If you spend time browsing for activewear online, you may want to think again.
Research recently published in the International Journal of Consumer studies found that women have reduced self-esteem after online shopping for activewear.
“We found that women feel worse about their bodies and exhibit implicit reductions in self-esteem after browsing for activewear. These changes were not observed when women browsed for casual wear or homewares. We also found some evidence that women are less likely to look at bodies after browsing activewear (compared to casualwear), suggesting a potential avoidance coping strategy (for managing body image threat),” Dr. Ross Hollett, author of the study and a psychology researcher from Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia told Theravive.
“The activewear market has grown significantly in the last 5-10 years, particularly with apparel brands/products targeted towards women. The imagery used by many of these retailers can be regarded as threatening to women’s body image because a high proportion of it, idealised models wearing tight/revealing clothing are used and the marketing material involves a lot of cropping in on body parts. We know from decades of research that exposure to these types of images are harmful to women’s psychological wellbeing. Social media promotion has allowed this imagery to become highly prevalent and it is important to understand the public mental health effects. Our research offers valuable evidence to encourage activewear retailers specifically to adjust their practices.”
Athleisure is athletic style clothing designed to be worn every day. It is a market that has boomed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Estimates suggest the global value of athleisure will surpass $548 billion by the year 2024.
But that might not be a good thing for those who choose to shop online for activewear.
“Activewear is often tight and revealing, which allows women to more effectively compare their bodies to the bodies other women. Women are very susceptible to this comparison process which can be particularly threatening to their self-concept when the models are fit, toned and generally attractive. This can initiate an upward comparison process whereby women perceive a discrepancy between their own appearance and that of the model, which can result in feelings of inadequacy and body shame. Shopping for non-apparel or apparel products where women’s body shape is less obvious reduces the likelihood of experiencing a discrepancy,” Hollet said.
As part of the research, Hollet and his colleagues performed two experiments to determine the psychological impact of shopping for activewear online.
In the first study, female participants were randomly assigned a website promoting activewear, home décor or casual clothes. The women were given 15 to 20 minutes to look through the website.
The researchers then assessed the self-esteem and body image of the participants, using both self-reporting from the participants and reaction time measures.
The researchers also conducted an experiment that used eye tracking technology. This was used to track the participants’ eye movement to see which websites impacted their focus and attention.
The researchers found that women felt less positive about their appearance and had lower levels of self-esteem after they had been browsing on a website selling activewear.
Websites that featured causal clothes or homewares did not have the same impact on self-esteem and body image.
Nearly all of the women who participated in the study had experienced online shopping before.
On average, the researchers found the women spent 90 to 100 minutes each week looking at clothes online. Activewear was the second most popular choice of online shopping, after casual clothes.
The research found that there was a notable decrease in negative mood for the women across all kinds of shopping websites. The researchers say this suggests that online shopping might assist women in reducing negative emotions through distraction.
But Hollet says some women are more likely to be negatively impacted by certain websites.
“Not all women will be affected in the same way. However, we suspect that there are vulnerable groups of women who should probably consider reducing their exposure to activewear imagery (e.g., unfollow brands on social media, or limit social media time generally). For instance, in one of our studies, we found that women with higher body shame were more likely to purchase activewear. This suggests that shopping for activewear could be a habit that might perpetuate negative feelings about one’s body. In -person shopping is certainly one option to avoid the excessive promotional imagery.”