Fixating on Appearance May Increase Anxiety When Dating, Research Shows

Drawing of different pictures on a girl's dating profile

Laura Porter / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that people who are more appearance-oriented experience greater anxiety in dating scenarios.
  • Body image concerns can have deep roots, but social media seems to be exacerbating self-esteem issues.
  • Self-care and rethinking the stories we tell ourselves can ease nerves before a date.

Feeling some jitters before a romantic date is totally normal. Maybe you're meeting the person for the first time and you're wondering if you'll get along. But usually those feelings subside once the conversation starts flowing and you're feeling more comfortable.

But for those who are preoccupied with their appearance in everyday life, the dating experience can be less pleasant. Findings from a new study on body image and dating published in Body Image anxiety show that individuals who are more caught up on their looks are likely to experience more severe anxiety when dating.

Viren Swami, PhD

Dating can be especially difficult for these individuals, and they are more likely to avoid situations and activities in which their bodies and appearance may be scrutinized, such as first dates.

— Viren Swami, PhD

The Research

As a body image researcher, lead study author Viren Swami, PhD, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, was interested in whether dating anxiety could stem from appearance-related factors, rather than the usual areas of dating anxiety research like problematic internet use or parental rejection.

To find out, the study measured the appearance orientation, which refers to a person's investment in their appearance, of 501 individuals. Participants, who averaged 21 years old, completed questionnaires reporting their relation to statements like "When it comes to displaying my physique/figure to others, I am a shy person", "Before going out in public, I always notice how I look", and "I am afraid that the person I am dating will find fault with me".

The findings reveal that an unhealthy fixation on physical appearance is associated with higher anxiety in dating contexts and greater social distress.

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Think of yourself as a total person which is what you are, not just a body, and play to your strengths.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

"Dating can be especially difficult for these individuals, and they are more likely to avoid situations and activities in which their bodies and appearance may be scrutinized, such as first dates," Swami said in a release.

Swami went on to note that these issues are "far from trivial for young adults," as they can lead to various mental and behavioral health issues like loneliness, self-esteem and confidence issues and poorer sexual development.

The Internet's Impact on Body Image

Low scorers were apathetic about their appearance, meaning they didn't find their looks especially important and avoided putting much effort into how they look. High scorers paid more attention to their appearance and reported engaging in extensive grooming behaviors. Characteristics that were less healthy in these individuals included checking their appearance in a mirror whenever they could, spending an excessive amount of time getting ready before going out and feeling self-conscious if they don't look just right, Swami says.

It's no secret that the rise of social media has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression, especially among young adults. Research centered on college-aged students has shown that certain types of social appearance anxiety, such as submissive or self-confident approaches, are predictive of internet addiction. Using social media specifically for appearance comparison and judgment has also been linked to higher risk of social anxiety symptoms, appearance sensitivities and depression.

Robyn Pashby, PhD

Teaching your body that you can feel anxiety, engage in a healthy coping strategy and do the thing you want to do anyway, like go on the date, is a great way to build confidence over time.

— Robyn Pashby, PhD

New York-based neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, director of Comprehend the Mind, also points to social media as a major culprit of social appearance anxiety. Our use of social media has changed our perception of reality. We're often viewing the lives of others through their chosen filters and editing processes, which accentuate "desirable" features, but those images stick with us.

More severe measures, namely cosmetic surgery, are also more widespread on social media and in popular entertainment, which affects everyday body image. One study showed that viewing images of women who had undergone cosmetic enhancements affected the viewer's desire for cosmetic surgery, themselves, especially if they spent a lot of time on social media, followed many accounts and were less satisfied with their appearance.

Thanks to filters, editing and self-comparison, the brain gets used to an unattainable standard of beauty that can fuel anxiety before or during in-person situations.

"Negative self talk ensues," Hafeez says. "Are my teeth white enough? Are my lips full enough? Is my skin smooth enough? Is my waist small enough with a full enough derriere? These are all of the 'assets' that have become de rigueur on Instagram."

Dealing with Appearance Anxiety

If you're experiencing pre-date anxiety around your appearance, an important step to take is vetting who you're dating, Hafeez says. The conversations held before the date can act as a "pre-interview" to help you determine whether the person is shallow and will only worsen your anxiety.

Once you've deemed the person a worthy candidate, you can address the anxiety that comes from within.

In dealing with any issues around body image, keep in mind that they can have deep roots. Staying body-positive can be difficult. Incorporating positive affirmations about your body, mind and spirit can help you feel more grounded and shift the focus away from any negative thoughts.

"Think of yourself as a total person which is what you are, not just a body, and play to your strengths," Hafeez says.

At the same time, self-care is an important part of self-love. Robyn Pashby, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in weight- and body-related issues, recommends regular exercise, meditation and healthy sleep hygiene to prioritize your mental health.

"By engaging in these practices before a date, you will show up at the date feeling the best you can feel," Pashby says. "Teaching your body that you can feel anxiety, engage in a healthy coping strategy and do the thing you want to do anyway, like go on the date, is a great way to build confidence over time."

And let's not forget that this is a part of life that everyone experiences at one time or another. Even celebrities dubbed "most beautiful" by the media have insecurities around their looks. Focusing on those insecurities is where the trouble begins.

"Check the story in your head," Pashby says. "Before you walk through the door to meet your date, rewrite the story with a more balanced truth."

Chances are, your date is dealing with some nerves, as well, so you're likely in the same boat. Keeping in mind that you both have a lot to offer and neither of you is perfect can lessen the pressure you've put on the situation.

"My only job is to walk into this room, get to know a new person and take it from there," Pashby says.

However, if you continue to find yourself struggling with body image or social anxiety around your appearance even after taking these steps, it might be time to seek professional help like support groups or talk therapy. These environments can help you get to the root of the issue and begin the healing process.

What This Means For You

If fixating on your appearance is derailing your daily life and keeping you from experiencing joy, a mental health professional can help you target the root of these issues and work through them.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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