Date Published: February 15, 2018
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Leah N. Tobin, Christopher R. Sears, Alicia S. Zumbusch, Kristin M. von Ranson, Rachel F. Rodgers.
Understanding the cognitive processes underlying body dissatisfaction provides important information on the development and perpetuation of eating pathology. Previous research suggests that body-dissatisfied women process weight-related information differently than body-satisfied women, but the precise nature of these processing differences is not yet understood. In this study, eye-gaze tracking was used to measure attention to weight-related words in body-dissatisfied (n = 40) and body-satisfied (n = 38) women, before and after exposure to images of thin fashion models. Participants viewed 8-second displays containing fat-related, thin-related, and neutral words while their eye fixations were tracked and recorded. Based on previous research and theory, we predicted that body-dissatisfied women would attend to fat-related words more than body-satisfied women and would attend to thin-related words less. It was also predicted that exposure to thin model images would increase self-rated body dissatisfaction and heighten group differences in attention. The results indicated that body-dissatisfied women attended to both fat- and thin-related words more than body-satisfied women and that exposure to thin models did not increase this effect. Implications for cognitive models of eating disorders are discussed.
Dissatisfaction with one’s body shape or size is common among women in Western cultures . For example, as many as 72% of U.S. women report some degree of body dissatisfaction . Dissatisfaction with one’s body is linked to poor peer relationships , as well as substance use, early sexual activity, self-harming behaviours, and suicidal ideation [4, 5]. Research also suggests that body dissatisfaction is a causal risk factor for the development of eating disturbances in adolescent girls and women [6, 7]. Given these negative outcomes, it is important to understand the factors influencing the development and maintenance of body dissatisfaction, as this knowledge can inform treatment and prevention efforts.
The study involved three phases. First, we used an online survey to collect ratings for a large set of words and images to facilitate selection of an optimal set of stimuli to present to participants. Second, we screened prospective participants for eligibility to participate in the study via an online survey. Third, prospective participants who met eligibility criteria were invited to visit the laboratory to complete the eye-tracking phase of the study. Each phase is described below.
The purpose of this study was to compare attentional biases to fat- and thin-related words in women with high and low body dissatisfaction, and to determine if the presentation of thin model images influenced these biases. For body-dissatisfied women, contrary to one interpretation of Vitousek and Hollon’s  cognitive model, our findings did not support the conclusion that fat-related information is schema-congruent and thin-related information is schema-incongruent. Instead, we found that body-dissatisfied women attended similarly to both fat- and thin-related words and they attended to both types of words more than body-satisfied women. Analyses of temporal changes in attention over the 8-second presentations, along with analyses of participants’ re-engagement with weight-related words, were consistent with this conclusion. Taken together, these results provide support for an interpretation of Vitousek and Hollon’s model that maintains that negative weight-related schemas produce biases in attention to any weight-related information. For body-dissatisfied women, both fat- and thin-related concepts appear to be incorporated into negative weight-related schemas, and the processing of any weight-related information is affected by these schemas. Our results are consistent with those of other investigators who have observed heightened attention to both fat- and thin-related words compared to neutral words in patients with anorexia nervosa  and to “fat” and “thin” body images in individuals with high levels of body dissatisfaction as compared to control individuals . Our results also contribute to the literature suggesting that presentation of a thin model prime does not affect attention to weight-related information .
The present study examined attention to fat- and thin-related words in body-dissatisfied and body-satisfied women before and after the women were exposed to a thin model priming procedure. Although previous empirical tests of cognitive theories of body dissatisfaction have yielded conflicting results, the present study, the first to use eye tracking to assess both the engagement and re-engagement of attention to fat- and thin-related words, provided compelling evidence for the existence of heightened attention to both fat- and thin-related words. We found that body-dissatisfied women attended to both fat- and thin-related words more than body-satisfied women throughout the 8-second presentations. These results support an interpretation of Vitousek and Hollon’s  cognitive model that the processing of all weight-related information is affected by negative weight schemas. An additional contribution is the finding that the presentation of thin model images did not alter women’s attention to fat- and thin-related words, even though the priming affected body-dissatisfied women’s self-reported body satisfaction. Our study has identified several promising directions for future research.