New insights into body image come in a recent study published in European Journal of Social Psychology. Lead researcher Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, set out to study how people perceive images of men and women, asking the question: do we see them as a whole, or as a sum of their parts?
Gervais and colleagues found that independent of our own gender, we perceive men and women very differently. Men are perceived as a whole (“global” cognitive processing), while women are perceived as an assemblage of its various parts (“local” cognitive processing.) In other words, women are not perceived by the brain as a whole person, but as a collection of hips, breasts, legs, etc.
“We don’t break people down to their parts, except when it comes to women, which is really striking. Women were perceived in the same ways that objects are viewed.”
Study participants were presented with dozens of images of fully clothed, average-looking men and women. Each person was shown from head to knee, standing, with eyes focused on the camera.
Participants were then shown two new images on their screen: One was unmodified (the original image), while the other was a version of the image in which a body part was changed. Participants were then asked which image they had previously seen.
Participants in the study more easily recognized women’s body parts when they were presented in isolation than when they were presented in the context of their entire bodies. But men’s body parts were recognized better when presented in the context of their entire bodies.
This style of local cognitive processing has been seen to be particularly problematic in women with disordered eating, who cannot focus on their “whole” selves, but rather on a hated body part, such as wide hips or flabby thighs.
Some eating disorder experts are piloting a form of therapy known as cognitive remediation therapy (CRT). The goal of CRT is to teach people with eating disorders not to focus on parts, but to see the “big picture.” CRT also focuses on promoting flexibility in thinking processes. While its use is not widespread, initial results have been promising.
Gervais’ research presents the first direct evidence of the basic “global” vs. “local” framework. Study authors say it could provide a theoretical path forward for more specific work. “Our findings suggest people fundamentally process women and men differently, but that a very simple manipulation counteracts this effect, and perceivers can be prompted to see women globally, just as they do men,” Gervais said. “Based on these findings, there are several new avenues to explore.”