Review of Literature on Social Physique Anxiety

Review of Literature on Social Physique Anxiety


            Social Physique Anxiety is prevalent among women and adolescent girls as the degree to which they become anxious when others observe their physiques. Men do have Social Physique Anxiety, but noticeable behavior change is uncommon. Research from many different sources suggest that BMI, weight, age, and body-image related motives for exercising are the biggest indicators of whether or not a woman will show Social Physique Anxiety. The SPAS questionnaire is a tool used to measure Social Physique Anxiety and has been validated, but is not the most effective way to gauge the presence of Social Physique Anxiety.


            Social Physique anxiety is the degree to which people become anxious when others observe their physiques. Most people have some degree of social physique anxiety when placed in a fitness setting. People with high social physique anxiety will likely try and avoid fitness settings for fear of being judged by others (Weinberg, 2007). People with high levels of social physique anxiety experience more stress during fitness tests and settings. They have negative thoughts about their bodies and as a result of these symptoms have a tendency to participate less in physical activities, have a higher chance of acquiring an eating disorder, and have lower self-esteem. Social physique anxiety was primarily thought to affect men and women, but men rarely have behavior changes because of it.

                Social Physique anxiety can be measured by the Social Physique Anxiety Scale (SPAS) questionnaire (Maiano, 2010). Social physique anxiety is considered a personality trait, and as such the SPAS questionnaire is treated as a personality assessment concerning the Social Physique anxiety aspect of personality. The SPAS is the widely accepted method for determining Social Physique Anxiety in people and as a result the validity of this questionnaire needs to be examined. Seven studies were conducted by Maiano showing the convergent validity of the SPAS as well as supporting criterion-related validity, factor validity, and measurement invariance. These studies are very comparable to the studies done years earlier by McAuly. McAuly studied Social Physique Anxiety in female gymnasts and tested the validity of the SPAS questionnaire on them. The study showed construct validity, but also offered the alternative that there were other psychosocial constructs at play that caused a person to behave the way they do in physical activity settings (McAuly, 1993). The SPAS is a great tool, however I believe that a nine item questionnaire like the SPAS cannot alone be used to determine why or to what extent a person has Social Physique Anxiety. Certain situations may make an individual self-conscious and have a high Social Physique Anxiety while other situations may not make a person have Social Physique Anxiety at all. Differences like these need to be accounted for and a simple questionnaire cannot take these things into account.  

            According to Niven, one of the constructs that may cause Social Physique Anxiety is physical maturation (Niven, 2009). 162 adolescent girls aged eleven to twelve completed the Pubertal Development Scale, the modified Social Physique Anxiety Scale, and the Motives for Physical Activity Scale at the beginning of the study and again six months later. The girls had lower Social Physique Anxiety at the beginning stages of physical maturation and as the six months progressed girls Social Physique Anxiety rose and they participated in less physical activity. Niven suggested that the relationship between Social Physique Anxiety and physical activity is dependent on the reasons for being active. Girls whose primary motivation is body-image related will tend to have higher Social Physique Anxiety than a girl whose motivation is not body-image related.          

            Studies such as the one conducted by Niven indicate that girls that are worried about their body-image because of others will show the greatest amount of Social Physique Anxiety. Monsma studied 214 female athletes to see if the SPAS questionnaire was valid on these women as well as determine if body-image motives were the primary cause of Social Physique Anxiety in girls as Niven had suggested. According to the study, the SPAS showed construct validity, however age, body mass index, body weight, and sum of skin folds was a better indication of whether someone would have Social Physique Anxiety (Monsma, 2008). The girls that participated in the study indicated that society’s views on an “ideal” body image are the greatest factor on how much Social Physique Anxiety they showed. With all of the research supporting that body consciousness and girls being uncomfortable with themselves in front of others, it would be interesting to research whether women who were recently pregnant would suffer similar Social Physique Anxiety. A study done on 108 postpartum women showed that there was greater physical activity level than expected in postpartum women (Sanderson, 2007). These women were all given a Pregnancy Physical Activity Questionnaire (PPAQ), the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; trait version only), and the Social Physique Anxiety Scale. The study showed that there was a slight correlation of higher Social Physique Anxiety in postpartum women. The more vigorously the women exercised the lesser amount of Social Physique Anxiety they experienced. The amount of Social Physique Anxiety experienced by postpartum women can be greatly reduced if the woman feels that she is doing what she can to return to her pre-pregnancy physique. Returning to work, household duties, and regular exercise were all independent factors reducing Social Physique Anxiety.        

