Anorexia Affects More Than Self-Image

More than two million people in the US suffer from anorexia. The majority are teens or young college students and are female. There is a keen self-awareness typical of this age. Those with anorexia push this to an obsession, leading to extreme and sometimes fatal dieting. Patients sincerely believe their body is fatter than it really is, and they often require treatment for eating disorders.

“It appears that for anorexia nervosa patients, experiencing their body as fat goes beyond thinking and perceiving themselves in such a way, it is even reflected in how they move around in the world,” wrote the authors of a study recently published in PLoS One.

Dutch researchers from Utrecht University wondered if this distorted view went beyond body image. Thirty-nine female undergraduate students, all over the age of 18 were recruited to participate in a study. Of the participants, 13 were anorexic, 6 have been diagnosed with an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) which means they share the symptoms but don’t meet the requirements of full anorexia and 20 healthy control participants.

Two tables were placed on opposite sides of a room. Subjects were asked to walk from one table to the other, passing through a “doorway” in the middle of the room. Subjects were asked to do this several times, not realizing the doorway was narrowed each time. Subjects were distracted from the narrowing doorway by a fake memory task. Researchers videotaped the participants, noting their gait and the angle of their shoulders. When the doorway was 40% wider than their shoulders, the anorexic subjects began to rotate their bodies through the doorway; the healthy subjects did not do so until the doorway was 25% wider. Later, participants were asked to estimate the width of their shoulders. The anorexic women believed their shoulders were an average of 10 inches wider. The healthy women were closer with their estimate of 4 inches wider.

“Current therapeutic interventions should not only focus on changing how patients think about their body and how they look at it, but also target the body in action,” said first author Anouk Keizer, an experimental psychologist and Ph.D. student at Utrecht University. “In other words, treatment should aim to improve the experience of body size as a whole.”