our casual dysmorphia

Disturbing Study Looks at the Effectiveness of Thinspo

Piazza by Alberto Giacometti. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

Health experts know that your environment, including things like plate size and color and where you sit in a restaurant, can affect how much you eat. Now, a disturbing new study suggests that looking at art — extremely thin art — before eating could help people consume less.

For the study published in the journal Appetite, researchers at University of Bern in Switzerland recruited 114 people to eat either blueberries or chocolate, and rate the healthfulness of the snacks. But they saw different images while getting their instructions: Half of the blueberry group and half of the chocolate group were in a room with a photo of Alberto Giacometti’s work Piazza (shown above) projected on a screen, while the others simply saw a blue projection.

They found that people who saw the artwork ate less chocolate and blueberries than those who saw a blue screen. The effect was even more pronounced in self-identified restrained eaters (people who have often tried to lose weight). The researchers determined that priming people with images of the wispy sculptures was a weight-related cue, and one that could help “nudge” restrained eaters to eat less and thereby lose or maintain their weight.

Still, the authors say they’re not suggesting we shame ourselves with emaciated figures. “It must be acknowledged that human bodies with figures similar to these [Giacometti sculptures] would be seriously underweight,” they wrote. “Thus, they would be perceived as less attractive and thus less motivating than figures … of normal body mass. Using healthier-looking human figures could work better than skinny human figures.”

Maybe that’s true, but for now, the study’s findings support decisions by companies like Instagram and Pinterest to ban “thinspiration” as potentially harmful to users who suffer from disordered eating. Instagram banned #thinspiration and #thinspo posts in April 2012 but permitted them again in October of the following year before appearing to reinstate the ban in 2014.

Disturbing Study Looks at the Effectiveness of Thinspo