It's official: Women are afraid of getting fat. But while that might not sound like news, a small study suggests that the female 'fear of fat' is actually much more ingrained than anyone previously thought.
Researchers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, studied the brain scans of a handful of normal weight individuals who were shown images of people with different body sizes while being asked to imagine that they had a similar body.
While the men weren't really affected by the images of overweight men, the scans showed that women experienced a spike of activity in the areas of the brain associated with self-evaluation and reflection -- the medial prefrontal cortex -- when they saw images of overweight women. The same spike in activity wasn't found when they were shown photos of thin women.
The results, to be published in the May issue of the psychology journal Personality and Individual Differences, suggest that women had a tendency to internalize the images of overweight women, leading them to compare themselves to the subjects and activating a sense of fear even when they're not overweight themselves. "These women have no history of eating disorders and project an attitude that they don't care about body image," Mark Allen, a Brigham Young University neuroscientist and study author, said in a press release. "Yet under the surface is an anxiety about getting fat and the centrality of body image to self."
With a fear of fat being so deeply rooted in a woman's mind, does this small study imply that most women have the potential for an eating disorder? Not quite. Allen told the UK's Telegraph that while women with eating disorders exhibit similar activity in brain scans, their reactions are much more extreme, showing signs of severe unhappiness and even self-loathing when they look at photos of overweight women. "Although these women's brain activity doesn't look like full-blown eating disorders, they are much closer to it than men are," he said.
There's no doubt that our society idealizes thinness, and Allen definitely thinks this mentality is to blame. "Many women learn that bodily appearance and thinness constitute what is important about them, and their brain responding reflects that," he said. "I think it is an unfortunate and false idea to learn about oneself and does put one at greater risk for eating and mood disorders."
But how do we change our ingrained bias towards thinness? It seems even plus-sized ads don't help -- recent studies show that they actually decrease women's self esteem.
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