Body image is a person's perception of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings, positive, negative or both, which result from that perception.
Four aspects of body image
How you see your body is your perceptual body image. This is not always a correct representation of how you actually look. For example, a person may perceive themselves as overweight when they are actually underweight.
The way you feel about your body is your affective body image. This relates to the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you feel about your shape, weight and individual body parts.
The way you think about your body is your cognitive body image. This can lead to preoccupation with body shape and weight. For example, some people believe they will feel better about themselves if they are thinner or more muscular.
Behaviours in which you engage as a result of your body image encompass your behavioural body image. When a person is dissatisfied with the way they look, they may isolate themselves because they feel bad about their appearance or employ destructive behaviours (e.g. excessive exercising, disordered eating) as a means to change appearance.
Why is positive body image important?
Positive body image occurs when a person is able to accept, appreciate and respect their body. Positive body image can make a person more resilient to the development of an eating disorder. In fact, the most effective eating disorder prevention programs use a health promotion approach, focusing on building self-esteem and positive body image, and a balanced approach to nutrition and physical activity. A positive body image will improve:
Self-esteem, which dictates how a person feels about themselves and can infiltrate every aspect of life, and contribute to happiness and wellbeing.
Self-acceptance, making a person more likely to feel comfortable and happy with the way they look and less likely to feel impacted by unrealistic images in the media and societal pressures to look a certain way.
Healthy outlook and behaviours, as it is easier to lead a balanced lifestyle with healthier attitudes and practices relating to food and exercise when you are in tune with, and respond to the needs of your body.
What causes body dissatisfaction?
When a person has negative thoughts and feelings about his or her own body, body dissatisfaction can develop. Body dissatisfaction is an internal process but can be influenced by several external factors. For example, family, friends, acquaintances, teachers and the media all have an impact on how a person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. Individuals in appearance oriented environments or those who receive negative feedback about their appearance are at an increased risk of body dissatisfaction.
One of the most common external contributors to body dissatisfaction is the media, and more recently social media. People of all ages are bombarded with images through TV, magazines, internet and advertising. These images often promote unrealistic, unobtainable and highly stylised appearance ideals which have been fabricated by stylists, art teams and digital manipulation and cannot be achieved in real life. Those who feel they don’t measure up in comparison to these images, can experience intense body dissatisfaction which is damaging to their psychological and physical well-being.
The following factors can increase the risk of developing a negative body image
Age – body image is frequently shaped during late childhood and adolescence but body dissatisfaction can affect people of all ages and is as prevalent in midlife as young adulthood in women
Gender - adolescent girls are more prone to body dissatisfaction than adolescent boys; however the rate of body dissatisfaction in males is rapidly approaching that of females
Low self-esteem and/or depression
Personality traits - individuals with perfectionist tendencies, high achievers, ‘black and white’ thinkers, those who internalise beauty ideals, and those who often compare themselves to others, are at higher risk of developing body dissatisfaction
Teasing - those who are teased about appearance/weight, regardless of actual body type, have an increased risk of developing body dissatisfaction
Friends and family who diet and express body image concerns - role models expressing body image concerns and modelling weight loss behaviours, can increase the likelihood of an individual developing body dissatisfaction regardless of actual body type
Body size - in our weight conscious society, larger body size increases risk of body dissatisfaction
In western society, body dissatisfaction has become a cultural norm.
Why is body dissatisfaction a serious problem?
Body image is the top ranked issue of concern for young people. Body image issues have increased worldwide over the last 30 years and do not only concern young people but affect people of all ages. People experiencing body dissatisfaction can become fixated on trying to change their body shape, which can lead to unhealthy practices with food and exercise. These practices don’t usually achieve the desired outcome (physically or emotionally) and can result in intense feelings of disappointment, shame and guilt and, ultimately, increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
How can you improve your body image?
While some aspects of your appearance can be changed, others, like your height, muscle composition and bone structure are genetically fixed. Challenging beauty ideals and learning to accept your body shape is a crucial step towards positive body image.
While changing your actual appearance can be counterproductive, improving your body image is a constructive goal. We have the power to change the way we see, feel and think about our bodies.
Here are some helpful tips
Focusing on your positive qualities, skills and talents can help you accept and appreciate your whole self
Say positive things to yourself every day
Avoid negative or berating self-talk
Focus on appreciating and respecting what your body can do, rather than how it appears
Setting positive, health focused goals rather than weight loss related ones is more beneficial for your overall well-being
Avoid comparing yourself to others, accept yourself as a whole and remember that everyone is unique and differences are what make us special
Remember, many media images are edited for publishing purposes, making them unrealistic
Programs that effectively increase positive body image focus on reducing risk factors (e.g. thin ideal internalisation, peer pressure, bullying, perfectionism) and increasing protective factors (e.g. self-esteem, social support, non-competitive physical activity, healthy eating behaviours and attitudes, respect for diversity).
If you feel dissatisfied with your body or are developing unhealthy eating or exercise habits seek professional help. Some counsellors and psychologists have specialised knowledge in body image. Professional support can help guide you to change negative beliefs and behaviours.
Find help in your local area
Disordered Eating & Dieting
Disordered eating is a disturbed and unhealthy eating pattern that can include restrictive dieting, compulsive eating or skipping meals.
People Living in Larger Bodies & Eating Disorders
Living in a larger body (or 'obesity’, as it is referred to in a biomedical context) is not an eating disorder or mental disorder. Language is important as labels can be stigmatising.
Risk & Protective Factors
Like most other psychiatric and health conditions, the development of eating disorders is likely to involve a combination of complex factors, including psychological, sociocultural and genetic. Risk FactorsGenetic factorsGenetic vulnerability refers to a person’s ability to inherit an eating disorder from their biological parent.
Research indicates that there are generally low levels of mental health literacy in the community; however, general beliefs and misunderstanding about mental health affect community responses to eating disorders. It is important that everyone understands the facts about mental health and eating disorders.