Body Image: Are We Wired for Distortion?

"Girl in the Mirror" by Pablo Picasso
"Girl in the Mirror" by Pablo Picasso

By Ashley Solomon of Nourishing the Soul

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?

This post was originally published at the author’s blog Nourishing the Soul on August 1, 2010. Cross-posted with permission.

3 thoughts on “Body Image: Are We Wired for Distortion?

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  2. The brain is a funny thing….. people’s brain pathways aren’t the same, it’s a given, yet we tend to forget that and think that we all have the same wiring upstairs. Same wiring, made up of the same gauge wire, all to the same specs. If it were only that simple. This was a great article and hopefully, with more research we can begin to really educate people on the why of a poor self image.

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