Can a Computer Tell If You Have Bad Body Image?

New software can accurately diagnose body image distortion

You can go online to diagnosis yourself with nearly anything these days, from depression to skin cancer to Chlamydia. But can Dr. Internet be relied on to accurately diagnose anorexia?

According to new research just presented at the American Psychiatric Association 2010 Annual Meeting, you may be able to take two clicks and call your therapist in the morning. Body Image Software (not the most creative name I’ve ever heard, but I’ll let it slide)  was shown to offer an accurate, objective measure of body image distortion, at least among anorexic patients.

Developed by Rick M. Gardner, PhD, from the University of Colorado Denver, BIS helps judge two components of body image disturbance: "Perceptual distortion" – the inaccurate judgment of one's body size -– and dissatisfaction with the size or shape of one's body. In the study, 66 anorexic female teenagers and young adults performed three online tasks:

1) They were shown a distorted image of themselves on the computer and asked to adjust the image wider or thinner, according to their current perceived body size.

2) The patients were then asked to adjust their image to their desired body size.

3) Participants were then shown eight blocks of 40 images of themselves and identify each image as either "wider" or "thinner" than their actual size. The BIS program adjusted the images until the image reached their perceived current size

The results were what you might expect but eye-opening nonetheless: Overall, the women perceived their body size as 10.4 percent larger than it actually was, and the average desired body size was 6.8 percent smaller than their actual body size. In other words, the software was able to distinguish a 17 percent difference between what anorexic young women thought they look like and what they wished they looked like.

Principal study investigator Jennifer Hagman, MD, also from the University of Colorado, told Medscape Psychiatry that these results have given her precious insight into the funhouse appearance her patients truly see when they look in a mirror. "When subjects adjust the image to their perceived body image, it is of a normal or even slightly overweight person. As a clinician who has been working in this field for two decades, it was really striking for me to be able to see the image my patient sees and what they experience. For me this really changed my understanding of what body image distortion is really like for these patients."

If you ask me, these results don’t seem all that different from what I’d imagine you’d see if you asked non-anorexic women to compare their perceived body to their physical ideal. I’d bet if you showed me an altered image of my body and asked me to adjust it so it looked "normal," I would wind up over-inflating it a bit, and I KNOW that, if given a slew of different bodies to choose from, I’d quickly pick one that was at least 6.8 percent slimmer. I’m not proud of this, but I know myself well enough to admit it. And I’ve been like this my entire life. So I wonder if a tool like this might have come in handy when I was younger, before I left for college and became anorexic. (Not that we had the type of computers back then that we do now -– I didn’t even start using email until my sophomore year of college!)

No one is suggesting that computer software replace interpersonal communication with a trained medical or psychiatric professional. But a tool like this could be useful in terms of screening and could even save patients money if it could accurately predict whether an individual might require in-patient hospitalization (extremely expensive and often not covered by insurance) or if they could benefit from less extreme measures.

What do you think of Body Image Software? Do you think it will be able to help women with distorted body image? Chime in below.


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