Body image (BI) refers to the condition that determines how an individual sees his/her own body and how attractive they feel of themselves. Many people have anxieties about their body which spans across areas like weight, hair, skin, or the shape or size of a certain body part.
What Is Body Image?
”Body image (BI) refers to the mental image that individuals form of themselves which may or may be connected as to how one looks or appears in reality,” says Mind Journal. According to a study, it is the perception that a person develops of his/her physical appearance, however, more importantly, it is more about the ‘thoughts and the feelings a person experiences as a result of that perception’. It must be noted that BI is controlled or influenced by various elements. These can be psychological, social, cultural, biological, historical, and individual factors of distortions, influenced by attitudes of one’s parents, early experiences, internal elements like emotions or moods, and others. The severe form of poor BI is body dysmorphic disorder 1 , where dissatisfaction over a slight or undetectable defect becomes a severe obsession
Media, social media, and popular culture also play a role in shaping up these views, and this can affect how a person sees their own body. A constant bombardment of images from the media can cause individuals to feel uncomfortable about their bodies, leading to distress and ill health. It can also affect work, social life, and other aspects of life.
History Of Body Image
According to a study 2 , the term ‘body image’ was first coined by an Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder in his book ‘The Image and Appearance of the Human Body’ (1935). The study says,” human society has always placed great worth to the beauty of the human body. The individuals differ in their perceptions of their own body and their perceptions may not fit the societal standards and expectations”. The knowledge of the facts and dynamics of their personal
attributes significantly affect their psychological functioning and well-being.
Prevalence Of Body Image
A study 3 was conducted on 236 students to determine the prevalence of body image having a negative connotation to it. The prevalence of BI dissatisfaction was 69.5%, out of which 44.1% were dissatisfied with excess weight. BMI ≥ 25.0 kg/m² was associated with dissatisfaction catering to excess weight while factors associated with dissatisfaction due to slimness were mostly male with an unhealthy diet, and tobacco smoking habit. In another study 4 , 641 adolescents aged 11 to 17 in a town in Brazil were surveyed. The prevalence of BI dissatisfaction was 60.4% (males = 54.5%, females = 65.7%). While most of the boys wished to increase the size of their body silhouette (26.4%), girls wished to reduce their body weight (52.4%).
In another study 5 , the relationship between body dissatisfaction (BD) and health-related quality of life (HRQoL) was tested among adolescents and adults in China. A total of 5734 children from 29 schools completed self-report questionnaires. A total of 78.10% of children had different levels of BD. Additionally, out of children with a healthy weight yet dissatisfied with their BI, 65.54% of the boys wanted to get heavier whereas 52.95% of the girls wanted to become thinner.
Aspects Of Body Image
According to a study, there are four aspects to BI, which are discussed below:
This aspect of BI caters to the way one sees his/her body. This may not be always a correct representation of what the person appears in reality. For example, a person may consider himself/herself to be fat while in reality he/she is underweight. Thus, the way individuals see themselves is their perceptual BI.
At times, an individual may like or dislike the way he/she looks. In such cases, the feelings about one’s own body, especially the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction one experiences are associated with appearance, weight, shape, and body parts are one’s affective body image.
Cognitive aspects of BI refer to the thoughts and beliefs that people have for their body. For example, some believe that they will feel better with a thinner body while others may wish to develop more muscle to feel satisfied. The way one thinks about his/her body is his/her cognitive BI.
When a person is unhappy with the way he/she looks, the person may engage in destructive behaviors such as excessive workout sessions or disordered eating to change their appearance. Others may seclude themselves because they feel bad about the way they look. Such a display of behaviors as a result of one’s BI encompasses his/her behavioral BI.
Positive & Negative Body Image
The feelings associated with the body can be positive, negative, or both at the same time, influenced by various factors. Here’s an overview of positive and negative BI along with their prevalence and comparison.
1. Positive Body Image
Positive BI is a concept whereby an individual feels beautiful from inside and outside and this positivity radiates in form of external appearance, creating a glow around them. While people with positive BI may not be able to avoid feeling any insecurities, they will be able to admit any insecurities for what they are and believe that their body is ideal for them. Such individuals described this inner beauty as feelings of happiness and while fostering optimistic thoughts about themselves and their situations.
