Three new studies by a University at Buffalo psychologist offer the first known evidence that some people anxiously expect that they will be rejected by others because of their physical appearance, and that this sensitivity, if not mitigated, has serious implications for their mental and physical health.
“Appearance-based Rejection Sensitivity: Implications for Mental and Physical Health, Affect, and Motivation” by Lora Park, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, UB College of Arts and Sciences, reports on three of Park’s studies and is currently in press for publication in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Park, who directs the Self and Motivation Research Laboratory at UB, describes appearance-based rejection sensitivity as a personality-processing system characterized by anxious concerns and expectations about being rejected based on one’s physical attractiveness.
Her research shows that when motivation for looking attractive is rooted in anxieties about being rejected by others, the consequences can be deleterious to health and well-being. It also suggests that there may be ways to mitigate these negative effects, by having people think of their strengths or their close relationships with others.
In the first study, Park developed and validated an appearance-based rejection sensitivity scale (ARS scale) with 242 college students, to measure the extent to which people anxiously expected rejection from others based on their physical attractiveness. She found that those who scored high in appearance-based rejection sensitivity were likely to have low self-esteem, high levels of neuroticism, insecure attachment styles, to base their self-worth on their appearance and to rate themselves as physically unattractive.
The study also showed that people who are highly sensitive to appearance-based rejection reported increased symptoms of disordered eating.
“Both men and women who reported being sensitive to appearance-based rejection were preoccupied with their body and weight in unhealthy ways. They avoided eating when they were hungry, exercised compulsively and engaged in binging and purging,” says Park.
People with high appearance-based rejection sensitivity also were more likely than people low in appearance-based rejection sensitivity to compare their physical attractiveness with others and to feel bad about themselves when making such comparisons. These results were found regardless of the subjects’ levels of self-esteem, attachment style, general sensitivity to rejection, neuroticism, self-rated level of attractiveness and the degree to which they based self-worth on appearance.
Interestingly, Park found that both appearance-based rejection sensitivity and basing self-worth on appearance independently predicted eating disorder symptoms and the tendency to make appearance-based comparisons.
“These findings suggest different pathways through which people may develop and maintain behaviors such as excessive dieting, compulsive exercising, binging and purging, and comparing one’s attractiveness with others” Park says. “Some people engage in such behaviors because they are ultimately worried about being rejected by others if they don’t measure up to looking a certain way,” says Park.
“For others,” she says, “the underlying motivation for such behaviors may be less about interpersonal anxieties and more about maintaining and enhancing personal self-esteem.”