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The Shock of Seeing Your Body in 3-D

New technology will allow clothing-store patrons to get a much better look at their actual shape. Can we handle the truth?

We all engage in small forms of self-deception to get ourselves through the day. For many of us, that includes glancing in the mirror and thinking, "All in all, not bad."

Well, prepare to have another precious illusion shattered. The technology exists to create three-dimensional scans of our bodies, which will allow us to honestly assess our size and shape. And new research suggests this will not be a happy experience.

"We don't always have the most realistic perception of our bodies," said study author Jessica Ridgway of Florida State University. "Being able to interact with one's own 3-D avatar—spin in around and look at it from every angle—allows us to observe our body in a way we never get to see. ... The data from my study indicates there may be negative psychological consequences."

Three-dimensional body scanners are being touted as a retail-shopping aide, one that will allow clothing customers to purchase items that actually fit. But Ridgway, writing in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, warns that they could actually make for an uncomfortable shopping experience—one that drives customers away.

Her study featured 101 men and women from the university community, each of whom had their body scanned to create a 3-D avatar. Before and after looking at this all-too-real representation, they filled out a series of surveys, including ones measuring their mood, their level of satisfaction with their body, and how likely they were to take action to improve their appearance.

Participants also examined a series of line drawings of human figures and selected two: One that represented their actual body size, and another that reflected their ideal body size. Not surprisingly, the difference between the two grew substantially after they looked at their 3-D images.

In addition, both their moods and their level of body satisfaction declined. Both dips were greater for women than for men, presumably reflecting the greater emphasis society places on women's appearance.

Interestingly, after seeing their self-image, men reacted differently than women in one way: They expressed greater intentions to engage in body-improvement activities.

"Finding that males were actually more motivated to manage their appearance after viewing their avatar was quite surprising," Ridgeway said. She surmises that men are more likely than women to perceive one obvious defect—a lack of muscles—as well as a way to fix it: Spend more time at the gym.

For women—especially those on perpetual diets—the situation may seem more hopeless. But spending time in nature might also serve to restore one's positive body image after a traumatic trip to the mall.

Ultimately, this research raises a question we'll each have to answer for ourselves: Does a clear-eyed view of our physical form spur a commitment to change, or inspire will-sapping depression?

"You can't handle the truth!" Jack Nicholson famously barked. Given his gut, he may not be able to, either.