They state that this positive effect and cognitions help them understand their situation more precisely and clearly. Additionally, people with positive body image also feel others notice their inner happiness and respond to it in a favorable way, as if their mindset was contagious. A 2012 study 6 states that Black girls and women generally have a more positive and self-accepting BI than white girls and women.
2. Negative Body Image
Negative body image is defined by an attitude that involves being extremely focused on comparing one’s size, shape, or appearance to unrealistic ideals. For example, an individual, considering himself or herself under thin-ideal or an athletic-ideal may cause him/her to develop unhealthy self-talk, low self-esteem, or disordered eating patterns. Negative BI can begin at an early age. According to a 2020 research review 7 , 40 to 50 percent of first- and second-graders already do not like some aspect of their body. Additionally, when changes occur during puberty, this dissatisfaction can deepen. And a 2006 study suggests that relationship problems between parents and children can further worsen negative BI.
3. Positive vs Negative Body Image
When individuals recognize their body imperfections devoid of notable anxiety with little impact on their overall sense, it is known as positive body image. While such individuals do desire to modify some aspect of their appearance, they can also accept their body flaws with confidence and grace that ultimately makes them appear flawless. On the other hand, a negative or unhealthy BI involves an individual to stay preoccupied with his/her perceived flaws. Individuals may experience shame or even disgust around their appearance. Some may also go to extreme lengths to modify or hide their body flaws, even at the expense of their own well-being.
However, it must be noted that it is not possible to neatly categorize body image into one of two boxes. Individuals may experience both negative and positive BI at the same time, in different degrees at different points of their lives.
Significance Of Positive Body Image
People with positive body image generally have a higher level of physical and psychological health along with better personal development. Here is the significance of positive BI and how it helps one to lead a better lifestyle.
1. Self-Esteem Levels
The level of self-esteem in a person shows how a person feels about himself/herself and this can infiltrate every aspect of a person’s life. An individual with higher self-esteem will always stay at the top of daily life and will be more sociable along with enjoying higher levels of happiness and wellbeing.
Accepting body imperfections on a positive note will enable a person to feel comfortable and happy with the way they look. A person with a positive body image is less likely to get influenced by unrealistic images via media and societal pressures to look a certain way.
3. Healthy Outlook & Behaviors
When an individual is in-tune with the needs of the body and responds to them positively, the physical and psychological well being automatically improves. A positive BI results in a balanced lifestyle with healthier attitudes and practices such as eating, maintaining a healthy diet along with regular physical exercise.
Causes Of Negative Body Image
The development of negative body image is caused by various factors. Some of them are mentioned here:
1. Environmental Factors
Environmental influences play a prominent role in this regard along with media projecting an unrealistic idea about a perfect BI. This affects the way a person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. When an individual is in an environment that is appearance oriented and receives negative feedback about his/her appearance, the person is at greater risk to develop body dissatisfaction. Additionally, people of all ages are bombarded with images through various media channels such as TV, the internet, magazines, and advertising. Such images are mostly unrealistic, unobtainable, and highly stylized, thus promoting the wrong concept of beauty and appearance goals for males and females in our society.
A 2015 study states the contribution of media in the development of BI of individuals is a well-explored region. The study says that the amount and the nature of media content prior to the level of body satisfaction, gender, age, and intelligence of the individuals, have been found to be liable for increasing the impacts of media on body image. It states that exposure to ideal BI ideas through media contributes from mild to a moderate degree of ”decrement in body satisfaction and body perception of both the genders”.
The study continues stating that ”parental and familial factors” also leave a strong impact on the positive or negative body satisfaction of the children. ”Increased sense of general social pressure to have an ideal body, frequent teasing by parents and peers, parental values, and quality of relationship are some of the factors which contribute to the level of body satisfaction” says the study. Professor Holsen et al.(2012) had found that good quality relationships with parents and peers foster higher body satisfaction and vice-versa. BI is also affected by the social strata to which the individuals belong. The study states that children with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be overweight as they perceive themselves as underweight compared to the children belonging to higher or mid socioeconomic status. In other words, it suggests that children with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to misinterpret their BI in a way that ”encourages them to remain overweight”.
