Even women who appear to have a realistic perception of body image are concerned about their own weight gain. Neuroscientist Mark Allen at the Brigham Young University has used psychological screening tests and brain scans to show the subconscious fear women have of getting fat.
The study involved 10 normal weight women and nine normal weight men between the ages of 18 and 30, none of which had a history of an eating disorder. Both groups had brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while being shown pictures of people with different body shapes that matched the subjects’ gender. They were asked to view the picture as if their body were the shape as the person in the picture.
When women looked at the images of overweight women, their brain scans showed a spike in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved with self-reflection and self-worth. Women with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, show similar activity except that it is more pronounced. When the women were asked to picture themselves as thin, there was no significant change in brain activity.
Men did not show any indication that they showed the same concern about body image, although previous research by Allen has shown that male bodybuilders do have similar brain activity patterns as bulimic women.
Allen said that the contrasting results between the sexes were “not really a male-female difference, so much as it’s the social pressure that surrounds men and women. Even though they (women) claim they don’t care about body issues…their brains are showing that it really bugs them to think about the prospect of being overweight.”
He said “Women are actually engaging in an evaluation of who they are and whether they are worthwhile as a person.”
Diane Spangler, a BYU psychology professor, added "Women are bombarded with messages that perpetuate the thin ideal, and the barrage changes how they view themselves." She added that "many women learn that bodily appearance and thinness constitute what is important about them, and their brain responding [to the images] reflects that."
Future studies will be conducted on overweight women to see if the same spike in brain activity occurs as a result of feeling pressure to change to meet an ideal.