Your Brain Might Be Lying to You About Your Body

And it’s the most surprising/unsurprising news ever


Remember How to Look Good Naked? It was a short-lived show on Lifetime that I couldn’t tell you much about, save for one part, which I never forgot. Host Carson Kressley would ask a woman to look at a lineup of women, all of different sizes, and point to which body looked the most like hers. SURPRISE! She would always pick someone far larger than she actually was. In hindsight the premise was pretty gross (those poor lined-up women!), but the wobbly self-perception did strike a chord.

According to a new study in Medical News Today, there might be a reason women are less effective at judging their own bodies and more susceptible to eating disorders than men. As in, more than just fucked up societal standards. The scientists behind the study, which was published in the medical journal Cerebral Cortex, set out to explore something more biological: why, neurologically, women tend to overestimate the size of their bodies (which has been proven in previous studies).

Doctors and scientists have been interested in eating disorders for a while, which makes sense when you consider the growing portion of our population that is suffering. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), that number is around 30 million in America. That’s roughly 10% of the population! And 20 million of that 30 are female.

Are you surprised by that split? I’m not; expectations on women’s bodies are ridiculous. We talk about this all the time.

The actual study sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. The 32 participants, none of whom had histories with eating disorders, were required to wear a virtual reality headset that would make their own bodies appear one of two ways: slim or obese. Then researchers watched how their brains responded.

“When participants looked at their ‘obese’ bodies,” reports Medical News Today, “the team identified a direct link between activity in the area of the brain associated with body perception — the parietal lobe — and activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region related to the processing of subjective emotions, such as fear and anger. What is more, the researchers found that such brain activity was more prominent in women than men, suggesting that ‘owning’ an obese body is likely to lead to higher body dissatisfaction in women.”

In short: The way we as women perceive our bodies is more closely connected to our subjective emotions than it is for men. Does this sound familiar to you? It does for me. I think about this more than I’d care to admit, and it’s both comforting and disappointing to see there are societal and now maybe biological explanations as to why. Do you struggle to see yourself clearly? Do you spend time wishing you could?

Photo via iStock.

Get more Beauty ?
  • nevvvvave

    I think there could be biological reasons which factor into impaired judgement towards our bodies but the example/study listed above is pretty weak evidence. The fact that the study “suggested higher dissatisfaction” among the “virtually obese” participants doesn’t necessarily lead to impairment of that judgement itself….After all, this study took place in a world that has pre-judged obesity as a negative & something to fear, so it’s hard to comment on the quality/accuracy of their judgment since it’s not like they were asked afterward to estimate their size/weight…Personally I think external pressure/factors that have nothing to do with biology give us more than enough reasons to fall into body paranoia.

  • darragh

    this might sound redundant but every time I see a picture of myself that I didn’t take (see:control) there is so much chatter in my brain I feel like I really can’t see my body objectively. there’s no positive interpretation to extract and I’m just ashamed that if everyone else is able to make some objective observation and it remains so difficult for me. this happened so often in the past I just avoid looking at pictures of myself. on the other hand, I’ve had a thyroid disorder since birth so when the dysmorphia gets out of control, but who will give me that objective pass?

  • Natalalaa

    I can totally relate to that! Although I’ve grown more confident with the way I am shaped (small, size 1, no boobs but a big ass) and really give zero fucks about it by the way I dress, which is a range between tomboyish jeans and tshirt or silky pyjama pants and tshirt, but always a bit weird and dresses and skirts dressed down in again a slightly weird way, I never think of myself in a petit and elegant way. Whatever I am wearing and it doesn’t matter how much I love my outfit that day and how happy I am with my body at that time, I always feel a little bit like an elefant, clumsy and chubby, knowing that I am not (chubby at least, I am definitely clumsy…). When I see pictures of me with some friends which I consider as petit and slim, standing next to me, I totally realize, that I am much smaller and more petit than I feel that I am. Seeing pictures and thinking “That’s a good angle, my legs look slim” or “…my waist looks tiny that way” makes me cringe when I think about it. The feminist in me doens’t want me to compare my shape with others because I don’t just put myself down but although the others to which I compare myself. I still remeber talking with my ex about my body image and he told me that he never thought about himself that way and that all the guys just look in the mirror thinking “gosh do I look good”. Hope that an awareness about that will help all of us to think more positive about ourselfs and also the way we see other females. Never forget: WE’RE FLAWLESS!

  • Sapere_Aude!

    Maaan you hit the nail on the head: im a true hourglass figure (Size EUR 34/36) and while I know on a cognitive level that it must be slim, i emotionally feel sooooo big and broad

  • Danielle R

    “It’s both comforting and disappointing to see there are societal and now maybe biological explanations as to why” couldn’t agree more Haley! I think it is deeply rooted in the tendency we have to compare ourselves to those around us. One of my friends always looks at other women, specifically in the soul cycle locker room, and asks, “she has my body type, right?” and I never agree. Body dysmorphia is so real.