Women Are Still Terrified of Being Overweight

By
Photo: Steve Cole/Getty Images

Here’s some extremely uplifting news to kick off your week: In a new study where people were made to appear slimmer and larger with virtual reality, women were more upset than men about being obese.

Previous research has shown that women are more likely than men to bedissatisfied with their bodies and women are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders — this body dissatisfaction link is no coincidence, experts say. Some ED patients, particularly those with anorexia, have what’s known as body dysmorphia: They believe they’re larger than they actually are. Researchers at York University and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet wanted to investigate the brain activity involved with negative body image in healthy people. (If they looked at brain processes in people with eating disorders, it would be impossible to tell if abnormalities were a precursor to or a result of the disease.)

For their study in the journal Cerebral Cortex, they recruited 16 men and 16 women of normal weights who were screened for eating-disorder psychopathology, outfitted with a virtual-reality headset, and had their brain activity monitored by MRI equipment. When the participants looked down, they saw video of a gender-matched body that was slim or obese. Researchers poked their torsos with a stick at the same time as in the video to further the illusion that the bodies were theirs. They switched the video to the other body type, then repeated the poking trial. Participants rated their body satisfaction before the experiment and did so during the trials using a device with a dial.

People rated their body satisfaction significantly lower during the obese-body illusion compared to the baseline, and the women were even more dissatisfied than men. (The slim-body illusion didn’t really change their ratings as most of the people were already at a normal weight; there were no gender differences here.)

On to the brain stuff: When the subjects saw their “obese” bodies, the authors observed more activity between sections of the brain associated with body perception (the parietal lobe) and regions responsible for processing subjective emotions like pain, fear, and anger (the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex). Except in women, the responses of the cingulate cortex were weaker than men’s. Doctors think this region is important for regulating emotion and the authors noted that impairment of this area could reduce women’s ability to regulate negative emotions about their bodies. When combined with body dysmorphia (represented in this study by perceived obesity), this brain difference could be why women are more susceptible to developing eating disorders, they said.

If this is true, an entire internet full of body-positivity is unlikely to change biology.