Anorexia Causes Actions Based on Distorted Body Schema

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is one type of eating issue that can lead to extreme low body weight, low body mass index (BMI), and drastic dieting measures. People with AN often perceive their body size as larger than it is and consider themselves “fat” even when they are very thin. This perception seems to persist even after individuals have undergone treatment for AN, and despite the fact that they may have not gained any weight.

Although there is a large body of research on risk factors for AN, such as perfectionism, control, and internalizing problems, there is less research devoted to the body-image-related behavior of people with AN. Anouk Keizer of the Experimental Psychology/Helmholtz Institute at Utrecht University in the Netherlands recently led a study designed to see if body behavior was affected by body image perception in people with AN.

For the study, Keizer enlisted 19 participants with AN and 20 without (HC) and had them walk through openings designed to mimic doorways. The openings were referred to as panels, so as to minimize the impact of preconceived size to the participants. The openings were of different widths and Keizer evaluated whether the participants walked through the openings straight or whether they turned their bodies as they passed through.

The results revealed that even though the AN participants were mostly thinner than the HC participants, they turned their bodies to fit through the openings as if their bodies took up more space than they actually did. In fact, Keizer found that the HC participants rotated their bodies when the openings were 25% wider than their shoulder width, but the AN participants began rotating and adjusting their body positions when the openings were 40% wider than the width of their shoulder span.

This suggests that there is a significant body schema distortion present in AN that causes unconscious behaviors related to body image distortion. Interestingly, even the participants who had gained some weight, and no longer met the criteria for AN based on BMI and body weight, rotated their bodies to fit through the openings in the same way that the participants with clinical AN did. Keizer added, “It thus appears that for AN 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.”

Keizer, A., Smeets, M.A.M., Dijkerman, H.C., Uzunbajakau, S.A., van Elburg, A., et al. (2013). Too fat to fit through the door: First evidence for disturbed body-scaled action in anorexia nervosa during locomotion. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64602. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064602

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  • gabriel


    June 11th, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    this just goes to show just how off kilter their perception of their own bodies are

  • ZOE


    June 12th, 2013 at 4:14 AM

    There has always been this mistaken belief about those with eating disorders that it is all about the food. Clearly this shows that this goes far deeper than food and food bingeing or restriction. There is something that is inherently wrong internally that could cause these men and women to viwe themselves in such distorted ways. To think that you are this much bigger than what you are? That shows that there is something serious going on in your brain that would have to be fixed before there could ever be any hope of you getting through a serious eating disorder. This is why you can talk til you are blue in the face to an anorexic about how important it is to eat a well balanced and healthy diet, but just talking about the food aspect is doing little to change how they perceive themsleves or how they can continue to control what they see as fat and ugly.

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