What is body image? Body image is made up of a person’s beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and actions about their body and appearance. Body image is important because the way we see ourselves influences every aspect of our lives: our mental health, our physical health, how we take care of ourselves, how we interact with and relate to other people. People suffering from eating disorders often have negative or distorted views of themselves, their bodies, and their appearance. For example, a person with anorexia nervosa may perceive himself or herself to be “fat,” despite being significantly underweight, and a person of normal weight with bulimia may perceive himself or herself as overweight and in need of losing weight.
Body image distress may especially affect those suffering from eating disorders as people with eating disorders also have a tendency to place a high value on their body shape and weight when determining their own self-worth. However, it should be noted that the majority of people with body image concerns or body image dissatisfaction do not have eating disorders, and some individuals with eating disorders do not have body image concerns. Negative body image can also develop in relation to weight stigma, muscularity, sexual functioning, scars, visible facial or body differences, disability, body changes related to medical procedures, or disease.
A person with a healthy body image has an objective, undistorted view of their body and appearance. They do not spend a large amount of time checking their body or perceived flaws, or comparing themselves to others. Having a healthy body image may mean that a person is able to engage in their social, sexual, work, or private lives without body image concerns getting in the way; Or, it may mean accepting some dissatisfaction with one’s body image or appearance and engaging in life’s day-to-day activities anyway, despite this concern.
Having a healthy body image may also include identifying the unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty and thinness portrayed in the media, and avoiding making comparisons with these portrayals. While developing and fostering a healthy body image does not guarantee good mental or physical health, it can offer a layer of protection against poor self-esteem, disordered eating patterns or yo-yo dieting, and, potentially, other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphic disorder.
Body Image and the Media
The images we see in the popular media (television, movies, the internet, video games, magazines) influence body image, and sometimes impede on the development of a healthy body image. These images tend to be repetitive and advertisements tend to consistently feature very slender, attractive models.
Media exposure can influence body image over time by sending a message about what it means to have an ideal body shape, size, and weight. This exposure can place pressure on individuals to attain the thin, attractive ideal depicted in the media. For women, this ideal is usually composed of being slender and attractive; and for men, the ideal includes being tall, lean, muscular, and masculine. It is common for people to begin to measure themselves against these unrealistic ideals and determine that they have come up short. Negative body image, or body dissatisfaction, may result when an individual feels a strong pull to live up to this standard, or internalizes this standard of beauty and body image. Body image concern may range from minor discontentment or low self-esteem, to depression, or anxiety.
Body dissatisfaction may also progress to a more serious mental health condition like body dysmorphic disorder, in which a person becomes preoccupied with their appearance and perceived deficits/flaws in their appearance that are not observable by others.
Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia may also develop in relation to negative body image, and are partly characterized by a distorted view of one’s body shape or weight and significant body dissatisfaction. However, it is important to recognize that eating disorders are complex, serious mental health illnesses with biological and psychosocial causes that are not solely caused by or maintained by negative body image alone. Just because an individual is dissatisfied with their appearance, body weight, or shape, or even engages in some form of “dieting” to alter their appearance, does not mean he or she has an eating disorder (here is more information on symptoms of eating disorders).
More commonly, consistent exposure to the body and beauty ideals presented in the media will result in some discontentment with one’s appearance and body image. This dissatisfaction can cause a person to make attempts at making their appearance more consistent with the media ideal, and can affect self-esteem and confidence, your thoughts and beliefs about how you measure up, or how you interact with others and the environment.
Body Image, Body Weight, and the “Health at Every Size” Movement
The unattainable standard of beauty and body image (the thin ideal) presented in the media is more noticeable than ever at a time when more people are generally larger. The average clothing size of a woman in the US is size 16. Individuals in larger bodies are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and are at a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression. Weight-related stigma has been identified as a significant factor affecting the well-being of people in larger bodies, with biases and even discriminatory treatment occurring across various social settings.
