What is Body Image?
Body image is how you see yourself in the mirror or perceive yourself in your mind. This can include your thoughts and feelings about your body. Perceptual body image is the way you see your body. For example, seeing your body as fat or ugly is a sign of negative body image, while seeing your body as a gift is a sign of positive body image. Affective body image is the way you feel about your body. The way you think about your body is your cognitive body image. This can lead to preoccupation with body shape and weight.
Importance of positive body image
Women who have a positive body image are more likely to have better physical and mental health. Thinking positively about your body reduces the risk for many mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. Also, positive body image can improve your quality of life and help you focus on looking and feeling good rather than focusing on weight.
Signs of positive body image
- You realize that weight doesn’t define your self-worth
- You eat for nutritional value rather than to lose weight or fix your body
- You aren’t fixated on how other people see your body
- You look in the mirror and embrace your body
Signs of poor body image
- Experiencing harmful thoughts about your body and being obsessed with your body’s weight, shape, or appearance
- Having feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness about your body
- Frequently comparing your body to friends or celebrities and feeling that your body is worse than theirs.
- Struggling with feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and/or disordered eating due to body dissatisfaction
- Using unhealthy behaviors as a means to change your weight or body shape, such as dieting, skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, or taking laxatives
What Causes Negative Body Image?
Many potential factors exist to explain why people view their bodies negatively. One factor is the media – according to the National Eating Disorders Association, the media can promote an ideal body type that causes people to engage in unhealthy behavior to reach a “thin ideal”. The NEDA also mentions that body image can become negative due to societal and peer pressures.
Media and Body Image
Magazines often show photos of people who have a body type that is unrealistic for a lot of people. Photos of celebrities in magazines or on social media are not natural. They often involve hours of hair and make-up styling
by professionals. Many magazines also digitally alter pictures by smoothing out lines, removing blemishes, or changing body shape. However, people who see this tend to set this as the perfect standard for their body. This leads them to compare their own body to the digitally altered picture, and teens can start to obsess over the imperfections in their body, leading to poor body image.
Social Media and Body Image
The impact of using social media on body image is still a topic of discussion. One systematic literature review (study of studies) examined 30 studies with more than 11,000 total participants. The researchers found that being exposed to social media images impacted body image. In another systematic review that looked at 66 studies, researchers found that images that were pro-anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder); pro-fitspiration or pro-fatspiration; or promoted depression, self-harm, and seizures; were more likely to be shared and viewed. For more information, view our Social Media webinar.
Eating Disorders and Body Image
Eating disorders and body image are both linked. One survey examined more than 1,400 teens (most of whom were about 17, although everyone was between 15 and 18) and found that body appreciation was correlated to lower rates of eating disorders. A review of 46 studies also found that those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa (both eating disorders) have certain responses in the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear) that result in abnormal body perception. But why? According to the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), people who have eating disorders tend to have a negative view of their body.
Developing a positive body image
The National Eating Disorders Association has several suggestions to help individuals with eating disorders. One suggestion is that one should think positively rather than negatively about one’s body by filtering out negative thoughts. The NEDA also suggests that one surrounds themselves with positive people and wear clothes based on one’s body shape rather than changing one’s body shape to wear certain clothes. Other ideas include writing a list of things that one likes about himself or herself to provide one with pride in one’s body. Finally, the NEDA recommends that one spends time helping others instead of thinking about their own bodies if such thinking is becoming problematic. For more information, visit the link here.
A systematic review (study of studies) examined 22 different studies examining the effect of exercise on body image. The studies examined children and adolescents from 0 to 21. After extrapolating each study, the review authors found that participants who viewed themselves more positively were more likely to exercise. Note that this is a systematic review – a study of studies – and as a result the effect was found in a majority of studies and not just one cherry-picked study. Thus, from this review one can conclude that regular exercise can improve one’s body image significantly.
When to seek help
If you feel that yourself or a friend is struggling with anxiety or depression because of their negative body image, talk to an adult. If you find that your friend is showing signs of an eating disorder, seek help.