Women are constantly exposed to weight-stigmatizing messages. They are pressured to lose weight—even by their partners. A new study, by Gettens and colleagues, suggests that women are more likely to lose weight and eat healthy when their male romantic partners support their autonomy.1
What is autonomy?
Self-determination theory (SDT) distinguishes between autonomous motivation (acting with a full sense of willingness/choice) and controlled motivation (acting because of external pressures or obligations).2
SDT also proposes that human motivation is associated with the satisfaction of three universal needs: The need for relatedness (emotional connection with others), competence (feeling capable of achieving a goal), and autonomy (being the source of one’s own actions).
Promoting another person’s autonomy encourages that person to set self-determined objectives. These can include health-related goals.1
A woman whose partner promotes her self-initiated behavior feels encouraged to find a personally meaningful basis for her healthy behavior. So if she decides to eat healthy, it will be because she wants to, because it matters to her, not because she is pressured. Therefore, she makes a stronger commitment to her goals and perseveres in the face of setbacks.
Autonomy support and weight loss: A cross-sectional study
Data for this investigation were collected from a community survey.1 The sample comprised 156 heterosexual couples from Canada (average age 44). The majority were Caucasian; they had been in a relationship for an average of 11 years. Approximately 7% of them were dating (31% cohabiting, 62% married). About 60% were of normal weight (18% overweight, 22% obese).
Level of autonomy support was determined based on responses of male partners of women in the sample.
Data analysis showed that women’s well-being and self-determined goals regarding healthy eating were related to autonomy support provided by their male partners.
Autonomy support and weight loss: A longitudinal study
Data for this study came from a longitudinal (18 months) weight loss intervention. The sample comprised 61 women (average age 48; 84% Caucasian). Participants were required to follow a calorie-restricted diet while working toward meeting a physical activity goal.
In this investigation, level of autonomy support was determined based on female participants’ perception of their partner’s autonomy support.
Findings indicated that participants’ BMI at the end of 18 months was negatively associated with their self-determined goals and their partners’ autonomy support.
These two studies used different designs (cross-sectional vs. longitudinal) and investigated two different perspectives (of women and their male partners), which is why Gettens et al. express confidence in the generalizability of the findings.
How to provide autonomy support
Autonomy is a basic human need.
Respecting each other’s autonomy is an essential element of a caring relationship between people (whether man or woman) considered equal.
Forcing a person to act in a certain way (e.g., to lose weight) is not consistent with promoting that person’s autonomy.
Weight-related stigma has negative health consequences; for instance, it is associated with higher cortisol levels and clinical depression. Studies on overweight women have concluded that weight stigma is related to overeating and feeling less in control of eating behavior.3
Therefore, providing autonomy support is essential. When overweight women perceive autonomy-support from significant people in their lives—such as their romantic partners, but perhaps even family, friends, coworkers, etc—they are more likely to regain their sense of self-efficacy, once again able to direct their own life with a sense of confidence. This can result in a healthier lifestyle too.
So how can men provide autonomy support for their partners? Here are a few suggestions:
- Practice active listening.
- Acknowledge your partner’s views/feelings.
- Avoid criticism.
- Avoid controlling behavior.
- Ask what your partner finds helpful.
- Encourage/support your partner’s self-initiated behavior.
When we support our partners’ autonomy, we are helping promote their well-being. We make them feel more in control of their lives, thus encouraging them to take care of themselves—whether it be to lose weight, eat healthy, exercise, or even stand up to weight-related stigmas.