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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