Body image disturbance is one of the most insidious and painful symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In many cases, body dissatisfaction is the last symptom to abate. However, the relationship between body image and recovery from Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is fairly complex. Many individuals with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) do not experience body image problems as a symptom of their illness. Most people with AN, however, do have some degree of body image disturbance which changes in intensity over the course of their illness and recovery.
A recent randomized controlled trial of adolescent AN treatment found that weight and shape concerns did not change significantly over the course of treatment. The authors of the study point out that, on the one hand, these results suggest that weight and shape concerns do not get worse over the course of treatment. This finding may come as a relief to patients who are terrified that they will hate their bodies if they gain weight. The authors conclude that “weight restoration alone is not sufficient to ameliorate the weight and shape concerns characteristic to AN.”
While the authors’ conclusion may be accurate in some cases, my clinical experience with AN patients as well as my knowledge of statistics leads me to a different conclusion. I have observed that the relationship between weight restoration and body image varies dramatically from person to person. When it comes to AN and body image, people tend to fall into one of the following categories:
1.) Those who do not have significant weight or shape concerns.
2.) Those who present for treatment with significant weight and shape concerns, which gradually abate over the course of weight restoration and may even disappear by the end of treatment.
3.) Those who become increasingly dissatisfied and distressed by their weight or shape as they restore weight.
My hypothesis is that the authors of the study found no significant change in body image over the course of treatment because patients in group 2 and group 3 essentially cancelled each other out, while those in group 1 did not impact the results in either direction.
As you can see from the groupings above, body image disturbance may not even be relevant for the patient (group 1), and if it is, weight restoration alone may be sufficient to improve body image (group 2). For this reason, I typically postpone addressing body image until after weight restoration has been accomplished and the patient has re-established normal eating patterns. By postponing body image work until the end of treatment, the patient and her family save a lot of time, money, and stress, as a substantial proportion of patients do not need it.
Individuals in group 3, however, may benefit from working on their body image in therapy. Helping these individuals improve their body image will be the topic of my next blog post.