body image

How we feel about ourselves may impact what we pay attention to in the world around us. Researchers evaluated whether young women who had either a positive or a negative body image would pay more or less attention to weight-related words.

Body image is an important part of an individual’s sense of self.  Researchers have shown that a sense of dissatisfaction with one’s own body is linked to relationship difficulties, early sexual activity, self-harming behaviours, and suicidal ideation. A negative body image is also linked to eating disorders in adolescent girls and women. This is particularly relevant in North America where as many as 72% of women report some sense of body dissatisfaction.

Previous research has indicated that women who have a poor body image process weight-related information differently than women who have a positive body image. Understanding how these mental processes differ is crucial to understanding the development and treatment of eating disorders. Previous research has indicated that women who are not satisfied with their body image may pay more attention to weight-related information.  This increased attention could cause more negative feelings and so perpetuate a cycle of fixation on weight. Previous research has also indicated that exposure to thin models may heighten a sense of body dissatisfaction and so contribute to this negative cycle.

How Does Our Attention Impact Our Body Image?

Researchers at the University of Calgary conducted a study to investigate how attentional biases were related to levels of body satisfaction and if exposure to images of thin models would exaggerate any attentional biases.

The primary purpose of the study was to clarify how weight-related information was processed by women who had a negative body image. It aimed to clarify if women who were unsatisfied with their body image would either pay more attention to fat-related words and less attention to thin-related words than women who were satisfied with their body image or pay equally more attention to both fat and thin related information and less attention to neutral words.

How Do We Process Information Related to Weight?

There have been mixed results from previous studies that have evaluated how women with and without eating disorders process information related to weight.  Some studies have indicated that women with eating disorder differentially pay attention to fat-related content while ignoring thin related words or pictures.  Other studies have found that women who are dissatisfied with their body image pay greater attention to any weight-related words, including both fat and thin-related words than they do neutral words.

One possible explanation for the different results in these past studies is that a sense of body dissatisfaction may be activated, or “primed”, in women who have been exposed to media images of thin models. If this were true, the researchers would expect to see greater attentional biases in women who have viewed images of thin models than in women who are not viewed images of thin models.

In this study, the participants, who were either satisfied or unsatisfied with their bodies, were shown a series of words that were either thin related, fat-related, or neutral, followed by images of thin models and then the series of words again. They were then reevaluated on their body image, or level of body satisfaction. The researchers used eye-tracking devices to measure how much attention each participant gave to either thin or fat related words. The researchers predicted:

  1. That body dissatisfied women would show a larger increase in the difference in levels of body satisfaction before and after viewing the images of thin models. The researchers predicted that many of the women would become less satisfied with their bodies after viewing the images, but that this would be exaggerated in women who were already unhappy with their weight.
  2. That body dissatisfied women would have greater differences in attentional engagement with the body related words. The researchers predicted that body dissatisfied women would spend more time looking at the fat-related words or less time looking at the thin-related words than the women who were satisfied with their bodies.
  3. The researchers predicted that the women would spend more time looking at the weight-related words after viewing the images of thin models and that this phenomenon would be exaggerated in the women with a poor body image.

A total of 78 women, mostly undergraduate students, participated in this study that took place at the University of Calgary in Canada. Of these women, 40 were in the “body dissatisfied” group and the remaining 38 were in the “body satisfied” group, based on the results of a questionnaire. The body-satisfied women had, on average, lower body mass indexes than the body-dissatisfied women. The researchers used eye-tracking devices to measure how much time each participant spent gazing at each word on the screen. The results of this study were recently published in the journal, PLoS ONE.

Images of Thin Models Affected Body Satisfaction

The results confirmed the first hypothesis; the levels of body satisfaction decreased more significantly in the women who were already unsatisfied compared to women who were satisfied after viewing the images of thin models. In fact, the scores of the women who initially scored high on the level of body satisfaction did not change significantly at all. This confirms that viewing the images of the thin models was effective at priming, or activating, a sense of dissatisfaction in the women with a poor body image.

Attention to Fat and Thin-Related Words

The results did not confirm the second hypothesis, however, showing that women who were body dissatisfied did not spend more time looking at fat related words and less time looking at thin-related words than women who were body satisfied.  What it found instead, however, is that women who were body dissatisfied spent more time looking at both fat related and thin related words more than women who were body satisfied.

This was true, in fact, even before viewing the images of thin models. The images of models, although they impacted the level of satisfaction that the women felt with their weight, did not necessarily impact the amount of attention that they spent on weight-related information. This indicates that these women did not need to be “primed” with media portrayals of thin models in order to experience attentional biases.

This study showed that body unsatisfied women paid more attention to both fat and thin-related words than body satisfied women. This study demonstrates that those with a negative self-image pay more attention to weight-related information than those with a positive self-image. Interestingly, the study showed that this effect was not altered by priming with weight-related images, but was evident even with a lack of priming. The images did, however, affect the degree of dissatisfaction felt by these women.

Implications for Treating Eating Disorders

Understanding how attentional biases function and how they impact and are impacted by body image is important in order to design and implement prevention programs against eating disorders. These attentional biases are considered mechanisms by which eating disorders may manifest in those who are at risk. This study has important implications for those treating, managing, and working to prevent eating disorders in women who are at risk.

This study confirms that exposure to thin-related media images reinforces a poor body image. It also contributes to the body of literature indicating that women who are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely to pay more attention to weight-related information, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of attention and negative emotions. This study indicates that prevention programs that aim to moderate the attention of at-risk women should focus on both fat and thin related content, instead of solely on thin-related content. Additionally, this study also provides direction for future research, as this phenomenon could possibly extend to all body related words, not just weight related words.

Written by Lisa Borsellino, B.Sc.

Reference: Tobin, Leah N., et al. “Attention to fat-and thin-related words in body-satisfied and body-dissatisfied women before and after thin model priming.” PloS one 13.2 (2018): e0192914.

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