2. Other factors
As per another study, here are the factors that further increases the chances of negative body image. These factors are as follows –
Body image problems can arise during childhood as well as in midlife as young adulthood in women. However, ideas about ideal BI are often shaped during the late childhood and adolescence period, thus making the period a crucial time.
Adolescent girls are more likely to face BI dissatisfaction than adolescent boys. However, the body dissatisfaction number among the boys is rapidly increasing as well.
C. Mental Health Disorder
People who experience low self-esteem and/or have depression are more likely to face negative BI.
D. Personality Traits
People who consider themselves perfectionist or have perfectionist tendencies, are high achievers with cognitively more ‘black and white’ thinking pattern, those who internalize and admire beauty ideals, and who tend to compare themselves to others, are at higher risk of developing body dissatisfaction
E. Appearance Teasing
People who are teased for their appearance, especially weight, notwithstanding their actual appearance or weight, may also develop body dissatisfaction.
F. Family & Friends
Staying amidst family and friends who maintain a diet for weight loss and express high body image concerns may also result in BI dissatisfaction. When a person is in an environment defined by people expressing BI concerns and model weight-loss behaviors, it results in body dissatisfaction for themselves and others.
G. Larger Body Size
In a weight-conscious society, larger body size doubles the risk of body dissatisfaction.
H. Sexual Orientation in Males
Homosexual men are more vulnerable to eating disorders than heterosexual men, thus resulting in dissatisfaction with the body which has become a cultural norm in western society.
Symptoms Of Negative Body Image
If one is wondering whether he/she has a negative body image, the following questions can help evaluate the same. Here are the questions that one should ask himself/herself to determine negative BI.
- Does your outlook about your body interfere with your relationships, work, or activities?
- Do you engage in taking extreme steps to avoid seeing your body?
- Do you compulsively check and recheck your body by examining yourself in the mirror frequently?
- Do you apply heavy makeup while going out in public?
- Do you use hats to cover your hair or use baggy clothing to hide your body?
- Do you engage in various hair removal techniques excessively?
- Have you had excessive plastic surgery or have thought about it?
- Do you use harsh or unkind language to define your body?
- Do you intentionally damage your skin?
- Do you experience strong negative sentiments when you think about your body?
If a person answers yes to one or more questions, he/she may have to consider talking with a counselor for the same.
Treatment Of Negative Body Image
Although having a negative BI can be stressful, there are a few effective treatments to cope with this condition. These are as follows.
A licensed therapist or counselor can help a person talk through the causes, triggers, memories, and associations the person may have with his/her body image. A 2013 study 8 suggests that childhood trauma and sexual abuse are linked to negative BI conditions later in life. Thus, discussing with someone about such experiences may help a person reveal and change the complicated underlying beliefs of his/her body. On a general note, a trusted therapist’s office happens to be the safest place to talk about thoughts and behaviors that a person may not share with anyone else. A therapist can also educate the person about the ways a negative BI can harm his/her mental and physical health.
2. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a form of psychotherapy that has been studied widely as an effective therapy technique. Studies 9 have shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in changing one’s body image idea. A professional therapist helps one to identify harmful and faulty thinking patterns along with restructuring his/her thoughts so the person can act kinder and more accurate. The therapist may work with the person to revise your self-critical language and develop relaxation techniques to release some stress that often goes along with negative BI. Sometimes, CBT therapy involves guided imagery, a kind of deep relaxation technique where the therapist helps one to envision mental pictures to help calm the person.
According to a 2020 review, a study has shown that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), often prescribed for anxiety disorders, may also help when individuals are working to change their BI. However, to get the best results, one must combine medication with CBT techniques.
4. Physical Fitness Therapies
Regular physical activities may release endorphins (feel-good chemicals) to prevent the anxiety that sometimes accompanies a negative body image. Some researchers think that concentrating on what your body can do rather than bothering about its appearance may help repair a distorted BI. Other studies have expressed concern about exercising as a way to prevent negative BI.
