Body Image

What is body image?

Body image refers to a person’s personal view of their body shape, size, weight, and appearance. It also consists of how greatly one values a desired body weight, size or shape, preoccupation, level of satisfaction, and fear of weight gain. Body image is also influenced by personal body size and shape history, as well as cultural and societal norms and expectations. This image of oneself may or may not reflect how others view them or be an objective view of their body. It is important to note that most people experience some degree of body dissatisfaction or distress either at some point in their lives during a period of body change; For example, during adolescence, pregnancy or illness. Many experience body image dissatisfaction to some extent throughout their lives.

Causes of Body Image Dissatisfaction

Poor body image can begin to develop at a very young age. With estimates ranging from 20-70% of children under the age of 6 expressing body dissatisfaction. It is more commonly thought that negative body image affects only girls and women, but this is not the case. Men and boys suffer negative body image and related poor self-esteem too, but they may be less likely to admit to being affected because it is less socially acceptable. Body dissatisfaction in boys and men can often be focused on a desire to be bigger or have more muscle mass, rather than thinness per se.

There are many factors that may contribute to negative body image. Within American culture, thinness and beauty are highly valued, and wealth and success are often considered to go hand in hand with being thin. The media has historically glamorized thinness. This is witnessed in television, movies, news, and professional sports. Media, and social media, specifically, serve to fuel body image concerns in children, teenagers, and adults. Influencers and social media presences demonstrate what it looks like to be beautiful, thin, successful, and popular. Their body weight, appearance and beauty are often associated with their social standing, wealth, and success. This is despite the fact that social media accounts are highly curated, often unrealistically altered snapshots of an individual’s appearance and lived experience. Thin-ideal media highlights the idea that thinness is a good and desirable thing to be, even if it is to a level that is potentially damaging to a persons health.

Participation in certain aesthetic sports or activities can also fuel body image concerns and efforts to alter one’s body shape and size. Sports such as gymnastics, dance, distance running, and swimming may place participants at risk for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. These risks can be elevated in elite-level athletics.

Body image and eating disorders

The development of an eating disorder is the result of a complex interaction of biological, psychological, social and environmental factors. Negative body image alone is not necessarily enough to trigger an eating disorder. However, poor body image may result in dieting or restrictive eating patterns in order to lose weight, which can develop into an eating disorder. This is especially true for those with a genetic predisposition toward developing eating disorders.

One component of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa specifically is an over-valuation of shape and weight, meaning that body size and shape are given a high value in the person’s overall self-concept. Those with anorexia nervosa often struggle to accurately perceive or describe their body size and shape, even if they become dangerously underweight. Furthermore, body image concerns typically do not improve over the course of the illness or as an individual loses weight. Though this is not described as part of the diagnostic criteria, people with binge eating disorder (BED) can experience over-evaluation of shape and weight, and it can be a strong indicator of severity of eating disorder symptoms in these individuals.

The Effects of Poor Body Image

The effects of a poor body image of women can be profound. For someone genetically predisposed to an eating disorder, dieting caused by a negative body image could trigger one. However for the majority of the population, what happens is a preoccupation with food and diet, weight cycling, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and never feeling that one’s body is adequate. In addition to leading to the development of eating disorders, a poor body image can contribute to depression, anxiety, problems in relationships, the development of substance abuse problems, and consequently various health problems.

Poor self-esteem often contributes to problems in relationships, the workplace, and any area in life that requires confidence.

Addressing and treating Negative Body Image

Changing the way the media portrays women is a long-term goal for many advocacy groups. There are currently national and international efforts to make marketers take responsibility for displaying pictures of men and women that are unrealistic. The #truthinads campaign is an example of this and some beauty brands and clothing producers have reacted to public pressure by promising never to use photoshopped models in their catalogs and to expand sizes.

On the individual level, there are some things you can practice to improve self-esteem. Focusing on your accomplishments and good qualities and important aspects of your self-concept, repeating gratitude and loving kindness affirmations, and engaging in activities that result in a feeling of pleasure and mastery can all help to shore up self-esteem. Regularly engaging in enjoyable and moderate movement or exercise can also help with body image. With regard to social media, unfollowing social media accounts that result in excessive comparison or feelings of distress. Excessively seeking out social media content that results in downward social comparison, or, taking the stance that you are not as good (fit, thin, healthy, etc.), as the person or account you are viewing, is especially detrimental to mental health. Following body positive influencers or accounts may help. However, if you find it difficult to identify with the message that you should simply love your body as it is, it may be wise to distance yourself from these types of posts as well. negative body image and disordered eating in response.

For those with serious anxiety, depression or eating disorders related to poor body image, psychotherapy or counseling is recommended. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective form of therapy that can be used to target poor body image as a stand-alone issue or in the context of effective eating disorder treatment. It can take a long time to get to a place of love for your body, especially after years of dissatisfaction and efforts to change your body. Therapy can help you to move first toward a place of body acceptance and appreciation.

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Additional Information:

For more information on the media and body image, follow these links to body image in the media, the perfect body image, and Barbie and body image. To find out how you can help and to learn about healthy body images and body dysmorphic disorder, just follow the links. Learn more about how weight stigma and eating disorders are related.

Here is a list of celebrities that promote a healthy body image. Be sure to choose your role models carefully.

See also these tips from the National Eating Disorder Association: 10 Steps to Positive Body Image

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Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Updated by Dr Elisha Mitchell Carcierei, Ph.D. – 2019

References:

1. Park, S. (2005). The influence of presumed media influence on women’s desire to be thin.Communication Research, 32(5), 594-614.

2. Hargreaves, D. A., &Tiggemann, M. (2004). Idealized media images and adolescent body image: “comparing” boys and girls. Body Image, 1(4), 351-361.

3. LM, Irwin CE & Scully S: Disordered eating characteristics in girls: A survey of middle class children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1992