Body image is a term used to describe the way you perceive the shape and size of your body in relation to others. People with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa have heavily distorted body images that cause them to seriously misperceive themselves as overweight or fat, even when they are in fact thin or dangerously emaciated. According to a study published in 2013 in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, anorexics apparently have specific brain abnormalities that contribute to or cause their distorted body image.
Body Image Basics
Any given person’s body image is inevitably the result of an interaction between self-perception and the beauty and attractiveness norms of his or her peer group and the larger culture. In the US, the dominant cultural ideal for beauty and attractiveness typically centers on a combination of thinness and youth. While boys and men may be exposed to modest pressures to meet this ideal, the primary pressure falls on girls and women, who regularly encounter images, written materials, and verbal statements supporting youth and thinness. Because of the outward emphasis of body image, people often strive for a physical appearance that doesn’t support physical health or well-being, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health explains. Mental health professionals sometimes refer to the presence of a seriously negative body image as a body image disturbance or distortion. People with distorted body images no longer see themselves accurately in relation to others; instead, they develop mistaken perceptions that can contribute to the onset of a number of dysfunctional and/or dangerous behaviors. Disordered eating is one the behaviors most heavily associated with the presence of a distorted body image. While anyone can develop anorexia or another form of disordered eating, certain groups of people have increased risks for the development of these problems, the Ohio State University Body Image Health Task Force reports. Examples of these groups include women, people with a personal history of sexual abuse, gay men, people affected by depression, the children of alcoholics, athletes, people with a family history of eating disorders, and people who make their living in fields that highlight outward appearances.
The ability to accurately perceive body shape and size relies on the interaction between three separate areas of the brain. In the study published in Behavioural Brain Research, a team of German researchers examined how well these areas work together in women affected by anorexia. During the first part of the study, the researchers asked 25 women to describe their body shapes by pointing to examples displayed on a computer screen. Ten of these women had received a diagnosis for anorexia, while 15 did not have an eating disorder. The study participants unaffected by anorexia consistently viewed themselves as being thinner than their actual body shape, while the participants with anorexia consistently viewed themselves as being fatter than their actual body shape. In the next phase of the study, the researchers used an imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of healthy women to the brains of women affected by anorexia. After reviewing the results of the imaging procedure, the authors of the study concluded that the people with anorexia have an unusually low level of connectivity or signal strength between two of the three brain areas involved in accurately processing body images. They also concluded that strength of the signal between these two areas directly corresponds to the degree of body self-misperception in anorexics. In other words, people with relatively strong signals have relatively small degrees of body self-misperception, while people with relatively weak signals have relatively large degrees of body self-misperception. These conclusions support the verdicts of previous studies, which found that anorexics have a reduced ability to receive input in the brain’s final destination point for body image-related information.
Another study, published in 2007 in the journal Body Image, examined the ability of women affected by anorexia or the eating disorder bulimia nervosa to accurately judge the bodies of others. When compared to men and women unaffected by an eating disorder, affected women show no difference in the ways they externally perceive body types and sizes. This means that at least part of the brain’s network for interpreting body images remains intact, even in people who have an eating disorder.