By Dr. Jack Rutherford
For years, psychologists have warned us that media images of super slim models would put the nation’s collective self-esteem at risk. The interesting thing, however, is that something altogether different has happened. We’re in denial about our weight. Study after study shows that instead of feeling bad about our weight problem, we’re denying it even exists.
Case in point, one study at the University of Illinois asked young men and women to estimate their body size based on classifications from underweight to obese. People in the normal weight category correctly classified themselves as such approximately 80 percent of the time. However, 58 percent of overweight students incorrectly described themselves as normal weight. And among the obese, 75 percent placed themselves in the overweight category. Notably, a sizable minority who were at a healthy weight classified themselves as underweight.
The tendency for people to underestimate their body sizes is remarkably consistent across cultures and age groups in Canada, Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. So why are so many people in denial about their weight? One reason seems to be that as we’ve become fatter as a nation, fat has become the new normal. This concept is supported by research that shows that people with heavier parents and peers are far more apt to underestimate their weight than those with healthy-weight parents and friends. In other words, when people live in an environment in which they see, on a daily basis, overweight parents and peers who overweight, they can develop inaccurate perceptions of what constitutes a healthy weight. Their own overweight then seems normal by comparison.
But there’s probably a more complex reason, although scientists admit that they are just beginning to understand the complicated process in which the brain processes signals from all the body’s senses to form our body images. Because body size is a dynamic process, changing constantly, the brain has to frequently adjust its perception. Scientists suggest that sometimes this internal classifying system can go awry. For example, those with anorexia or bulimia cannot accurately describe their own body sizes, a sign the internal system has gone haywire.
An interesting experiment on brain perception also bears this out. Known as the Pinocchio Illusion, a person touching his own nose can believe his nose is growing if, with eyes closed, he has his biceps stimulated to feel as if his forearm is moving forward. The brain senses the movement of the arm but also knows that the fingers are still touching the nose. Logically, the brain reasons that for both sensations to be true, the nose must be growing.
Still, it may simply come down to perspective. People like to feel normal and in a population of overweight people they will. Given that in the U.S. today, two of every three adults are overweight, future generations may also share this inaccurate perception.