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Does narcissism affect our body image and food choices?

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers evaluate the role of narcissism in body image concerns and dietary choices.

Study: A Narcissist's Body Belief: Aspects of Narcissism, Body Image, and Eating Disorder Symptoms.  Image credit: Igor Koopakov / Study: A narcissist’s body belief: Aspects of narcissism, body image, and eating disorder symptoms. Image credit: Igor Koopakov /

How can personality affect your desires and lifestyle?

Clinical narcissism is a personality trait characterized by extreme self-involvement to the point that the individual is oblivious to the needs of those around them. Researchers have identified antagonism, an inherent lack of empathy, as a core characteristic of the condition.

Narcissism can be categorized as agentic extraversion, which is associated with subjective well-being, popularity, and attractiveness, or narcissistic neuroticism, which is associated with psychoticism and a lack of interpersonal sensitivity. Together, antagonism, narcissistic neuroticism and agentic extraversion form the ‘triple model of narcissism’.

Recent research has included two additional factors in this model, including leadership/authority and exhibitionism/entitlement. However, many argue that they can be subsumed under agentic and antagonistic factors, as opposed to independent factors. Moreover, these elements relate to an individual’s attention-seeking, shame perception, and self-focus and are hypothesized to play a vital role in an individual’s self-image and health behaviors.

Caring about one’s appearance is a negative assessment of one’s own body and, in more severe cases, can manifest as an eating disorder. Furthermore, body image issues vary in focus, but generally relate to the size and shape of a particular feature of one’s body or the overall size/shape/weight of the body.”

Caring about the appearance of the body is of various kinds, but above all the desire for a slim body and musculature. These desires are often associated with actions and behaviors such as diet and exercise aimed at achieving a lean physique.

The few studies that have tested these hypotheses have found that these cravings are associated with mental and physical health problems, including depression, stress, and muscle dysphoria. Clinically diagnosed narcissists were found to monitor their eating habits and overexercise much more frequently than normal controls as a hypothesized strategy to improve access.

However, these findings were observations and byproducts of larger personality-focused studies. Furthermore, ‘narcissism’ is used as an umbrella term, without research into how individual subcategories within the Trifurcated Model of Narcissism differ in their desires and behaviors.

About the study

This study used a multimethod matrix to investigate associations between health behaviors, self-image, and narcissism in relation to gender and correlated measures of narcissism. The study cohort included 430 American adults recruited through the Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) online platform.

The methodology consisted of an online survey consisting of six questionnaires, including the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire, the Drive for Muscularity Scale, the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale, the Eating Disorder Screening Questionnaire – Short, the Drive for Thinness Scale and gender-specific somatomorph matrices.

The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire is an 18-item test used to measure individual-level differences in antagonism and agentic extraversion. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory was used to distinguish subfactors of agentic extraversion, including leadership/authority versus exhibitionism/entitlement.

Narcissistic neuroticism was measured using the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale. The strength of participants’ desire for certain body types was calculated using the Drive for Muscularity and Drive for Thinness Scales. In addition, the translation of desired body type into eating behavior was measured using the short Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire.

Current and desired body types and their relationships with gender and narcissism were assessed using gender-specific somatomorph matrices, which included a 34-item matrix on two scales of weight (underweight-obese) and musculature (underweight-hypermuscular).

Study findings

With leadership/authority as a notable exception, all narcissistic traits were associated with a desire for thinness and muscularity. Leadership/authority remains the only exception to the longing of narcissistic traits for more substantial desired fat; however, it was not an exception in health behaviors, including current muscularity and current eating disorders.

When statistically controlling for shared variance between narcissistic traits, agentic extraversion correlated negatively with thinness desire, as did leadership/authority with eating disorders and muscularity desire. The opposite results were observed for narcissistic neuroticism, suggesting that certain narcissistic traits such as leadership/authority may have an evolutionarily adaptive function.

Attitudes and behaviors that encourage a person to achieve an ideal body would also include feelings of superiority and the opportunity to devalue or look down on individuals with less ideal bodies, thereby serving to antagonize. On the other hand, agentic extraversion—assertive and self-enhancing behavior aimed at generating greater social admiration and boosting one’s ego—can also be fulfilled by obtaining an ideal body.”

Gender-related analyzes revealed that admiration and rivalry were accurate predictors of increased desire for thinness and muscularity, especially in women. Measurements of body fat showed that antagonism was associated with a desire for thinness in women and increased body fat in men.

Interestingly, leadership/authority was more positively associated with eating disorder symptoms in women. These findings may suggest that narcissistic men, other than those characterized by leadership/authority, are more prone to thinness than narcissistic women and are more likely to exhibit behaviors aimed at staying thin.


This study investigates gender-specific associations between various narcissistic factors and the desires and health behaviors of the individuals who express them. Despite the limitation of being limited to educated Americans and therefore not generalizable, these findings represent a first attempt in this area. Notably, the leadership/authority results suggest that not all narcissistic traits are maladaptive in their behavioral associations, which was previously thought unlikely.

Journal reference:

  • Szymczak, P., Talbot, D., Gritti, ES, and Jonason, PK (2023). A narcissist’s body belief: Aspects of narcissism, body image, and eating disorder symptoms. VERY ONE 18(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0293578

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