Avatars & Anorexia: What We Can Learn About Body Image

Woman with anorexia in the wheat

The relationship between eating disorders and technology is complicated.

Technological advancements have brought about social media and harmful pro-eating disorder websites that increase the prevalence of eating disorders.

Even so, technology has also lead to powerful online recovery communities and more advanced research techniques.

A breakthrough in one of these techniques has just yielded valuable insight on the relationship between anorexia nervosa (AN) and body image disturbance.

Body Image Disturbance and Anorexia Nervosa

Body image disturbance is a clinical disorder that refers to “a distortion of perception, behavior, or cognition related to weight or shape [1].”

Body image disturbance is thought to be both cognitive and perceptual.

The cognitive aspect of body image disturbance refers to the high influence body weight has on self-evaluation while the perceptual component refers to how low body weight/shape are experienced physically [2].

The severity of body image disturbance “seems to predict the long-term outcome for patients” as well as predict relapse rates [3].

In relation to AN, body image disturbance is a critical diagnostic symptom of the disorder, as individuals diagnosed with AN are more dissatisfied with their body than those without [4].

Bring in the Avatars

2D image and drawings have been used to assess individual’s body image and perception for quite some time, but technology is allowing us to understand body image disturbance like never before.

In a recent study, researchers used 3D body scans to create virtual reality 3D bodies, AKA: avatars, for study participants.

For most, the word “avatar” conjures the image of blue creatures with tales. However, unlike the avatars represented in the James Cameron film, these avatars look exactly like the individual they represent.

In this study, the avatars weights were varied through a range of ± 20% of the participant’s weights [5].

Participants were first asked to estimate their own body size and indicate their desired body shape.

They were then shown an avatar with the same weight and shape as them, but a different identity, and asked to estimate the size of the weight and shape of the “new” avatar [5].


The results of this study contradicted the long-withheld assumption about that those with AN over-estimate their own body weight due to visual distortions [2].

Woman in wheat field ready for Thanksgiving

Study participants with AN accurately identified their current BMI. Meaning, they did not appear to have any visual distortions related to their own body shape and size.

This new information leads researchers to wonder if body image disturbance and dissatisfaction in individuals with AN is really characterized by a distorted perception of their own weight.

Instead, researchers believe body image disturbance may be a result of incongruent attitudes related to body image and size, as participants understand the seriousness of their underweight status yet still strive to be underweight, seeing this as desirable and attractive [2].

To put it simply, it appears that body image disturbance may be less about how one physically perceives themselves and more about how their physical appearance compares to their idealized, and desired, low weight [2].

Researchers in this study end by recommending clinicians focus AN treatment on helping individuals change their attitude about “desired” weight.

Above all else, this study showed that technological advancements are leading to important discoveries about ED behaviors and pathology that can better inform intervention and treatment methods and help pave the road to recovery.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Pimenta, A. M. et al. (2009). Relationship between body image disturbance and incidence of depression: the SUN prospective cohort. BMC Public Health, 9:1.
[2] Molbert, S. C. et al. (2017). Investigating body image disturbance in anorexia nervosa using novel biometric figure rating scales: a pilot study. European Eating Disorders Review, 25, 607-612.
[3] Cornelissen, K. K. et al. (2017). Body size estimation in women with anorexia nervosa and healthy controls using 3D avatars. Scientific Reports.
[4] Keizer, A. et al. (2011). Tactile body image disturbance in anorexia nervosa. Psychiatry Research, 1:30, 115-120.
[5] (2017). What can an avatar reveal about body image in AN? Eating Disorders Review, 28:5. Retrieved on 28 November 2017 from http://eatingdisordersreview.com/can-avatar-reveal-body-image/.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 16, 2018.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com