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Evidence of body dysmorphia in social media profiles of people living with obesity

Many people who are living with obesity conceal their body in their WhatsApp profile pictures, according to the findings of a study presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Venice, Italy.

Body dysmorphic disorder is a condition in which a person has a distorted image of their body. They feel dissatisfied with their physical appearance, may experience shame or anxiety about their body, and in the case of those living with obesity, believe they are heavier than they actually are. This excessive concern about physical appearance can be exacerbated by social media, where unrealistic standards of beauty and physical shape are often shared.


"People with body dysmorphic disorder can be particularly sensitive to these influences, constantly comparing themselves to idealised images and feeling inadequate in comparison," said Dr Antonella Franceschelli, from Unicamillus International Medical University, Rome, Italy. Profile pictures of pets, family members, landscapes, flowers and cartoon characters may indicate the individual has body dysmorphic disorder, he added.


To explore the association between obesity and body dysmorphia, Franceschelli and colleagues conducted a qualitative study of WhatsApp profile images of individuals living with obesity. The study involved 59 patients (49 females, mean age 53 years, mean BMI32kg/m2), each of whom submitted one WhatsApp profile picture.


The content of the pictures was then examined for the presence of body dysmorphic behaviour, for example, choosing to show their face but not their body or choosing an image of something else entirely.


The analysis provided clear evidence of body dysmorphia, with 90% of the men and 86% of the women using profile pictures that didn't represent their physical reality.


Some individuals used images of pets, family members, landscapes, cartoon characters or objects such as flowers. Others used headshots in which their face was almost covered and their body couldn't be seen, old photos or pictures that had been edited to make them look thinner.


"They may have chosen such pictures to have some control over the image they present to others and to avoid exposing themselves to criticism about their body,” explained Franceschelli. “The pictures may also represent a desire to be seen and accepted for who they are, rather than how they look, as well as provide a source of comfort during social media use."


The likelihood of using a profile picture that didn't represent physical reality increased with the degree or severity of obesity.

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