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Women fear being fat on seeing the obese

When confronted with the idea of putting on weight, even the most confident of women have a tendency to react negatively

Women worry about getting fat because it is in their brains, suggests a new study. When confronted with the idea of putting on weight, even the most confident of women have a tendency to react negatively.

Researchers have found that even looking at someone who is overweight sparks negative feelings in the brains of women, while men tend to be indifferent to such issues.

It’s in the brain
A specific reaction is triggered off in a certain part of the brain, when women come across another fat female. The reaction was found to be stronger in women who suffer eating disorders.

Researchers believe that this information could be used to get a better idea of body image issues of women and will help doctors deal with them in a more effective way.

“This is kind of validating the suspicion that most women are teetering on the edge of an eating disorder,” said study author Mark Allen, a neuroscientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “If the brain response is so strong in these apparently healthy women, maybe most of us could use a little dose of what it is that you go through in an eating disorder therapy.”

Women's brains respond to images of the obese
For the study, 10 women and nine men between the ages of 18 and 30 were studied, and all the subjects weighed normal.

They were shown images of different fat and thin people and were asked to imagine themselves in similar bodies.

Researchers have found that even looking at someone who is overweight sparks negative feelings in the brains of women, while men tend to be indifferent to such issues.

The brains of the subjects were simultaneously scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). On seeing those images, women showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex region of the brain, which is believed to process self-reflection and identity.

Even those who seemed rather indifferent about their body image showed similar results.

“These women have no history of eating disorders and project an attitude that they don’t care about body image,” said Allen. “Yet under the surface is an anxiety about getting fat.”

The brain activity was even more pronounced in females who suffered eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, reported the researchers in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Too much social pressure on women?
“Women are actually engaging in an evaluation of who they are and whether they are worthwhile as a person,” Allen said.

However, men seemed to be unaffected by imagining themselves in fat or thin bodies.

The researchers believe that this difference between the thinking of men and women does not emerge from their biological differences; it has more to do with the social pressure on women.

“Many women learn that bodily appearance and thinness constitute what is important about them, and their brain responding reflects that,” said study co-author, psychologist Diane Spangler.

She added that such thinking puts one “at greater risk for eating and mood disorders.”