Can the right smell help with a negative body image?

The scent of lemons could help with a positive body image.
The scent of lemons could help with a positive body image.

It is claimed that certain scents used in casinos can get you to spend more, and that scientists are trying to incorporate fresh fragrances into gym clothes to counter that post-workout body odour. Now, scientists are saying that the "right smell" could help with a negative body image.  

The study, by the University of Sussex, has found that people tend to feel skinnier and lighter when exposed to the scent of lemon. The research, which was completed in collaboration with researchers at the University College of London Interaction Centre (UCLIC) and the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) also found that the scent of vanilla made people feel heavier. 

Olfactory stimuli

The experiment consisted of two consecutive studies. The first study required participants to sit at a computer screen while olfactory stimuli (stimulating the sense of smell) were delivered. Participants were then asked to rate the scent using a Visual Analogue Scale, comparing it to:

  • Spiky or round shapes
  • Hot or cold
  • High or low pitch
  • Thick and thin body silhouettes 

In the follow-up study, participants were required to stand on a wooden board wearing headphones, a pair of motion-capture sensors and a shoe-based device which enhanced the pitch of their own footsteps. They were then instructed to walk on the spot while olfactory stimuli were released, and then asked to adjust the size of a 3-D avatar using a body visualisation tool according to their perception of themselves. They were required to answer a questionnaire about perceived speed, body feelings and emotions. 

It was found that when the scent of lemon was released, participants felt lighter, while the vanilla scent made them feel heavier. The sensations were enhanced when they were combined with high-pitched and low-pitched sounds of the participants' footsteps. 

Several mental models

Researchers believe that these findings could be used to develop new recommendations for therapy for people who suffer from body perception disorders or wearable technologies that could improve the wearers' self-esteem. The research builds on recent studies that have found that technology can change people's body image perception (BIP) by stimulating certain senses. This is the first study that has looked at how smell can affect BIP. 

Giada Brianza, a first year PhD student at the SCHI Lab at the University of Sussex and lead researcher of the study said, "Our brain holds several mental models of one's own body appearance which are necessary for successful interactions with the environment. Our study shows how the sense of smell can influence the image we have in our mind of our body and on the feelings and emotions towards it."

Marianna Obrist, Professor of Multisensory Experiences and head of the SCHI Lab said, "Previous research has shown that lemon is associated with thin silhouettes, rounded shapes and low-pitched sounds. This could help account for the different body image perceptions when exposed to a range of nasal stimuli."

She added that "one of the interesting findings from the research is that sound appears to have a stronger effect on unconscious behaviour. Further studies need to be carried out in order to better understand the potential around sensory and multisensory stimuli on BIP."

Image credit: iStock

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