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Body image disturbance (BID) is a core symptom of anorexia nervosa (AN), but as yet distinctive features of BID are unknown. The present study aimed at disentangling perceptual and attitudinal components of BID in AN.
We investigated n = 24 women with AN and n = 24 controls. Based on a three-dimensional (3D) body scan, we created realistic virtual 3D bodies (avatars) for each participant that were varied through a range of ±20% of the participants’ weights. Avatars were presented in a virtual reality mirror scenario. Using different psychophysical tasks, participants identified and adjusted their actual and their desired body weight. To test for general perceptual biases in estimating body weight, a second experiment investigated perception of weight and shape matched avatars with another identity.
Women with AN and controls underestimated their weight, with a trend that women with AN underestimated more. The average desired body of controls had normal weight while the average desired weight of women with AN corresponded to extreme AN (DSM-5). Correlation analyses revealed that desired body weight, but not accuracy of weight estimation, was associated with eating disorder symptoms. In the second experiment, both groups estimated accurately while the most attractive body was similar to Experiment 1.
Our results contradict the widespread assumption that patients with AN overestimate their body weight due to visual distortions. Rather, they illustrate that BID might be driven by distorted attitudes with regard to the desired body. Clinical interventions should aim at helping patients with AN to change their desired weight.
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