Body Image and Eating Disorders: Fantasy vs Comparison

Travis on StepsArticle Contributed by Travis Stewart, LPC, Owner/Recovery Coach at Revision Recovery

“I would sometimes fantasize about going to the gym and working out for a really long time. I wanted people to notice how frail and emaciated I was.” This is what one client told me about her “ideal” body image when she was deep in her anorexia.

“In my eating disorder, the body that I wanted to have was very, very thin, with no muscle tone. I wanted to be frail.”

We went on to discuss specific body parts, and verbally paint a picture of the body she had hoped to attain. I then asked if she ever daydreamed or fantasized about having that body in social situations. That’s when she began to talk about going to the gym.

“I would imagine going to the gym and working out so long and so hard that I would eventually pass out. People wouldn’t be able to ignore that. I would imagine them gathering around me to help me and someone calling the ambulance.”

For this woman, an exploration of her ideal body and the fantasies associated with it, led us into a deeper understanding of what it was she was really wanting: to be seen, to be nurtured, to be rescued. All of which made perfect sense in the context of her story and family history.

Influences on Body Image

Another single woman I worked with described having two ideal body images. One body she sought after was thin and emaciated, the other curvy and sexual. The one which she fantasized about depended on the context she was in. When thinking about her family she wished for a body that would lead to nurture and care from family members. When in relationships with men she envisioned a body that she thought a man would enjoy and desire.

Pressures In Society

Many are familiar with the research that shows a decrease in self-esteem and greater depression after looking at fashion magazines or other media showing the “thin ideal”. This is often discussed in group therapy and education regarding eating disorders. However, fantasy and the role it plays in an eating disorder is not fully discussed nor explored in therapy. To fully understand body image we must understand the dynamics of fantasy.

One study in particular examined the effect of comparing oneself to images in magazines versus fantasizing about being the person in the magazine. The research found the impact of the two behaviors was different. Comparison led to a decline in body image satisfaction while fantasy led to an increase in positive mood.

Fantasy vs. Comparison

When fantasizing, “women associate looking like the thin ideal media image with a wider array of psychological benefits and positive life outcomes, including confidence, happiness, romantic attention and generally having a ‘successful life.’”

Overall, fantasy instructions led participants to feel good in general (positive mood), but not about their body in particular (body dissatisfaction). Conversely, social comparison instructions led participants to feel bad about their bodies (body dissatisfaction), but did not lower their positive mood.

In other words, it’s not the body they want; it is what they imagine the body will give them. They are attempting to meet deeply relational and existential human needs through the avenue of the body—something which can never fully deliver those results.

Ask Questions

If you are in recovery from an eating disorder or a professional helping others, it is important to ask specific questions about body image. The answers will provide insight into what fuels the eating disorder. Get specific in your discussions. Explore what the imagined body would look like. Would it be strong and fit, toned and flat? Would it be frail? Would others notice or would the body provide a way a disappearing?

Do you long for admiration and respect or do you want to disappear? The meaning of your fantasy provides an open door to deeper understanding and healing from your eating disorder.


[1] Pinhas, Leora, Brenda B. Toner, Alisha Ali, Paul E. Garfinkel, and Noreen Stuckless. “The Effects of the Ideal of Female Beauty on
Mood and Body Satisfaction.” International Journal of Eating Disorders (1998): 223-26.
[2] Marika Tiggemann, Janet Polivy, and Duane Hargreaves. “The Processing of Thin Ideals in Fashion Magazines: A Source of
Social Comparison or Fantasy” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2009), Vol. 28, No. 1: pp. 73-93
[3] Ibid