and mood improvement, t(235) = 2.36, p < .05, and health and fitness reasons, 4237) = 2.41, p < .05, than those who did not provide follow-up data.

Self-Objectification Over

Time Complete data for the two time points were available for 133 participants. Of these, 86 participants were still members 12 months later, and 47 participants no longer were. In order to account for any potential differences in the development of self-objectification across age groups, and because of the large age range in the present sample (16-68 years), the sample was divided into two approximately equal age categories (16-28 years, N = 67; 29-68 years, N = 66) on the basis of a median split. Separate analyses were conducted on each age group.

For the participants aged 16-28 years, a mixed between-within subjects ANOVA was conducted to determine whether self-objectification changed over time amongst the women who were still members and those who were no longer members. The means for self-objectification at both time points are displayed in Table 1. There was a significant interaction between time and whether participants were still a member of a fitness center, F(1, 65) = 5.17, p < .05, indicating that self-objectification increased over the 12-month period for young participants who remained fitness center members, and decreased for participants who ceased their memberships. There was also a main effect of group, F(1, 65) = 6.54, p <.05, whereby participants who were fitness center members at 12 months had greater self-objectification than participants who were not (see Table 1). There was no main effect of time, F(1, 65) = .05, p > .05.
Table 1
Self-Objectification Scores for Participants from the
Two Age Categories Who Were Still Members at 12 Months
and Those Who Were Not

 N Upon joining 12 months

16-28 year olds *

Members at 12 months 40 -4.30 -1.35

 (10.82) (13.80)

No-longer members at 12 months 27 -8.33 -10.78

 (11.64) (8.64)

29-68 year olds

Members at 12-months 45 -9.80 -10.73

 (11.81) 11.94

No-longer members at 12 months 20 -5.60 -6.70

 (11.82 (12.57)

Note: *p < .05

For the 29-68 year old women there was no significant interaction between time and whether participants remained a member of a fitness center, F(1, 63) = .01, p> .05. Nor was there a significant main effect of time, F(1, 63) = 67, p > .05, or membership status, F(1, 63) = 1.92, p > .05.

Prediction of Self-Objectification at 12 Months

In order to test whether any of the variables measured upon joining were related to change in self-objectification, an examination of temporal precedence was necessary. Temporal precedence is established by demonstrating that a variable predicts subsequent change in an outcome variable, when controlling for the initial levels of that outcome variable (Stice, 2002). Thus a series of separate hierarchical multiple regression analyses was conducted with initial age, initial BMI, attendance at the fitness center at 12 months (as a proxy for membership status), and initial reasons for exercise, as the predictor variables. For each regression equation, initial self-objectification was entered at Step 1, followed by the predictor variable at Step 2. Self-objectification at 12 months was the outcome variable. The resulting p, [R.sub.change.sup.2] and [F.sub.change] values are presented in Table 2. change

From Table 2 it can be seen that age upon joining was a significant negative predictor of self-objectification, accounting for an additional 4% of the variance in self-objectification at 12 months after controlling for self-objectification at baseline, [R.sub.change.sup.2] = .04, p < .01, [F.sub.change] = 9.89, p <.01. Neither initial BMI, nor the number of times women attended a fitness center at 12 months, predicted subsequent changes in self-objectification. However, women's initial reasons for exercise did predict subsequent change in self-objectification, [R.sub.change.sup.2] = .05, p < .01, [F.sub.change] = 4.39, p < .01. Specifically, the beta values in Table 2 show that exercising more for appearance-related reasons and less for enjoyment and mood improvement predicted increased self-objectification at 12 months.
Table 2 Summary of Hierarchical Regression Analyses to
Predict Self-Objectification

 Self-objectification at 12 months

Predictor variables [beta] [R.sub.change.sup.2] [F.sub.change]

Step 1

Initial .70 ***

Step 2

a. Initial age -.19 ** .04 9.89 **

b. Initial BMI .00 .00 .01

c. Frequency of .11 .01 2.96a
attendance at fitness
centre at 12 months

d. Initial reasons .05 4.39
for exercise

Appearance-related .24 **

Heath/fitness .01

Enjoyment/mood .14 *
Note: *** p <.001, ** p <.Ol, * p < .05, ap = .088.


