How your body image can change in two minutes
Jennifer Aniston could not have known how right she was, when she penned a powerful op-ed on Tuesday.
“The message that girls are not pretty unless they’re incredibly thin, that they’re not worthy of our attention unless they look like a supermodel or an actress on the cover of a magazine is something we’re all willingly buying into,” Aniston wrote.
Mostly, we buy into it without realising. We know that constantly seeing images of supposedly ‘ideal’ bodies in the media can have a significant impact on our body image.
Until now, it was not known just how susceptible we are.
In a new study, researchers from Australia’s Macquarie University have found that our perception of our own body can be changed in just two minutes.
“Along with social pressure to be thin body size misperception is often attributed to exposure to unrealistic body ideals as portrayed in the popular media, such as magazines, cinema and TV,” say the authors of the new study, published in the journal
Frontiers in Neuroscience.
“Explanations for the relationship between the media and body image distortions have predominantly focused on sociocognitive processes such as the role of social comparison… However, little is known about the perceptual mechanisms underlying these phenomena.”
The research area of Associate professor Kevin Brooks is human perception.
He knows how easy it is for us to see a spot of red and then turn our gaze to a white sheet of paper and see green.
Brooks wondered about how our perception worked in a real world situation – the way we see ourselves, for instance.
“There’s a link between the misperception of a person’s own body size and eating disorders and chronic body image disorders,” Brooks says.
“At the other end of the spectrum… there are overweight people who also misperceive their body size. Perhaps because everyone around them looks the same or has the same lifestyle.”
So Brooks and his colleagues conducted two experiments. In the first, 24 undergraduate psychology students looked at pictures of other people that had been digitally manipulated to make them look thinner or fatter.
In the second experiment 35 students were shown similarly altered pictures of themselves for two minutes.
In both experiments, participants saw their own unaltered body as “abnormally thin” when shown the “expanded” self and “abnormally fat”, when shown their “contracted” self.
“Overall, these results confirm that adaptation to images that have been manipulated to appear thinner or fatter than normal are effective in creating aftereffects of perceived body size,” Brooks and his co-authors wrote.
“Further, effects caused by prolonged exposure to distorted images of the self can transfer to the bodies of others and, more importantly, exposure to thin or fat unfamiliar others can transfer to the self.”
Brooks says that although the participants were “in pretty good shape and are pretty psychologically healthy”, the study shows “we can still manipulate their perception – and it’s very quick”.
Given the exposure was brief, he anticipated that the aftereffects would also be brief.
“But, we’d also expect that if there was continued stimulation there would be longer lasting misperception,” he says.
Why such misperception affects some and not others remains a mystery.
“Some people who see the same images and read the same magazines and have the same lifestyles do not have the same misperception – there’s plenty of complex stuff in there we’re keen to explore,” Brooks says, adding that the research is “very preliminary”.
Still, it is intriguing.
“We can cause this change in perception of body shape in just two minutes,” he says. “That’s enough to create an aftereffect. Everything we think is normal is the result of all the after effects of a lifetime of stimulation.”
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