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.


Annis NM, Cash TF, & Hrabosky JI (2004). Body image and psychosocial differences among stable average weight, currently overweight, and formerly overweight women: the role of stigmatizing experiences. Body image, 1 (2), 155-67 PMID: 18089148

Etu SF, & Gray JJ (2010). A preliminary investigation of the relationship between induced rumination and state body image dissatisfaction and anxiety. Body image, 7 (1), 82-5 PMID: 19837639

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

Owens, T., Allen, M., & Spangler, D. (2010). An fMRI study of self-reflection about body image: Sex differences Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (7), 849-854 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.02.012

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.
See All Posts By The Author