Measuring Body Dissatisfaction with Ecological Momentary Assessment

BY: Lizzie Baldwin

DATE: September 22, 2016

As an increasingly large percentage of our population now owns smartphones, it is easier than ever to measure and research various mood and behavior related activities as they occur throughout the day. Ecological Momentary Assessments (EMAs) are surveys, sent to a smartphone or other piece of technology, which function to collect data in real time and in everyday settings. EMAs provide many advantages in comparison to traditional, clinical studies, as they make it easier for study participants to relay information in real time and allow for a more detailed collection of information.

In a recent study, Stefano and colleagues set out to measure how frequently a sample of 22 undergraduate women (average age of ~19 years, and with a racial/ethnic distribution of 78% White, 8% Asian, 4% Black, and 4% Hispanic) engaged in body-checking behaviors, such as body examining, weighing, and body comparison. Most studies that study body-checking involve participants who have an eating disorder; however women who have never had an eating disorder but who report weight concerns also engage in body-checking behaviors frequently throughout the day. The researchers selected people who reported body dissatisfaction and asked them to record how frequently they had engaged in 8 body-checking behaviors, including behaviors such as weighing self, body comparisons, and sucking in one’s stomach. Participants were also asked to report how they felt about their bodies right now regarding their body size, shape, weight, and looks. They also collected mood ratings at several points throughout the study. The study lasted five days when the researchers sent out text messages at five randomly chosen times between 9:00 am and 10:00 pm.

At the end of the five days, 550 text messages had been sent to participants. Every participant engaged in at least one of the body-checking behaviors each day, and a grand total of 3,064 body-checking behaviors were counted. Results showed that more frequent daily body-checking behaviors were associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and negative affect. Interestingly, the most frequent body-checking behaviors were ones that could be carried out in a variety of locations, mainly comparing one’s body to others. As the study progressed, body-checking behaviors decreased. It seems that the EMAs served as a sort of “wake-up call” for many of the women in the study, as they were becoming increasingly aware of the frequency of these negative behaviors.

Although this study was limited by a small sample size, low racial/ethnic and weight diversity, and the potential for a level of reactivity to the repeated assessments, the findings have important implications. Body-checking interventions, such as Ecological Momentary Interventions (EMI), which is a daily intervention sent to cell phones, could be a useful preventative measure for individuals with body dissatisfaction. In addition, the EMA methodology used in this study could provide a more beneficial and efficient research approach, delivering improved insight for clinicians and researchers and a higher quality care for patients. Use of EMA in research could improve reliability and accuracy of information gathered, due to the quick turnaround time between the occurrences and reporting of the events that are measured. This approach gives a more accurate picture of real world behaviors and incorporates the nuances of society and day-to-day life.

Check out some more discussions on ecological momentary assessments and different research techniques here!


Stefano EC, Hudson DL, Whisenhunt BL, Buchanan EM, Latner JD (2016). Examination of body checking, body image dissatisfaction, and negative affect using Ecological momentary assessment. Eating Behaviors 22 (2016) 51-54.


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