Looking at the figures: visual adaptation as a mechanism for body-size and -shape misperception

Kevin R. Brooks*, Jonathan Mond, Deborah Mitchison, Richard J. Stevenson, Kirsten L. Challinor, Ian D. Stephen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Many individuals experience body-size and -shape misperception (BSSM). Body-size overestimation is associated with body dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, and the development of eating disorders in individuals who desire to be thinner. Similar symptoms have been noted for those who underestimate their muscularity. Conversely, individuals with high body mass indices (BMI) who underestimate their adiposity may not recognize the risks of or seek help for obesity-related medical issues. Although social scientists have examined whether media representations of idealized bodies contribute to the overestimation of fat or underestimation of muscle, other scientists suggest that increases in the prevalence of obesity could explain body-fat underestimation as a form of renormalization. However, these disparate approaches have not advanced our understanding of the perceptual underpinnings of BSSM. Recently, a new unifying account of BSSM has emerged that is based on the long-established phenomenon of visual adaptation, employing psychophysical measurements of perceived size and shape following exposure to “extreme” body stimuli. By inducing BSSM in the laboratory as an aftereffect, this technique is rapidly advancing our understanding of the underlying mental representation of human bodies. This nascent approach provides insight into real-world BSSM and may inform the development of therapeutic and public-health interventions designed to address such perceptual errors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-149
Number of pages17
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number1
Early online date14 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020


  • body image
  • adaptation
  • distortion
  • vision
  • eating disorders
  • body dysmorphia
  • misperception


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