Fear Of Getting Fat: Gender Differences

The boogie monster that haunts women is real, and it’s called cellulite. The fear of getting fat plagues even healthy normal-weight women. It is a fear, apparently, that men do not share. Psychologists at Brigham Young University discovered women who project healthy body images may have a hidden fear of becoming overweight. As part of their research on improving treatment for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, Mark Allen and Diane Spangler scanned the brains of women with eating disorders against a control group of normal-weight women with a healthy body image and made a surprising discovery.

What Allen and Spangler were surprised to learn was that the control group of women pre-screened for healthy body attitudes showed similar brain activity as the women with the eating disorders. All participants were shown images of both over-weight and normal-weight bodies and asked to think about themselves.  The medial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for self-reflection) showed activity when the women with eating disorders saw the overweight images, indicated fear and self-loathing. Interestingly, that same are of the brain was activated in the brains of the healthy women. Whereas in men in the control group, this area of the brain was not activated.
With further testing, this pattern was repeated. Although healthy women’s brain activity didn’t mirror  the same levels of self-image reflection as those with eating disorders, that area of the brain was triggered. Once again, the men did not have that reaction.
The study clearly shows that women and men have differences in body image. However, the team points out that more testing of a larger, more varied group of women is needed to draw definitive conclusions. If more research proves women in our society do live in fear of getting fat, hopefully Allen and Spangler’s research may be the first step in reversing the pattern. The researchers hypothesize that all women are negatively affected to some degree by society’s ideal of thinness: even those who appear to be immune to it.
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