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Why is checking the mirror for weight gain inaccurate and unhelpful for people struggling with body image? This can be answered with one word, spiders. Well maybe not spiders exactly, but the research that has been done on people who are fearful of spiders can tell us a lot about what how we see what we fear.
Studies have shown that arachnophobes, or people afraid of spiders, will estimate spiders as larger than butterflies when presented for a comparison. These same people did not show this same estimation size bias when butterflies were compared with wasps; therefore showing that the inaccuracies in size estimation were limited to self-specific fears. If we were to make some assumptions utilizing this research, it seems safe to deduce that if one is afraid of having a large stomach or large thighs for example, it is very possible that this fear will drive that person’s perception and therefore cause these body parts to seem larger in the mirror. Arguably those who are the most fearful of their body image (despite all the weighing and the checking) are the least objective observers of their own bodies.
In addition to seeing these body parts as larger, we also may experience distortion in how we remember our bodies. Possibly for survival reasons, our minds are wired to look longer at the things we fear. Longer attention allows for deeper encoding in the brain to ensure keeping a solid memory of the event as well as easier access to the memory. Memories that are more available are memories that we think about more often. Easy access memories can also cause a bias where the easier the recall, the more likely we are to believe that it’s happening more frequently. This is why people guess that sharks kill more people than horses – we attend to the stories about shark attacks more often than we pay attention to horse related deaths.
Instead of a fear of spiders, someone may have a fear of looking pudgy or ugly in their clothing. They may remember the times they hated how they looked more often than the times they felt confident in their outfit. This could lead to thinking about this unpleasant memory more frequently thus believing that they “always look ugly in clothes.” These memory biases could reinforce unhealthy food behaviors like restricting or purging. Furthermore, there is a different chemical reaction that gets released when we are faced with fears. Chemicals like adrenaline have been found in studies to be released during bursts of intense anxiety and fears. These chemicals may have the power to enhance memory, furthering the bias of remembering only the bad times.
Humans tend to have a hard time accepting the truth that not everything we see is reality and that there are many factors that distort our perception. When making the decision to use the mirror as a barometer for weight gain remember the science: your body will not look different overnight and if you look for fat you will find fat.