Dissatisfaction with women’s own bodies seems to influence their judgment of other women’s body measurements

New research provides evidence that how women assess the transition from normal to overweight in other women’s bodies is related to perceptions of their own body size and their body dissatisfaction. The findings are published in the journal Limits in Psychology

“There are laboratory studies showing that one’s assessment of other people’s body size can be altered by retraining, which is relevant to eating disorders,” said lead researcher Katri Cornelissen, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

“This opened up a broader question of what the relationship is between the posture of your own body, the size you perceive your own body to be, and the size you perceive the body of others to be. Especially whether it is the case that if you tend to overestimate your own body size, there is also a tendency to overestimate the body size of others and is also linked to body dissatisfaction.”

In the new study, 129 women provided demographic information along with their height and weight (which were used to calculate their BMI) before completing measurements of eating disorder symptoms, body dissatisfaction, depression and self-esteem.

The participants were then shown a series of photorealistic, computer-generated images of a female body that ranged in BMI from 12.5 (underweight) to 44.5 (obese). They were asked to “find the best match for your own body size/shape” and to “find where you think the woman changes from normal size to overweight.” All participants completed both assessment tasks, but the order of the tasks was random. They also completed a distraction task between the two assessment sessions “to minimize any transfer between the two types of body size assessments.”

The researchers found that the participants actually body size (their calculated BMI) was not related to their judgment of the position of the “normal/overweight” boundary. But the size of participants perceived being themselves was related to their judgment of the “normal/overweight” boundary.

The findings show that “misconception of one’s own body size and that of others is not limited to people with eating disorders and is the same for everyone,” Cornelissen told PsyPost.

The researchers found that women with higher levels of body dissatisfaction tended to report that the “normal/overweight” threshold had a lower BMI compared to women with less body dissatisfaction. In contrast, women who overestimated their own body size indicated that the “normal/overweight” threshold was at a higher BMI.

“There are two competing influences that influence your judgment of someone else’s body size,” explains Cornelissen. “The first is that the more emotional stress you feel about your own body, the smaller someone has to be in body size to describe them as overweight. Second, the more you overestimate your own height, the larger someone else’s body size must be in order for them to be overweight. or describe her as overweight.”

“In other words, there are two opposing influences that we can identify (perceptual factor and the attitude and feelings you have about your own body) that influence the point that someone else is perceived as overweight.”

Future research could examine whether the findings hold for other cultures and non-adults. The participants were recruited from the United Kingdom, Poland, Norway and the Czech Republic and ranged in age from 18 to 53 years. “There are clear caveats: the extent to which the same phenomenon is the same or different in children and whether the same phenomenon applies to non-Western cultures,” says Cornelissen.

“Extensive research has shown that perceptions and attitudes you have about your own body are strongly influenced by a) the extent to which you internalize cultural information about ideal body shape and size, and b) the extent to which you compare yourself to your peers. It is highly likely that both influences play an important role in the effects identified in the current study and need to be explicitly measured in the future.”

Despite the caveats, “the findings are of clinical importance,” Cornelissen explains. “In people with eating disorders, untreated body dissatisfaction (the difference between the size you are, the size you think you are) is a risk factor for relapse. Therefore, the current study may help establish the rationale for new additional treatments to reduce body image dissatisfaction on top of usual treatments.”

The study, “The Effect of Own Body Concerns on Judgments of Other Women’s Body Size,” was written by Katri K. Cornelissen, Lise Gulli Brokjøb, Jiří Gumančík, Ellis Lowdon, Kristofor McCarty, Kamila R. Irvine, Martin J. Tovée, and Piers Louis Cornelissen.