Browse through the magazines at the supermarket checkout line, and you’ll find that almost every one oriented to a female audience has some kind of a weight loss plan on the cover. Male-oriented magazines, meanwhile, are more likely to show an attractive woman instead of a guy showing off the results of his three-week miracle diet. While one might attribute the glut of diet articles to the overall rate of obesity in the U.S., new research shows that the magazine editors may be exploiting body image concerns that are “hardwired” into the brains of all women.

Mark Allen, a neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, used fMRI scans to show that the brains of healthy women reacted in the same way as the brains of bulemic women when confronted with the suggestion that they were overweight.

Allen and colleagues looked into hidden feelings about body image by using fMRI machines to scan the brains of 10 healthy women. The women were thin, but all had passed eating disorder screening tests with flying colors. So, theoretically, they felt just fine with their bodies.

While hooked up to brain scanners, the women looked at images of avatar-like models in skimpy bikinis: some overweight, some skinny. With each image, the women were told to imagine that someone else was saying the model looked like her.

When overweight images popped up, the medial prefrontal cortex lit up in all of the women, the scientists reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Simply imagining that they might be overweight seemed to make the women question their sense of self, even though they claimed afterward that the test was boring or meaningless. [From Discovery News - Body Image Concerns Hardwired Into Women's Brains by Emily Sohn.]

Men Unaffected By Body Image Fears

In contrast, fMRI imaging showed that most men showed little reaction to photos of men in bathing suits, whether the images were of fat or thin men.

One question is how this “hardwiring” occurs, i.e., is it a human trait or does it occur because societal pressures to look attractive have trained even healthy women to be wary of gaining weight? It would be interesting to repeat this study in several different cultures to see if the results were consistent. Could there be a society where all of the pressure is on males to meet some standard of appearance, and where body image anxiety is a male trait?

In the US, though, it looks like magazine publishers will continue to meet with success by appealing to nearly universal body image fears among women with prominent diet articles. Meanwhile, these same publishers will put impossibly fit bikini-clad models on the covers of men’s magazines, stimulating sales of those magazines while also, perhaps, further raising body image fears among female viewers and selling more diet magazines as well.