Distorted Body Image Fuels Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a collection of mental health conditions characterized by a dysfunctional relationship between eating habits, body image and the beauty ideals of mainstream society. Two factors known to contribute to the development of these disorders are a negative attitude toward one’s body shape and size (body dissatisfaction) and an inability to accurately judge one’s shape and size in relation to other people (body image distortion). According to the results of a study published in 2010 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the presence of body image distortion plays a more central role to the development of an eating disorder than the presence of body dissatisfaction.

Body Dissatisfaction Basics

Body dissatisfaction is largely based on the act of making comparisons between one’s own body shape and size and the body shapes and sizes of others. Sometimes, the “others” used for comparison are personal acquaintances; however, in many cases, people compare themselves to strangers such as the celebrities who appear on TV and in movies, the largely anonymous actors who appear in print ads and commercials, and the models who work in the fashion industry. Statistically speaking, people who are significantly dissatisfied with their bodies have higher chances of developing an eating disorder, the authors of a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Counseling Psychology report. However, truly meaningful risk elevations appear in people who combine general body dissatisfaction with frequent visual examination of their bodies and a conscious or unconscious adoption of an outsider’s point of view when looking at themselves.

Body Image Distortion Basics

Body image distortion is another term for a mental state called body image disturbance. Unlike people who merely dislike their bodies, people with this distorted mental state lose their ability to objectively estimate the size and shape of their bodies. In other words, when they look at themselves, they literally “see” an altered, non-existent version of their actual physical appearance. Eating disorders are linked to the presence of body image distortion on a deep, physical level. For instance, current scientific research indicates that people affected by either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa have abnormalities in their brain function that decrease their ability to detect or correct a distorted body image. Current evidence also indicates that people affected by anorexia have structural problems in a key part of the brain responsible for processing the information used to develop an accurate body image.

Relative Importance of Image Distortion and Dissatisfaction

In the study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers from the University of Illinois examined the relative effects of body image distortion and body dissatisfaction in a group of more than 5,000 American teenage girls. All of these girls were generally physically healthy and had body weights that placed them below the “overweight” range of a popular weight measurement formula called body mass index or BMI. During the study, the researchers identified participants with body image distortion by comparing these participants’ actual weight to the weight they self-report when interviewed. After identifying the participants with distorted body images, the researchers then determined how the presence of image distortion affects participation in potentially healthy weight-losing activities such as dieting and exercise, as well as participation in clearly unhealthy weight-losing activities such as purging food after meals, abusing diet pills and abusing laxatives. After reviewing their findings and comparing the impact of body image distortion to the impact of body dissatisfaction, the authors of the study concluded that the presence of body image distortion is a much more significant risk factor for involvement in dangerous weight-loss attempts than the presence of body dissatisfaction.  The study’s authors also concluded that once a healthy teenage girl starts using risky weight-loss methods, she has a very substantial chance of continuing to use those methods repeatedly over time. Since continued use of dangerous weight-loss methods is a hallmark symptom for the onset of an eating disorder, body image distortion also plays a more significant role than body dissatisfaction in the onset of these disorders.


Crucially, the authors of the study in the Journal of Adolescent Health note that doctors assessing their patients for eating disorder risks do not usually check for the presence of a distorted body image. The authors also note the fact that body image problems tend to go unaddressed in normal-weight teenagers, who outwardly appear fine even when their body image-related mental states increase their chances of developing an eating disorder at some point in the future. One potential contributing factor in this area is the fact that people with bulimic tendencies frequently maintain a normal weight, even after they develop full-blown bulimia symptoms.

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