The extremely effective, research-based method that curbs obsession with being thin

There are psychological tools to counter an unhealthy obsession with skinniness.
There are psychological tools to counter an unhealthy obsession with skinniness.
Image: Reuters/ Jorge Silva
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No matter how often people are told that there are a broad range of healthy weights, millions of people, especially women, spend their lives perpetually striving to be thinner.

Society reveres the skeletal silhouette and upholds women without flab as figures of envy. Consequentially, the US weight loss market alone is worth around $60 billion, despite many studies showing that dieters inevitably regain any weight lost. It’s well known that being too thin is unhealthy, but millions still want to pursue a look that they know could hurt them. So how do we get out of this cycle of unhealthy self-deprivation?

Psychologists have been working on a solution. The Body Project is an extensively-studied program that draws on decades of research to reduce teenage girls’ desire to be thin, decreasing both risk factors and symptoms of eating disorders. Versions have been tested and used in hundreds of college campuses and high schools over the years, and the program is currently being rolled out to four million young women in more than 16 countries.

The scientists behind this program have now created an online version, the eBody Poject, which has only been open to public use for six months. But there has been no attempt to market the online version, meaning it’s currently an under-used tool.

Both the Body and eBody projects rely on the psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance,” says Eric Stice, a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute who helped create both programs.

Humans fundamentally want to maintain consistency between what we do and what we think, he explains. The Body Project is a series of carefully designed exercises that encourage participants to talk about the health problems that come with being too thin. After articulating these views for an extended period, the participants’ behaviors actually shift to match these attitudes in a bid to reduce dissonance between their words and actions.

“If I took 100 people who hated Trump and said, ‘I want you to give a 10 minute speech about why he’s the best presidential candidate,’ after they do that, they’ll like Trump more,” Stice says. “[Cognitive dissonance] is super old social psychology but it works really beautifully to promote healthy perspectives towards your body or food.”

fMRI scans of Body Project participants show that pictures of supermodels activate reward circuitry in the brain before, but not after, the program. “Their brain is not even registering supermodels as an attractive desirable goal. It’s totally crazy, but it’s all because of dissonance,” adds Stice.

The online version of the program is not yet as effective as in-person group work. But Stice says it still produces reductions in body dissatisfaction, unhealthy dieting, and eating disorder symptoms.

“[Comparing the two versions] is like saying you don’t like a Porsche because a Ferrari is faster. A Porsche is still better than most of the cars we drive around,” Stice says. “The eBody project is beneficial. And the fact it can be delivered for free makes it really fantastic.”

Stice believes that further work can improve the online version, which could have tremendous impact. After all, he says, “eating disorders are the most lethal psychiatric condition you can have. It’s a really serious problem.”

“Even supermodels can’t look like models because they have to be airbrushed,” he says.