Clinicians who treat eating disorders have known for years that people with anorexia have a distorted sense of their own body size, but a new study demonstrates that they assess other people's size accurately.
The study, conducted in France at the University of Lille Hospital and recently published in the journal PLoS ONE, involved 25 women struggling with anorexia nervosa and 25 women without the disorder, ABC News reported. The researchers projected the outlines of doors -- each a different size -- onto a wall and asked the women to guess whether they would fit through. After gathering those answers, researchers asked the women whether a person standing next to them would be able to fit through.
Previous studies had shown that anorexic individuals have warped perceptions of their own bodies, but the researchers were unsure whether this held for anorexics’ view of other people’s bodies. In the new study, the 25 women with anorexia were unable to accurately gauge the size of their own bodies, often vastly overestimating how large they were, but they more accurately appraised others’ body size.
"I think it's really fabulous that these researchers are able to provide scientific proof of what people who have worked with these patients have known for a very long time," Dr. Elizabeth Frenkel, a supervising psychologist at the Princeton HealthCare System's eating disorder program, told ABC News.
The researchers also found a connection between anorexic participants’ idea of how big they were and the size that they were pre-eating disorder. According to the study, this disconnect between actual body size and perceived body size might be due to the central nervous system not “updating” to register the individual’s reduced size.
Body dysmorphia is known as a symptom of eating disorders, but 2010 research by professor Janet M. Liechty at the University of Illinois suggested that it may help lead young women to develop eating disorders. “Body image distortion appears to be a more discriminating indicator of distress than body dissatisfaction, but it’s not something that’s typically screened for by health care providers,” Liechty told PsychCentral in June 2010.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population has suffered from anorexia nervosa in their lifetime (0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men). Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told ABC News that this most recent study at least provides a simple way to explain patients body perceptions in concrete terms.