Terror Management Theory and its Role in Womens’ Desire to Meet Cultural Body Standards

Denise Santa Rosa, Vanessa Romero, Catherine Perez, and Dr. Melissa Soenke


Humans are in a unique position because of their awareness that one day, they will die. This creates the potential for terror that needs to be alleviated. Terror management theory states that there are certain compensatory actions that individuals engage in to do exactly that. Mainly, when reminded of death, individuals will cling to their cultural worldviews, which are shared beliefs about reality that provide individuals with a sense of meaning, and they will aim to uphold a high level of self-esteem by adhering to these worldviews. This theory can provide an explanation for why some women strive to attain beauty standards, even at the risk of their own health. One standard imposed upon women and their bodies is to maintain a “curvy ideal”. That is, a body that has large breasts and a round bottom but maintains a small waist. Unfortunately, the idea of a curvaceous yet thin figure may present a highly unrealistic standard for women’s bodies as curves cannot be obtained without the presence of a substantial amount of body fat; it is unnatural. As a result, there may be pressures to engage in surgery procedures to achieve the ideal body, especially after reminders of death. Thus, our research question is: What is the impact of death reminders and the curvy body ideal on acceptance for cosmetic surgery among women? To investigate this, women will be recruited and receive course credit or extra credit for completing an online survey on Qualtrics. Participants will rate their internalization of the curvy body ideal. Half will be reminded of death and half a control topic and then everyone’s attitudes regarding cosmetic surgery will be assessed. We hypothesize that women in the death condition with more curvy ideals will show greater acceptance of cosmetic surgery. This is important to study because aesthetic surgery poses risks for patients who undergo it.

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