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Imagine this: A researcher has you in a lab to gather data for her study on body image. She shows you a series of illustrations of female bodies, ranging from very thin to obese, and asks you to pick the image you think best represents your body. Next, she asks you to choose the picture you wish you looked like. What are the chances you pick the same illustration? We’d bet dollars to donuts the majority of women think they look heavier than are but want to look thinner than the picture they most identified with.
But, check out this University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study of more than 2,000 obese Dallas residents: When asked to pick their ideal shape along with the one that most closely resembled their own body, about 165 people (8 percent) selected ideal body shapes that were the same or bigger than their own. Fourteen percent of African Americans and 11 percent of Hispanics -- but just 2 percent of whites -- believed they did not need to lose weight. Subjects who misperceived their body size were also happier with their health, and felt healthier than those who recognized their obesity. Further clarifying their clouded judgment, 66 percent of the overweight people with body size misperception felt they were at low risk of becoming obese, even though they already were.
Study leader Tiffany M. Powell, M.D., told Reuters Health the study "points to really a lack of understanding about the effects of obesity.” After all, how can doctors successfully encourage their obese patients to shed pounds if they’re perfectly happy with their current weight?
Then again, we live in a society where more people than not feel terrible about the way they look and will do anything -- make themselves throw up, have their stomachs banded, swallow unregulated diet pills -- in an effort to lose weight. Ten million Americans suffer from eating disorders. Isn’t it kind of a good thing that at least some people are happy with how they look, no matter what their weight?
In two words, not exactly. There’s a difference between having a strong body image and deluding yourself into thinking obesity is a healthy lifestyle choice. The happy-but-heavy individuals in this study believed they were at low risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes or having a heart attack despite the fact that obesity does, without a doubt, predispose you to such conditions. Nearly half of them had not seen a doctor at all in the past year which means they may not be getting a clear picture of their health. Are there heavy people with larger BMIs who work out regularly and have low cholesterol levels and healthy hearts? Yes. Can you be fit but fat? It seems so. And a handful of studies suggest that it’s healthier to carry around a few extra pounds than to chronically diet. But that group is tiny compared to the average overweight American who doesn’t work out regularly, eats fast food and may have trouble walking up a flight of stairs.
Powell recognizes the need to balance mental and physical health, noting, "you walk a fine line, because you don't want people to necessarily have an unhealthy body image, but you also want people to understand that they need to lose weight."
Where is the disconnect coming from? The study authors theorized that America’s high rate of obesity (66 percent of US adults are overweight or obese) has, in a sense, normalized obesity. Research bears this out: In 2007, a well-publicized study out of Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego, showed that the more overweight friends you have, the more likely you are to become obese. Powell told Reuters: "There is this tendency that if everyone around you looks a certain way, you either want to look that way or you're comfortable looking the way you are." A recent obesity report ranked Texas, where this study took place, as the 13th most obese state in the country. Ten of the 11 states with the highest rates of obesity were in the South (Mississippi's 33.8 percent obesity rate was the highest; Colorado, at 19 percent, was the lowest.)
Hopefully physicians will take these findings to heart and recognize the need to thoroughly discuss lifestyle habits with their obese patients. But first, we need to find effective ways of getting people to make that doctor’s appointment in the first place.
Do you think you have a realistic view of your body and weight? Chime in below.