Negative body image, health concerns, or stigma may encourage a person to engage in weight loss efforts ranging from diet and exercise, to more extreme interventions such as bariatric surgery. Although weight loss is associated with improvements in body image for some people, it is extremely difficult to maintain weight loss, especially when it is the result of a highly restrictive or extreme diet and/or exercise program. Unfortunately, negative body image may return as the result of gaining weight back, resulting in a vicious cycle of weight loss vs. regain, and self-acceptance vs. self-loathing.
The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach comes out of a movement toward acceptance of all body shapes, sizes, and weights, with an emphasis on the facts that (1) there are a wide range of reasons a person may in a larger body, and (2) not all individuals in larger bodies are “unhealthy,” and not all people in smaller bodies are “healthy.” This movement emphasizes and rises against the discrimination and stigma present in society toward people in larger bodies.
The principles of this movement are summarized here:
(1) Weight inclusivity and acceptance, (2) Health enhancement through equal access and personal practices that improve overall well-being, (3) Acknowledgement of weight stigma, and weight bias, (4) Promotion of flexible, individualized, intuitive eating without focusing on weight control, and (5) Support and promotion of enjoyable physical activity that is accessible by people of all sizes, abilities, and interests.
Changing one’s focus from weight loss, to acceptance of one’s body and engaging in behaviors that promote overall health and well-being may have a positive effect on body image. Taking this approach may also make it less likely that an individual determines their self-worth or esteem based on a number on the scale. For more information on the HAES approach, visit the Association for Size Diversity and Health.
Developing Healthy Body Image
So, how can one develop a healthier body image? Educating oneself about the influence of the media on body image is a good first step. This awareness may help you to begin to challenge the pull to live up to an unattainable and unrealistic standard of size and beauty. Although it may be difficult, since we know there is a connection between body image and the media, limiting exposure to certain forms of media, such as fashion magazines, may be helpful.
It may also be helpful to become aware of what factors, besides body size, shape, and weight, represent a healthy body, such as blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, physical fitness, or engaging in regular, enjoyable physical activity. Parents can help their children develop a healthy body image by encouraging self-acceptance, avoiding making critical comments about their child or adolescent’s food intake or body weight or shape, and avoiding engaging in behaviors that communicate the promotion of poor body esteem, such as frequent dieting or self-deprecating talk about their own bodies.
Other simple methods can be used to promote a healthier body image such as:
- Practice regular acknowledgment of the parts of your body or your appearance that you like, not just your flaws.
- Make a list of the functions your body performs that you enjoy, such as walking, swimming, yoga, etc., and engage regularly in those activities that make you feel good in your body.
- Cut down or work towards stopping checking your body for flaws and comparing your body to bodies of others.
- Access self-help materials such as: The body image workbook: An 8-step program for learning to like your looks (by Thomas Cash), or Building Body Acceptance: Overcoming Body Dysmorphia (a consumer resource module offered online through the Centre for Clinical Interventions).
These changes can sometimes be difficult to implement on your own, especially since negative views of one’s body tend to develop over a long period of time. Seeking support from a qualified mental health provider may be helpful when attempting to make positive changes in your body image, or for assistance coping with negative body image or body dissatisfaction. Remember that these simple strategies are recommended for those interested in making improvements in body image. They are not meant to serve as preventative methods or treatment interventions for serious mental health concerns, such as eating disorders. People who notice signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, or eating disorders should seek professional treatment promptly.
About The Author:
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM 5. bookpointUS.
ASDAH, Health at Every Size® (HAES®) Principles.
Cash, T. F. (1997). The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks
Cash, T. F., & Smolak, L. (Eds.). (2011). Body Image, Second Edition: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention
Center for Clinical Interventions (CCI). “Body Image and Body Dissatisfaction” information sheet.
Center for Clinical Interventions (CCI). “Building Body Acceptance” module.
Written – 2015, Updated 2018