The present study was the first to examine predictors of self-objectification (age, reasons for exercise, being a fitness center member) over time in an exercising sample. Women were followed from when they first joined a fitness center through to 12 months later. Upon joining, participants in the present study had similar levels of self-objectification to the non-members sampled in previous research (e.g., Prichard & Tiggemann, 20056), indicating that women high on self-objectification do not self-select themselves to the fitness center environment. Over time, the self-objectification of young women (16-28 years) who remained fitness center members increased, while women who were no longer members displayed decreased self-objectification. In contrast, self-objectification did not change significantly over time for the older subgroup of women.

In the regression analyses, participant's age was shown to be a significant negative predictor of subsequent self-objectification. Specifically, being younger upon joining predicted increased self-objectification. Adolescence and early adulthood is a time of increased self-awareness and self-consciousness, and as such may be a critical time for the development of self-objectification (Slater & Tiggemann, 2002). Young women may therefore be more prone to the potential environmental triggers of self-objectification within the fitness center environment (as well as elsewhere), and subsequently display greater self-objectification. In contrast, older women may already have established levels of trait self-objectification and as a consequence, appear not to be affected by the fitness center environment. Further, as women age, they are more likely to use age-appropriate comparison models (Grogan, 2008). Thus, while many comparisons (e.g., with young, thin, fitness instructors) are readily available within the fitness center environment, older women may not actually use them as comparison points, and therefore may not be affected. Thus, young women who attend fitness centers may be at a greater risk of developing self-objectification and in turn, its consequences.

Consistent with expectations, women's initial reasons for exercise were also found to predict subsequent self-objectification. In particular, exercising for appearance-related reasons upon joining predicted increased self-objectification at 12 months, while being motivated to exercise for functional reasons such as enjoyment and mood improvement predicted lower levels of self-objectification. These findings are in accord with other research (e.g., Calogero & Pedrotty, 2007) that highlights the importance of addressing reasons for exercise in the development and maintenance of body image concerns. Accordingly, fitness professionals should endeavor to promote functional reasons for exercise (e.g., enjoyment, health, fitness) over appearance-related reasons in an attempt to reduce self-objectification over time.

The findings of the present study should be interpreted in light of a number of methodological limitations. Overall, the study was limited by the number of participants who were recruited and retained. Further, a control group of similarly aged women who had never joined a fitness center would have been a useful addition. Without this it is impossible to unambiguously attribute any changes over time to the fitness center environment alone, although those women who ceased membership provided a quasi-control group. In addition, due to the brevity of the questionnaire used in the present study, only a limited number of measures could be included. However, the use of such a brief questionnaire enabled the recruitment of a reasonable number of fitness center members from the general population, which may not have been possible with a longer questionnaire. Future research could usefully include a larger range of established measures to establish whether factors other than age and reasons for exercise predict change in self-objectification over time. Within the context of the fitness center environment, experimental research is also required to establish whether specific potentially objectifying features, such as music video clips in cardiovascular rooms (Tiggemann & Slater, 2004) and what fitness instructors promote in their classes (Raedeke, Focht, & Scales, 2007), are linked to increased self-objectification.

In sum, the present study demonstrated that the self-objectification of young women who remained fitness center members increased over a 12-month period. No such relationship was evident for young women who ceased their memberships, or for older women. Further, age was found to negatively predict self-objectification, whereby joining a fitness center at a younger age predicted increased self-objectification. Appearance-related reasons for exercise also emerged as an important predictor of subsequent self-objectification. These findings suggest that younger women, as well as those who are motivated to exercise for appearance-related reasons, are at an increased risk of developing self-objectification within the fitness center environment.


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Ivanka Prichard, Flinders University

Marika Tiggemann, Flinders University


Ivanka Prichard Flinders University Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer, School of Medicine c/o Public Health GPO Box 2100 Adelaide, South Australia 5001


Phone: +61 8 72218471
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Title Annotation:Original Research Article
Author:Prichard, Ivanka; Tiggemann, Marika
Publication:Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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