Why Does Swimsuit Shopping Drive Women Wild?

A woman is likely to feel worse about perceived figure flaws while trying on a swimsuit alone in a dressing room than if she's wearing that suit while walking past others on a public beach at midday, new research shows.

However, regardless of whether she's clad in a revealing swimsuit or covered up by jeans and a sweater, a woman is more likely to feel ashamed of her body if she feels she's being watched by others than if she's indulging in self-criticism behind dressing room doors.

The latest body image findings come from Marika Tiggemann, a psychologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who studies the phenomenon of self-objectification, in which women monitor their appearance to see how they stack up against a "virtually unattainable thin beauty ideal" portrayed in mass media. The obsessive self-scrutiny subjects them to "body-based shame and anxiety," Tiggemann and coauthor Rachel Andrew wrote.

For this latest study, appearing in the May 1, 2012, issue of the journal Sex Roles, Tiggemann and Andrew analyzed survey responses from 102 undergraduate college women, 70 percent of whom were of normal weight, yet generally considered themselves slightly overweight.

In the paper, the authors suggested that merchants might want to consider ways to mitigate the stress that their customers, especially overweight women, experience while trying on clothing in harshly lit, mirrored dressing rooms. Clothing store owners and managers should take care not to make things worse by "displaying mannequins and posters of only very thin women or making comments on women's size."

In addition to seeking environmental changes, women can take steps to indulge less in negative thinking, suggested  Janis K. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in Culver City, Calif., who helps patients deal with poor body image.

"There are a lot of women who have a very hard time looking at themselves in a mirror at all, whether they have traditionally labeled figure flaws or not," Rosenberg said.

Instead of telling themselves how much they hate their thighs or arms, Rosenberg asks them to try an exercise in front of the mirror after they emerge from the shower. While applying body lotion, she asks them to say to themselves: "I love my arms. I love my stomach. How fortunate and grateful I am to have these working body parts."

"Although it sounds hokey," such exercises can help self-critical women  view their bodies with "appreciation and gratitude, rather than criticism and self-hatred," Rosenberg said.

Although some women need professional help to achieve this, "most can basically make a decision to not be so unkind about body image," Rosenberg said.  The idea is to learn how "to be nicer to yourself."