Body image: Are we wired for distortion?

by Ashley Solomon

ALERT!!!! It’s Change the Way You See, Not the Way You Look Week! This week is the the brainchild of Caitlin at Operation Beautiful, a website (and now book!) that aims to help individuals change the way they see themselves “one post-it note at a time.” Check out the website for more information on this mission. It’s cool stuff!

Speaking of changing the way that we see… Do you ever wonder why you can’t seem to move past those disparaging thoughts about your hips or belly? Your weight may be less to blame than your brain, according to recent research on body image.

While body image admittedly has many sources of influence (such as parental commentary and the media, to name a few), scientists have discovered that there may be biological bases for distortions of our actual body shape and size. These misrepresentations are characteristic of those with eating disorders (and in fact are part of the diagnostic criteria), but are also a struggle for those of us who, say, live on Planet Earth… Thus, this new understanding of how we perceive ourselves is particularly relevant.

First, let’s establish how our brains perceive our bodies. Obviously it’s important for our brains to understand both where our bodies are in space (called proprioception) and our relative size in order to make judgments related to movement. For example, we need this information to decide if we can squeeze behind the chair of that jerk who is clearly not moving his seat for us… Or how hard we can plop down on the couch without scaring the cat. People with extremely distorted body image have an extremely difficult time with these seemingly simple decisions.

Research tells us that these individuals’ difficulties may actually be related to brains that are functioning differently. Perceptions of our body size require a fairly complex process that’s completed by the posterior parietal cortex (there will NOT be a test!). Neurologist Henrik Ehrsson actually conducted a study in which he created the illusion of a shrinking waist (No, you can longer sign up to be a participant in the study!) utilizing the Pinocchio Illusion. What he found was that not everyone experienced the shrinking sensation in the same way or to the same degree. This indicated to Ehrsson that our brains might all be slightly different in how we calculate our own size, an important factor in considering what might be contributing to body image issues.  

A newer study by one of Ehrsson’s colleagues at the University College London, Matthew Longo, also delved into the roots of body perception. Longo and his buddies asked participants to estimate the location of their knuckles and fingertips while their hands were hidden under a board.  They found that the participants misjudged their hands, thinking that their hands were wider and their fingers were shorter than they actually were, despite being able to pick their hands out of a “line-up” of photographs. Longo called the distortions “dramatic” and explained that visual image of ourselves seem not to be used for position or feeling sense.

To take this a step further, a severely underweight boy could thus look in the mirror, and despite the visual cue, “feel” much larger than he physically is. People of average or greater-than-average weight can also have a distorted body image, calling their bodies “fat” when others fail to see the basis for their criticisms. Thanks to researchers (and their willing participants), we are starting to develop a more scientific understanding for why. And once we have a richer understanding, we may be able to develop new ways to address our negative body feelings.

What ways have you discovered to address your negative body feelings?


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8 Responses to “Body image: Are we wired for distortion?”

  1. I already answered your question a couple posts back, but I had never thought about the non-psychological reasons we might not see our body accurately. Thanks for opening my mind and eyes to this! (Lame pun intended.)

  2. That is really really interesting. I can certainly see how that could happen. I would never have thought about it.

    I know a way I overcome negative body image thoughts is prayer. I have to remind myself that I have a purpose and that I need to honor my body to be able to fulfill that purpose. Also, I added you on Twitter. I’m TinaFFF.

  3. Very interesting post! I have heard before that our brains may be the blame, but never understood the research behind it. I am someone who has not experienced a lot of body image issues in my life (a few of course). I think I overcome this by focusing on what my body can do, and taking care of my body with healthy foods and exercise. I know I don’t have the best looking body in the world, or the skinniest, but life is too short to aim for perfection 🙂 I’d rather be happy!

  4. I am so glad that you wrote about this as I think it’s something not many people realize. As someone in recovery I do a lot of things, but one I had not mentioned was I write positive affirmations on post it notes (kind of like my own personal Operation Beautiful) and I stick them in random places, the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator door etc. to remind myself in those places of weakness that I need to remember to take care of myself first.

  5. This is so true! The way I see myself is 100% mental. And not everyone even myself is able to recognize that fact.

  6. Such interesting research! Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂 I think our perceptions of our bodies are also affected by the mood we’re in and what we do that day. For me, if I’m in a bad mood, I suddenly feel much larger (that’s when the “I feel fat” thoughts start to come around). Also, if I haven’t worked out, I feel particularly disconnected from my body and also larger. When I feel like that, I just try to stop my negative thoughts, and remember to be kind to myself. I know these aren’t earth-shattering tips, but it helps to just stop yourself and say, “Enough. I’m a good person, and I’m just having a bad day, and my body doesn’t deserve this bashing” (something like that! 🙂


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