5. Media & Social Media Education
Advertisements, celebrity lifestyle, and social media have established two strict beauty ideals: thin-ideal and athletic-ideal. It implies that adhering to these two standards is the only way to be beautiful and be loved. Thus, by consuming a large amount of media and social media content, one may be at risk of internalizing these unrealistic standards. Studies 10 have shown that when peers share these ideals with one, the effect it has on the person is even more powerful. Thus, the first step to creating a healthy BI is to unlearn what has been taught from media sources. Learning to identify harmful media messages while appreciating a splendid diversity of bodies is also part of the process.
Steps To Overcome Negative Body Image
Changing the damage done by negative body image is a time taking process. While it requires immense patience and effort, you can follow these simple steps to limit your exposure to negative BI, while creating a more realistic, positive BI. Thus, the steps to overcoming negative BI are as follows.
- Stay away from social media, for several weeks and months, to give yourself enough space and mental clarity to reset your self-image.
- Create a list of the best things you like about yourself.
- Stay amidst loving, positive people in real life.
- Make a note of the negative things that you say or think about yourself. Later, rewrite those messages in a more self-respecting way.
- Redefine beauty in a less superficial way.
- Consider your comfort quotient when choosing clothes.
- Explore activities that will help you to understand how your body works and what it can really do.
- Spend time volunteering to help others.
Respect Your Body, Value Your Being
A negative body image involves being excessively concerned about one’s body while comparing it with others. With time, individuals hold themselves to a thin-ideal or an athletic-ideal that may result in developing toxic self-talk, low self-esteem, or disordered eating patterns. With professional help, however, such thoughts and ideas can be checked and defeated. However, individuals must remember that their body has helped them to survive every event of their life.
With their heart still beating and breath still flowing, one can take small steps today to heal their rather than nurturing excessive negativity. One must make sure to walk the path of their life with complete positivity and peace.References:
- Phillips K. A. (2004). Body dysmorphic disorder: recognizing and treating imagined ugliness. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 3(1), 12–17.
- Tiwari, Gyanesh & Kumar, Sanjay. (2015). Psychology and Body Image : A Review. SHODH PRERAK. 5. 1-9.
- Ferrari EP, Petroski EL, Silva DA. Prevalence of body image dissatisfaction and associated factors among physical education students. Trends Psychiatry Psychother. 2013;35(2):119-27. doi: 10.1590/s2237-60892013000200005. PMID: 25923302.
- Petroski EL, Pelegrini A, Glaner MF. Motivos e prevalência de insatisfação com a imagem corporal em adolescentes [Reasons and prevalence of body image dissatisfaction in adolescents]. Cien Saude Colet. 2012 Apr;17(4):1071-7. Portuguese. doi: 10.1590/s1413-81232012000400028. PMID: 22534860.
- Liu, W., Lin, R., Guo, C. et al. Prevalence of body dissatisfaction and its effects on health-related quality of life among primary school students in Guangzhou, China. BMC Public Health 19, 213 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6519-5
- Mikolajczyk, R. T., Iannotti, R. J., Farhat, T., & Thomas, V. (2012). Ethnic differences in perceptions of body satisfaction and body appearance among U.S. schoolchildren: a cross-sectional study. BMC public health, 12, 425. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-12-425
- Hosseini SA, Padhy RK. Body Image Distortion. [Updated 2020 Jul 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546582/
- Dyer A, Borgmann E, Kleindienst N, Feldmann RE Jr, Vocks S, Bohus M. Body image in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder after childhood sexual abuse and co-occurring eating disorder. Psychopathology. 2013;46(3):186-91. doi: 10.1159/000341590. Epub 2012 Sep 7. PMID: 22964627.
- Alleva, J. M., Sheeran, P., Webb, T. L., Martijn, C., & Miles, E. (2015). A Meta-Analytic Review of Stand-Alone Interventions to Improve Body Image. PloS one, 10(9), e0139177. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0139177
- van der Meulen, M., Veldhuis, J., Braams, B. R., Peters, S., Konijn, E. A., & Crone, E. A. (2017). Brain activation upon ideal-body media exposure and peer feedback in late adolescent girls. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience, 17(4), 712–723. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-017-0507-y