            Social Physique anxiety tends to have a greater effect on women than men. It was also shown that women had higher social physique anxiety when men were present than when women alone were present (Kruisselbrink, 2004). According to Kruisselbrink women express more social physique anxiety when only men are present than if a mix of genders were present or only women are present. Kruisselbrink used the SPAS questionnaire to determine Social Physique Anxiety of the women in his study but Brewer examined alternative ways of evaluating Social Physique Anxiety. According to Brewer, BMI of women was more indicative of how concealing women would dress in an exercise setting, however the SPAS was a better indication of where women would exercise in proximity to others (Brewer, 2004). Men experience social physique anxiety, but there does not seem to be any connection between levels of social physique anxiety and the genders of the people present. Studies show that women tend to shorten their workouts when males were present, showing that males provoke social physique anxiety on women. The SPAS questionnaire on women offers insight to exercise motivations and that exercise is based on social factors.            

            Despite the majority of the research being directed toward women and most sources saying that the effects of Social Physique Anxiety is minimal, I think it is important to look at the implications for men. Social pressures exist for men as well as women to have an ideal body image. Men who exercised for self-presentation reasons are more likely to show signs of Social Physique Anxiety, notably lowered self-esteem and muscle dysmorphia (Grive, 2008). Grieve concluded that men who exercise for self-presentational reasons as opposed to recreational or fitness reasons showed high levels of Social Physique Anxiety as opposed to those who didn’t exercise for self-presentational reasons who showed little to no Social Physique Anxiety.

Brewer, B. W., Diehl, N. S., Cornelius, A. E., Joshua, M. D., & Van Raalt, J. L. (2004). Exercising caution: social physique anxiety and protective self-presentational behaviour. Journal of Science & Medicine in Sport, 7(1), Retrieved from SportDiscus.

Grieve, F., Jackson, L., Reese, T., Marklin, L., & Delaney, A. (2008). Correlates of Social Physique Anxiety in Men. Journal of Sport Behavior, 31(4). Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Kruisselbrink, D., Dodge, A., Swanberg, S., & MacLeod, A. (2004). Influence of Same-Sex and Mixed-Sex Exercise Settings on the Social Physique Anxiety and Exercise Intentions of Males and Females. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 26(4), Retrieved from SportDiscus.

Maiano, C., Morin, A., Eklund, R., Monthuy-Blanc, J., Garbarino, J., & Stephan, Y. (2010). Construct Validity of the Social Physique Anxiety Scale in a French Adolescent Sample [Electronic version]. Journal of Personality Assessment, 92(1),

McAuly, E., & Burman, G. (1993). The Social Physique Anxiety Scale: construct validity in adolescent females [Electronic version]. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 29(5),

Monsma, E., Pfieffer, K., & Malina, R. (2008). Relationship of Social Physique Anxiety to Indicators of Physique [Electronic version]. Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport, 79(3).

Niven, A., Fawkner, S., Knowles, A., Henretty, J., & Stephenson, C. (2009). Social physique anxiety and physical activity in early adolescent girls: The influence of maturation and physical activity motives. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(3). doi:10.1080/02640410802578164

Sanderson, T., & Haase, A. (2007). Does physical activity influence anxiety after pregnancy?: Physical activity as a predictor of trait anxiety and social physique anxiety in postpartum women. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Weinburg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2007). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (4th ed.,). United States: Human Kinetics.