Visual biases induce misperceptions about body size and shape, suggests study
Eating disorders (EDs) are mistakenly considered lifestyle choices, but they are actually serious mental disorders that can turn fatal, if left untreated. No single reason has been identified for the development of EDs; researchers have found that a combination of psychological, biological, hereditary, behavioral and sociocultural factors is responsible for these disorders. A recent research has also found that misperceptions regarding body size and shape are some identified risk factors for the development of two EDs – anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN).
Although the existence of such a link was established before, its underlying mechanisms were still unclear. The recent study from the University of Western Australia (UWA) suggests that the brain averages information over a period of time. This creates visual biases which ultimately induce body image-related misperceptions. As part of the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports in January 2018, participants comprising 103 young women were shown 71 images of female bodies. The selected images represented a range of body sizes, from underweight and normal-weight to overweight and obese.
To evaluate the degree of visual bias, the participants were asked to categorize the images into one of seven extreme sizes, ranging from underweight to obese. It was found that exposure to previous images distorted the participants’ perceptions and led to poor judgments about their own body size and those of others. According to Jason Bell, a senior lecturer in the UWA’s School of Psychological Science, the findings indicated that “you simply can’t believe your own eyes” with regard to judgments about body size.
Fixation on thinness among ED patients
The findings of the study have implications for people with body sizes at the extreme ends of the spectrum – obese/overweight individuals, and those who are anorexic or bulimic. In case of obesity, the visual biases induced misperceptions which led individuals to believe that they were thinner than what was actually the case. In the case of anorexia or bulimia, the misperceptions caused individuals to believe that their body size was bigger than their actual physical proportions. This encouraged unhealthy perceptions about their own body size, weight and shape.
Past research showed that participants with bulimia demonstrated greater fixation on comparison bodies with a lower body mass index (BMI) than healthy control participants. It is common for many young women to have negative self-perceptions about their body image due to comparisons with other women who are perceived to have an ideal body size and weight. The problem becomes more pronounced for women who work in industries related to beauty, fashion and modeling, all of which perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty and skinniness.
Although the “visual diet” of many individuals is similar, all of them will not develop EDs or problems related to body image. While many external factors can influence the development of EDs, emerging research is focusing on the association between attentional biases and EDs. Individuals with muscle dysmorphia (MD) and AN have a lower capability of diverting their attention away from specific areas. This possibly explains the tendency of anorexic individuals to be obsessed with specific physical attributes (stomach, thighs) in others’ as well as their own bodies.
Diversifying “visual diet” and getting mental health help
Psychiatric experts and former ED patients recommend a mixed approach to overcome body dissatisfaction issues and change perceptions about what constitutes an ideal body shape and size. A diversified “visual diet”, characterized by a greater variety of images which are viewed regularly, can be an important reminder that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
Individuals also need to realize that they are spending time idealizing certain body types and engaging in unhealthy comparisons with these unrealistic ideals. Qualified mental health specialists can help in changing such extreme thought processes and also treating the underlying mental health problems of EDs. Treatment for EDs generally includes psychotherapy (individual, group or family), medications, nutritional recommendations and functional rehabilitation.
It is estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorders during their lifetime. The Recover Mental Health can provide information on the best eating disorder treatment centers in the U.S. Call us at our 24/7 helpline 866-593-2339 or chat online with one of our representatives to know more about the best bulimia rehab center in your vicinity.