Body height is linked to social power. For example, tall people are more likely than short people to be perceived as potential leaders, and individuals in managerial positions on average are taller than employees. Also, terms such as "up" or "top" are associated with power. The link between physical characteristics—here, body height—and social power seems to be so strong that power inductions can lead individuals to overestimate their own body height and underestimate the height of others.

But is power only linked to body height or also to overall appreciation and satisfaction of one's body? This seems relevant to know as body satisfaction is important for mental and physiological health.

Social power—the perceived capacity to influence other people—changes people's perceptions. For example, powerful individuals judge the weight of boxes as less heavy than low-power individuals do. They tend to see opportunities instead of threats in the world. And power holders report high confidence and self-esteem. As confidence and self-esteem make people less likely to develop eating- and body-related mental disorders and may increase body satisfaction, we reasoned that powerful individuals would also be more appreciative of the appearance, functionality, and health of their bodies than others.

We pursued this research question with two studies. In a survey, we asked individuals to report their general sense of power over others, for example, "I get people to listen to what I say." Further, they reported their self-esteem, body satisfaction, body appreciation, and relative body height (indicating which of several silhouettes represents their relative body height). Also, in an experiment, we used the same questionnaires and before presenting the questionnaires assigned participants either to a higher power position or a low power position. Those in the higher power position imagined that they were leaders of an agency and had received applications from potential employees. They were to decide which applicants to invite and come up with questions for the job interview. Participants in the low-power position wrote a letter of application to the agency and imagined they were in a financial situation in which they urgently needed a job to pay their expenses.

Self-Esteem is the Key

Powerful individuals—whether feeling powerful in general or experiencing a situational boost of power in our experiment—were more satisfied with their bodies and reported higher body appreciation. The explanation was self-esteem: powerful individuals were more self-confident, which in turn was linked to body appreciation. Interestingly, with respect to relative body height only the power induction increased height perceptions; general power feelings were not linked to their self-perceived height. We conclude that social power increases body appreciation and body satisfaction but only strong momentary boosts of power seem to have the potential of changing the perception of one's height. Self-esteem is the relevant link between power and body appreciation.

Many people strive for positive self-perceptions. However, in the age of Instagram and TikTok, where people are confronted with highly selected, perfect bodies, such images can inflict damage on people's self-views. Yet, experiencing social power may help to maintain or develop positive body perceptions through an elevation of self-esteem. Clinical prevention and intervention programs that use empowering elements (for example, clients learning to assert their will) may thus be particularly helpful for individuals who feel objectified or have doubts about their physical appearance.

For Further Reading

Hall, J. A., Coats, E. J., & Smith LeBeau, L. (2005). Nonverbal behavior and the vertical dimension of social relations: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 898–924.

Körner, R., & Schütz, A. (2023). Power, self-esteem, and body image. Social Psychology.

Yap, A. J., Mason, M. F., & Ames, D. R. (2013). The powerful size others down: The link between power and estimates of others' size. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 591–594.

Robert Körner is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bamberg. He studies social power.

Astrid Schütz is Professor of Personality and Assessment at the University of Bamberg. She studies personality and social interaction.