Virtual Reality May Help Restore Healthy Body Image In Anorexics

A new technology may soon banish an old scourge: body image distortion in anorexics. Using “virtual reality,” researchers are trying to help patients develop healthy ideas about their figures.

Although razor thin, the anorexic sees herself as fat. She, therefore, constantly tries to lose weight in order to obtain an “ideal” physique. But her illusory goalpost is perpetually shifting downward, causing her condition to deteriorate.

The Center On Disabilities notes that the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by clinicians (DSM IV) has a body image criterion which is required for diagnosis of anorexia or bulimia. The Center cites studies indicating that anorexics who overestimate their measurements, or are more pleased with their appearance than others, gain less weight after cognitive-behavioral therapy.

According to the European Health Telematics Observatory (EHTO), “virtual” therapies have been used on a variety of psychological disorders since the early 1990’s. Experiments have included people suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights), fear of flying, and autism.

The technique combines two older methods: the cognitive-behavioral and the visual-motorial approaches. According to EHTO, the former involves interviews and visualization techniques, while the latter uses videos and bodily awareness exercises.

Developed by Virtual.sys, of Milano, Italy, the VR system consists of a computer attached to a joystick and a head-mounted display. The joystick allows the user to “move” in “virtual” space, and the headgear controls the direction. The Center On Disabilities cites research by Cioffi (1993) which found that 40% of VR subjects felt detached from their bodies shortly after treatment. This effect, according to the Center, is desirable because it allows the patient to be more aware of the sensorimotor processes associated with physical movement. According to the theory, this detachment facilitates healthy change in body image.

The VR subject “moves” through six “zones.” The first two introduce her to the technology and focus attention on diet. The next four attempt to modify her bodily experience. She is required to navigate through several “rooms” with male and female models, make food choices, and observe a digitized image of her own body. At times, she must weigh herself before advancing to another zone. In order to advance to the last zone, she must choose a door corresponding to her exact “virtual” dimensions. Once there, she can adjust her digitized body as desired by using a morphing tool.

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