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Self-disgust fuels negative body image

19 September 2023

Many women suffer from a negative body image that does not fade easily. This persistence is possibly caused by feelings of disgust toward one's own body, also known as self-disgust. If self-disgust does not diminish, chances are that negative body image will not improve either. These findings may be important in the treatment of eating disorders, for example. This is indicated by Paula von Spreckelsen's dissertation, which she will defend on 21 September.

Negative body image

Young women in particular often have a negative image of their own bodies, meaning they are dissatisfied and preoccupied with their shape and weight, and overestimate the importance of their appearance. Body image concerns appear to be a critical factor in the development, maintenance and relapse of eating disorders. In addition to the extreme psychological burden, eating disorders can also have serious physical effects. They are associated with cardiovascular, metabolic and hormonal abnormalities and even death, among others. Eating disorders are often long-lasting and there is a high risk of relapse.

‘Feeling dirty’

In today's society, the female body is often judged as "an object" and compared to an unrealistic ideal of beauty which is fueled by daily exposure to images of perfectly photoshopped models in the media. Natural body functions and features that do not conform to these are condemned, such as body fat, body hair, menstruation, or perspiration. Internalizing this objectification can promote an alienation from one's own body and through that, may contribute to the experience of disgust toward the body.


Disgust is very persistent and prompts people to engage in all sorts of avoidance behaviors to avoid the nasty feelings of disgust. This is very helpful when it comes to staying away from possible pathogens. But in the case of a negative body image, that avoidance can keep negative beliefs about one's own body from being modified. Avoidance prevents habituation and hinders feelings of disgust in response to body-related memories from diminishing. Breaking avoidance by getting habituated to feelings of disgust therefore seems crucial. This could not only reduce (self-)disgust, but also help modify the negative meaning of body-related memories and form a more positive body appreciation.

Clinical implications

The results from this dissertation confirm the role of self-disgust and associated avoidance of body-related memories in body image concerns and problematic eating behavior. These research findings may be relevant to women at risk for or suffering from an eating disorder. Disgust avoidance could potentially be an obstacle to treatment, reduce willingness to seek treatment, reduce the success of treatment strategies, or increase the likelihood of relapse. Targeting self-disgust could therefore be an important addition to existing body image or eating disorder treatments.

Last modified:19 September 2023 11.28 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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