Royal Society Publishing

The estimation of body mass index and physical attractiveness is dependent on the observer's own body mass index

Martin J. Tové e , Joanne L. Emery , Esther M. Cohen–Tovée

Abstract

A disturbance in the evaluation of personal body mass and shape is a key feature of both anorexia and bulimia nervosa. However, it is uncertain whether overestimation is a causal factor in the development of these eating disorders or is merely a secondary effect of having a low body mass. Moreover, does this overestimation extend to the perception of other people's bodies? Since body mass is an important factor in the perception of physical attractiveness, we wanted to determine whether this putative overestimation of self body mass extended to include the perceived attractiveness of others. We asked 204 female observers (31 anorexic, 30 bulimic and 143 control) to estimate the body mass and rate the attractiveness of a set of 25 photographic images showing people of varying body mass index (BMI). BMI is a measure of weight scaled for height (kg m-2).The observers also estimated their own BMI. Anorexic and bulimic observers systematically overestimated the body mass of both their own and other people'sbodies, relative to controls, and they rated a significantly lower body mass to be optimally attractive. When the degree of overestimation is plotted against the BMI of the observer there is a strong correlation. Taken across all our observers, as the BMI of the observer declines, the overestimation of body mass increases. One possible explanation for this result is that the overestimation is a secondary effect caused by weight loss. Moreover, if the degree of body mass overestimation is taken into account, then there are no significant differences in the perceptions of attractiveness between anorexic and bulimic observers and control observers. Our results suggest a significant perceptual overestimation of BMI that is based on the observer's own BMI and not correlated with cognitive factors, and suggests that this overestimation in eating–disordered patients must be addressed directly in treatment regimes.

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