Only the Brain is Worried about Getting Fat

One thing that virtually all women share is body image issues. No matter how thin or fat, short or tall, or muscular or slim, women dislike something about their body. According to a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, even women who are seemingly well-adjusted with no overt body image issues have brains that reveal concerns about being overweight.

Body image issues range from a simple misperception of a woman’s true size to decreased self-esteem, depression, self-destructive behaviors, and full-blown eating disorders. The exact root of body image issues is unclear, but society’s preoccupation with the thinnest among us certainly does not help to quell women’s misperceptions of their body. Beginning in childhood, girls are bombarded with images of tall, slender characters who become body image role models. Girls as young as 3 years old have reported being worried about becoming fat. In Western countries, a majority of women are not happy with at least some part of their body.

In this new study, even the women who seem to lack the universal dislike of their bodies show brain scans that reveal an underlying concern of being fat. Study participants included normal-weight young adults (10 women and 9 men). They were shown images of gender-matched individuals of different sizes and shapes and told to imagine themselves as having that particular body type. The participants’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging during the experiment.

When women who had a healthy body image were shown pictures of overweight women, their brains revealed a spike in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex — the region involved in self-reflection and self-worth. The same activity was not seen when women viewed images of thin women. Women with eating disorders also exhibit increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex related to body image, but the activity is significantly more pronounced than the women without eating disorders. Men showed no change in brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, regardless of whether they compared themselves to fat or thin men.

The current study was small, and the authors could not determine whether the increased brain activity was actually due to the negative feelings about being overweight or if it was simply due to the women changing the way they perceived themselves. Would overweight women reveal the same activity if they pictured themselves as thin?

It is no surprise that body size and shape play a role in self-worth and self-reflection for many women. But, is it a natural, biological phenomenon intended to maintain healthy bodies, or is it a social and cultural pressure that defines women’s perceptions of themselves? The authors of the current study maintain it is the latter, thus explaining the difference in body image issues between males and females. No matter the cause, body image issues are not likely to disappear anytime soon; as the current study reveals, even women who think they have healthy body images have brains that tell them otherwise.


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Hayes S, & Tantleff-Dunn S (2010). Am I too fat to be a princess? Examining the effects of popular children’s media on young girls’ body image. The British journal of developmental psychology, 28 (Pt 2), 413-26 PMID: 20481395

Hrabosky JI, Cash TF, Veale D, Neziroglu F, Soll EA, Garner DM, Strachan-Kinser M, Bakke B, Clauss LJ, & Phillips KA (2009). Multidimensional body image comparisons among patients with eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and clinical controls: a multisite study. Body image, 6 (3), 155-63 PMID: 19410528

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  • losingit777

    That’s an excellent study. It’s “common knowledge” that nearly all women are dissatisfied with themselves, but “knowing” that is not the same as understanding the why and how. Thank you for reporting on this. I’m glad to see that someone cares enough about this important issue to take a scientific look at it. What you do with the results, that’s something else to think about.

    Me, I weigh 290 pounds, and that’s after a loss of 30. By anyone’s standards, I am far over an optimal weight. I tell you, I was utterly consumed by self-disgust. I thought about suicide all the time. I had given up on myself. Then I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, not a severe case, just over the line, and controllable largely by diet. I started losing weight. I have a more hopeful outlook. But I don’t have a more hopeful outlook because I’ve started to lose weight, I have started to lose weight because I feel better about myself. The diagnosis was a shock, but it was a blessing because it gave me something to think about besides how fat and ugly I thought I was (I’m fat, yes, but not ugly).

    I would like to see research done on how distracting women from thinking about their appearance keeps them from having a bad body image. If the pictures of women that the study subjects were shown included not just the thin or heavy woman, but some distractor as well, for example. I wonder whether body size assumes an out-of-proportion importance when the body itself is impersonally presented in a rigid way and isolated from its surroundings.

  • Interesting piece. I’m seeing this issue more and more in adolescent males.

  • poornima

    Only the brain is worried about getting fat – a new dimension to weight loss indeed!It is also true. I run a fitness centre for women and see that the women with the perfect bodies are more fussy about their weight and have apprehensions about whether they can maintain it forever or not. The larger women are happier and more adjusted with their weighty issues than the thin woman!

    My observations for the past 18 years as owner of VIRGO FITNESS CENTRE in Chennai, S. India.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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