Muscle Up: Psychobiological Responses to Social-Evaluative Body Image Threats in University Male Athletes and Non-Athletes
Negative body image often occurs as a result of social evaluation of the physique in men. However, athletes tend to experience fewer body image concerns compared to non-athletes. Social-self preservation theory (SSPT) holds that social-evaluative threats (SETs) elicit consistent psychobiological responses (salivary cortisol and shame) to protect one’s social-esteem, status, and standing. Actual body image SETs have shown consistent psychobiological changes consistent with SSPT in men, however, these responses in athletes have yet to be examined due to the unique relationship they have with their bodies. Thus, the purpose of the current study was to examine psychobiological (i.e., body dissatisfaction and shame and salivary cortisol) responses to an acute laboratory body image SET in 49 male varsity athletes and 63 non-athletes from a university community between the ages of 18 and 28 years old. Participants were randomized into a high or low body image SET conditions, stratified by athlete status, and measures of body dissatisfaction and shame and salivary cortisol were taken across the session. Results showed significant time-by-condition interactions, such that athletes and non-athletes had significant increases in salivary cortisol, when controlling for baseline values, and state body shame following the high-threat condition only. Consistent with SSPT, body image SETs led to increased state body shame and salivary cortisol, although there were no differences in these responses between university non-athletes and university male athletes from non-aesthetic sports. By contrast, previous studies have found that elite level athletes showed blunted psychobiological responses to performance based SETs compared to non-exercisers. It is possible that athletes in the present study did not compete at a high enough level to reduce the effects of SETs; it is also possible that differences in sport type between the athletes in the current study and those in previous studies may explain differences in findings. It is also possible that body image threats lead to unique responses compared to more general, performance-based threats. Future research should continue to examine the relationship between athletes and their body image by investigating the impact of competition level and sport type within a Canadian university sport context.