Body image distortion is a term that mental health professionals use to describe a significantly inaccurate self-perception of your body size and shape. People with distorted body images have increased risks for developing an eating disorder. According to the results of a study published in 2011 in the journal NeuroImage, individuals affected by the eating disorder bulimia nervosa have brain abnormalities that support the self-reporting of inaccurate body images. Bulimics apparently use fewer areas of the brain for image self-reporting than people who don’t have eating disorders; they also use their active brain areas less efficiently.
Body Image Basics
Your body image is your basic perception of your body shape and size relative to the bodies of the people in your peer group and the image ideals of the culture in which you live. People typically develop their body images during their preteen years and adolescence, a period of time in which the process of growth and development overlaps with a growing sense of self-awareness and increased social participation outside of the direct control of adult spheres of influence. For a number of reasons, teenage girls typically have a harder time maintaining a healthy body image than teenage boys. According to figures compiled by New York University Medical Center, fully half of all teenage girls consider their bodies to be “abnormal,” despite the fact that most people, by definition, fall into the average or “normal” range of body sizes and shapes.
Body Image Distortion Basics
Body image distortion is also sometimes referred to as body image disturbance. People with disturbed or distorted body images experience a significant decline in their ability to accurately judge their body shapes and/or sizes. They also increase the likelihood of their involvement in behaviors that consciously or unconsciously serve to compensate for a persistently negative body image. One of the most common behaviors used to compensate for a distorted body image is participation in some form of disordered eating, such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. People with unusually high risks for developing an eating disorder include athletes, women, those suffering from depression, people subjected to sexual abuse, people with alcoholic parents, gay men and those who have relatives affected by an eating disorder.
Under normal circumstances, certain activities inside the brain help keep your body image grounded in reality. When body image distortions arise, a specific area of the brain—the lateral occipital cortex—works to correct those distortions and keep your self-perception on track. Other brain areas do such things as maintain your level of satisfaction with your body and use spatial information to accurately report your shape and size. In the study published in NeuroImage, a team of German researchers examined the effectiveness of body image control in the brains of people affected by bulimia. During the first part of the study, the researchers asked a group of 31 people to report their level of satisfaction with their body shape and body size; 15 of these people were bulimic, while the others had no history of bulimia or any other eating disorder. Next, the researchers used a brain scanning technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess the ways that the bulimic and non-bulimic study participants use their brains when thinking about their body images. After reviewing the rankings of body satisfaction reported by the study participants, the authors of the study concluded that people with bulimia are significantly less satisfied with their bodies than people who don’t have an eating disorder; as a rule, people with bulimia wish they weighed less than they do. In line with these findings, bulimics have less activity in the brain area involved in controlling body satisfaction than people unaffected by eating disorders. The study’s authors also concluded that bulimics lack activity in the part of the brain that helps correct distorted body images; in addition, bulimics apparently don’t use the part of the brain that takes in spatial information and uses that information to help make accurate body comparisons to other people.
The authors of the study in NeuroImage note the fact that people affected by anorexia also have brain abnormalities that strongly resemble the abnormalities found in people affected by bulimia. They also report a belief that involvement in appropriate psychotherapy can help both bulimics and anorexics overcome these brain deficits and recover an improved level of body image accuracy.