God complex

Do religious women have better body image?

Reading about God makes women feel better about their bodies, researchers find

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ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, a team of British psychologists interviewed nearly 600 Muslim women in London–about 60 percent of whom wore a hijab–and found that the women who regularly wore that modest garment were more satisfied with their bodies, less preoccupied with thinness and less afraid of becoming fat. The veil, they concluded, might serve as “a buffer against negative body image.”

It’s easy to see how wearing conservative clothes–and spending most of your time around women who aren’t showing off their bodies, either–might make you less focused on body image. But there’s another pretty major factor at play: the religious and cultural context in which the hijab is worn. And new research suggests that religiosity alone might be linked to body satisfaction and resistance to the idealization of thinness.

For a new study, appearing in the latest issue of the journal Body Image, a team of Canadian psychologists led by Zina Chaker explored the interplay between body satisfaction, religiosity and acceptance of mainstream Western culture among immigrant women. Chaker and her colleagues recruited 143 young women of various religious persuasions–Muslims were especially well-represented–who were first or second-generation Canadians and asked them questions about their religious beliefs, spiritual experiences and involvement in a religious community, as well as the extent to which they felt connected to their heritage (“Heritage acculturation” being measured by how often they reported participating in the cultural traditions of their families) and to mainstream Canadian society (“Mainstream acculturation” being assessed by their reports of taking part in “mainstream Canadian cultural traditions”).

Chaker evaluated the women’s body satisfaction based on their responses to statements like, “I like what I see when I look in the mirror,” and assessed their internalization of Western beauty standards based on their levels of agreement with statements such as, “I would like my body to look like the models who appear in magazines.”

After controlling for Body Mass Index, they found: “Women with greater levels of heritage culture feel less pressure to adhere to standards of beauty set by the media (e.g., to be thin). Conversely, greater endorsement of mainstream (i.e., Canadian) culture and values among women is associated with greater perceived pressure to adhere to the media’s portrayal of beauty standards.” Higher levels of religiosity were also linked with greater appearance satisfaction.

Other studies have also found a positive association between religiosity and body satisfaction. In 2010, researchers at a Christian liberal arts college found that among the 231 undergraduate women they studied, religious conviction was associated with greater body satisfaction, less dieting and less internalization of the “thin ideal.” In another study, psychologists had Christian women read either religiously-themed or neutral statements; the women in the “Spiritual” group then scored better on tests of body satisfaction than those assigned to the control group.

The link between wearing a hijab and having a positive body image, then, might have less to do with the modesty of the veil and more to do with the religious outlook of the women who wear it. Of course, religion can’t exactly be prescribed as a cure for bad body image–but having interests other than beauty–or moral convictions that outweigh superficial concerns–could potentially serve the same function.

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