No Wonder Barbie Thought Math Was Hard!

Body Image Woes Add Up
Worrying About How You Look Hurts Concentration

By Claudine Chamberlain

Five years after the talking doll caused a stir with her politically incorrect complaints about math class, a group of psychologists has found that the more women worry about how they look, the less mental energy they have for other things—like math.

And that’s true whether you consider yourself hopelessly dumpy or the next Naomi Campbell. “Even if you think you’re meeting the ideals, just being concerned with the ideals takes your energy away from other things,” says social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan. “Anytime you’re interrupting your own stream of thinking to think about how you look, it has that effect.”

Math In a Swimsuit

Social scientists have long known that women’s preoccupation with their physical appearances can lead to low self-esteem, eating disorders, and other problems. Fredrickson and her colleagues wondered if it might have an even broader mental effect.

So they gathered a group of undergraduate students, 40 men and 42 women, for a test. One at a time, the students were asked to try on either a sweater or a swimsuit in a makeshift dressing room with a full-length mirror.

They were told that the idea of the test was to measure whether or not they liked the garment better after wearing it for 15 minutes. So, rather than let those 15 minutes go to waste, they were then asked to take a 20-question advanced math test, supposedly as part of a separate study.

When the results were in, the researchers found that the men did about the same on the math test whether they were wearing a swimsuit or a sweater. In fact, the guys did slightly better in swim trunks. The women, however, had significantly lower math scores if they were wearing the swimsuits. The authors published their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Whose Point of View?

So, even though the women were in the dressing room alone, they were seeing themselves as others might see them, and being distracted by it. By taking this third-person perspective of your own body, experts say, your attention is divided and that can make you timid and uncertain.

It’s a small study, and the results need to be replicated, but the researchers agree that it could start to explain why girls’ academic performance goes down at about the same time they’re becoming more aware of their bodies and society’s unreasonable expectations for women’s appearance.

Psychologist Joni Johnston, author of Appearance Obsession, says the findings of the study mesh with what she sees in her surveys of teenage girls.

“Girls who have poor body images consistently report that it keeps them from focusing on schoolwork and other things,” Johnston says. “It’s that self-consciousness, all that worrying, that really does take away energy from other things.”

” Although it’s true that looking good can give you a boost of self-confidence,” says study co-author Tomi-Ann Roberts of Colorado College, “looking good is a double-edged sword. It makes you feel good, but it can also put you in a state of constant self-monitoring.”

Of course, the study might not come as a surprise to any woman who’s pulled on a swimsuit under the harsh fluorescent lights of a dressing room. But at least the students got to try on one-piece suits. Imagine how much worse their scores would have been if they had tried on bikinis.


Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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