In general terms, women are more conscious of their bodies than men. Rates of eating and food problems are much higher in women than they are in men. And society puts much more emphasis on female physical appearance than on the physical appearance of males. Additionally, women tend to face more objectification than men. In all, these conditions combine to increase the risk of body dissatisfaction in women. This can lead to significant mental health problems, the most common of which include anorexia (AN), bulimia (BN), and other conditions of disordered eating (ED). Women who experience these issues often demonstrate distorted self-perceptions and emotional reactions.
In fact, it has been shown that women with high levels of body dissatisfaction respond to weight and body image words with fear and avoidance, similar to the way in which people with anxiety respond to threatening cues. Other indications of ED vulnerability may include the physiological response to such cues, but this theory has yet to be fully tested. Therefore, Cornelia Herbert of the Department of psychology at the University of Wurzburg in Germany recently led a study that measured the heart rate and startle response in a sample of 41 women.
Herbert exposed the women to words that were related to weight and body shape and neutral words and found that although the majority of the women responded to the body related words with increased heart rate, only those at risk for ED had increased startle responses. In fact, these women were more likely to exhibit symptoms of disordered eating, such as extreme dieting, excessive exercising, and negative body image, when compared to those with normal startle responses.
These findings are extremely important because they can provide a unique way in which to identify women most at risk for ED. Although most women may have some level of body dissatisfaction, and as the results of this study show, have a physiological response to any words related to the body, those who may go on to develop EDs are clearly distinguishable. Herbert added, “Peripheral-physiological measures such as the startle reflex could possibly be used as predictors of females’ risk for developing EDs in the future.” She hopes that these findings help identify those women in the earliest stages in order to prevent them from the negative consequences associated with EDs.
Herbert, C., Kübler, A., Vögele, C. (2013). Risk for eating disorders modulates startle-responses to body words.” PLoS ONE 8(1): e53667. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053667
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