A High Body Image Could Ruin Your Health

Studies on women and body image usually focus on unhealthy ideals, such as desires to be excessively thin or to have the "perfect" body. The obsession with being thin has a profound impact leading to conditions such as eating disorders, depression, or plastic surgery addiction.

However, a new study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology shows that having an extremely good body image can also be hazardous to your health. Researchers at Temple University studied the body image perceptions of 81 underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese women in North Philadelphia. As the women's body mass index (BMI) increased, two-thirds of the women still felt they were at an ideal body size.

"So the question for doctors then becomes, 'How can we effectively treat our overweight and obese patients, when they don't feel they're in harm's way?'" said study researcher Marisa Rose, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Temple University School of Medicine. "It stresses a need for culturally sensitive education for this population."

Thirty-four percent of American adults over 20 years old are obese. Obesity is a major risk factor for several medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, polycystic ovary syndrome, certain forms of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. More than 80 percent of people who have type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, according to ObesityInAmerica.org, an information division of the Endocrine Society and the Hormone Foundation.

Participants in the study were measured for height and weight and completed an anonymous survey to determine their self-perceived, current and ideal body sizes. The researchers then showed each woman an illustration of different-sized women that correlated with increasing BMIs, and were asked which size they felt they were at currently, and what their ideal would be.

While most of the participants selected illustrations of women in the normal to overweight range, about 20 percent of the obese women selected an overweight or obese silhouette as their ideal body shape. Also, 68 percent (15 out 22) of overweight participants and 84 percent (26 of 31) of obese women underestimated their current BMI. African-American and Hispanic women had significantly underestimated their current body size, while the white women overestimated.

The greater acceptance of larger body size reflected in this study may explain the race-ethnic disparities in the occurrence of obesity in women, revealed in a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Health Statistics. The study revealed that about 53 percent of non-Hispanic black women and 51 percent of Mexican-American women between 40 and 59 were obese compared to only 39 percent of non-Hispanic white women in the same age group. Also, for women 60 and older, 61 percent of non-Hispanic black women were obese compared to only 37 percent of Mexican-American women and 32 percent of non-Hispanic white women.

According to Rose and her colleagues, the Temple study is the first to evaluate body image discrepancy specifically in the inner-city population of women seeking gynecologic care. "For this group, gynecologists often serve as the primary care provider as well," said Rose. As more women become obese and overweight, it becomes critical for gynecologists to know how to talk to their patients about the adverse effects of obesity, added Rose. "Informing our patients about the dangers of obesity, even when they feel they're not at risk, can help empower them to change their lifestyles and lead healthier lives."

Next, the researchers will expand the study to a more diverse population to find out if women incorrectly perceiving their body size is common to most underweight, overweight and obese women, or if it's specific to the inner-city population.

Study References

Journal: American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Volume 200, Issue 5, Pages e65-e68

Study Date: May 2009

Study Name: Self-perceptions of body size in women at an inner-city family-planning clinic

Website: http://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(08)02247-3/abstract

Authors: Sushma Potti, Marina Milli, Stacey Jeronis, John P. Gaughan, Marisa Rose