Body image is a term that so many people know, and yet people struggling with body image can feel so alone. The phrase itself is neutral. However, many individuals draw negative connotations from the words. Throughout this article, you will learn about the intricacies of body image and its impact on your mental health, and what you can do about it. 

What is body image?

Body image is a person’s thoughts, feelings, and perception of the aesthetics or [sexual] attractiveness of their own body. When you look at yourself in the mirror or think of how you look and feel, you often hold beliefs about your own appearance. These beliefs include assumptions, memories, messages (familial, cultural, societal), and generalizations about yourself. 

Body image is complex. Body image is influenced by internal (i.e., personality) and external (i.e., social environment) factors. The person sitting next to you can have a different idea of what body image means to them. For some people, it can be as simple as “I like my body” or “I don’t like my body.” For others, it can be more complex, such as “I love my arms, but hate my legs,” “My body is incredible, it gave me my child. My body has no limits,” “My body betrayed me, it has hormonal imbalances due to my PCOS.” 

Different combinations of body image can be:

  • Perception of how your body looks to you and others
  • Cultural-driven beliefs about what your body and other bodies should look like
  • Feelings about your body and body parts
  • Evaluation of different parts of your body
  • Understanding the capabilities of what your body can and can’t do
  • An alignment or misalignment with your body’s makeup and mind (e.g., cis vs. trans)
  • Your body’s potential

Four types of body image

Body image can be broken down into four different aspects. The four areas are the perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral. The way we view, see, think, and engage with our bodies has a direct impact on the image we create about ourselves. 

  • Perceptual
    • The way you SEE your body is your perceptual body image. This is not always aligned with the correct representation of how you actually look.
      • Example: “I am fat.” 
  • Affective
    • The way you FEEL about your body is your affective body image. When a person shows a positive body image, they might feel happiness compared to a person with a negative body image who might feel disgusted. The effective body image is the amount you feel (happiness versus disgust) about your weight, shape, and individual body parts). 
      • Example: “I am disgusting because I am fat.”
  • Cognitive
    • The way you THINK about your body is your cognitive body image. Individuals with negative body image can overthink or become preoccupied regarding their body shape and weight.
      • Example: “I will never find a partner because I am fat.”
  • Behavioral
    • The BEHAVIORS you engage in as a result of your body image are your behavioral body image. These are the things you do in relation to the way you look. Individuals who are dissatisfied with the way they look might isolate themselves from others as a result of negative body image. 
      • Example: “I don’t date because I am fat.”

Why do people have poor body image?

Body image perception can be influenced in different ways. Research has shown that young children as early as three or four years old hold attitudes about body shape. As children grow up, they are constantly consuming messages regarding body image. Adolescence is a critical period for body image development due to various changes occurring. When bodies begin changing during puberty, dissatisfaction can deepen. These perceptions are influenced by what they see in media, in school, their parents, etc.). Perceptions are also influenced by what children hear. These messages aren’t always directed at the child either. A mother who is always dieting and consistently calls herself fat in front of their child will have a child who is more tuned in to their own body and how it looks and what they are eating than a mother who exudes confidence in her own body. 

Factors that affect body image

Body image issues typically transform from a few different factors. The attitude we have toward our body shape and size can be connected to our past events and circumstances. Research has shown that the main factors that influence body image are:

  1. Peers
    • Body image issues can come from comparison and judgment. If you constantly compare yourself to the person next to you, you may struggle to feel confident, strong, and beautiful. Comparison is known to be the thief of joy, especially when we are comparing our bodies, relationships, and lives to other people.
    • Our peers may also impact our narrative around our own body image or bodies in general. If a friend constantly worries about what they eat because they think they are fat, you may start to think you are fat and that you should watch what you eat because you learn that to fit in, you have to care about how you look. 
  2. Family
      • Family attitudes and beliefs have been shown to affect body image. When growing up, you could have had a parent or family member that was unhappy or displeased with their body. That parent or family member inadvertently passed on many messages to you that you might have internalized as a young child. Another way you might have experienced body image issues stemming from your family could be if you were constantly criticized or judged regularly in your family. Now as an adult, because of the constant criticism in your family, you are more vulnerable to being hard on yourself about your size and weight. 
  3. Media
        • The media, especially social media, is not always what it seems. The media sets unrealistic standards that are not achievable. Scrolling through social media feeds and looking at unobtainable body images is not healthy. People using social media often measure happiness by how many likes or views they receive. As social media grows the younger and younger its consumers are. Young boys and girls are now at a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression that is linked to a negative body image. Social media has been found to be fueling a mental health crisis due to an increase in anxiety and depression and loneliness, specifically in young women. 

The connection between behaviors, thoughts, and emotions 

Chances are you know or heard of someone who either currently or previously had an unhealthy relationship with exercise or eating due to a negative body image. Anyone of any size can struggle with body image, and changing your body will not necessarily heal your body image. Body image is more mental than physical. The way we feel and think about our bodies can impact our actions. Individuals with a negative body image can engage in damaging behaviors due to how they think and feel about their bodies, while those who have a positive body image might engage in more healthy behaviors.

Working towards a healthy body image can be challenging because many of us have internalized messages about our bodies from a young age. These messages can lead to either a positive or negative body image, and oftentimes we see individuals with a negative body image. Body image can influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in both negative and positive ways. Examples of these T/E/B (thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) include:

Positive Body Image Negative Body Image
Thought:

  •  I am complete and perfect just the way I am
Thought

  • I need to lose X amount of weight before I can do X
Emotion:

  •  I feel accepted and comfortable
Emotion

  • I feel ashamed or embarrassed
Behavior

  • Taking care of my body
Behavior

  • Skipping meals 

 

Negative body image may lead to other issues

Holding a negative belief about your body image can lead to other issues in life. These issues include but are not limited to…

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood disorders
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Loneliness
  • Unhealthy self-talk
  • Self-harm tendencies
  • Disordered eating patterns
    • 20 million women and 10 million men in the US will have an eating disorder at some point in their life 
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Relationships issues
  • Low confidence
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Distorted thinking patterns
  • Sexual dysfunction

Individuals who are overly dissatisfied with how their bodies look have a higher risk of developing the issues listed above. Indeed, dissatisfaction with your body can lead to several emotional and physical unhealthy habits.

How to improve body image

  1. Explore new activities where you have the space to discover how your body works and what it is capable of.
    • Allow yourself to take the time to reconnect with your body. Explore new activities with a curious mind and without any judgment. 
  2. Create a list of the top things you like about yourself
    • Writing down a list of things you like about yourself on paper can be powerful. When making your list think about your body, personality, perspective, sense of humor, creativity, character, physical features, etc.
  3. Detox from social media
    • Giving yourself a break from social media can be beneficial. Give yourself either a few days or weeks where you have the space and mental clarity to reset your self-image. Whether it is giving up one social media platform (Instagram, TikTok, Facebook) or all of them together, you will see changes in your mental clarity. 
  4. Focus on how you feel rather than how you look
    • Check-in with how your body is feeling and ask yourself what you need. Checking in with yourself allows you the space to give your body what it needs. Things your body might need could be food, water, a long shower, a peaceful walk, or maybe a phone call with a friend. By focusing on how you are feeling internally, you are giving yourself permission to take care of yourself.
    • Work out because you love your body, not because you hate it.
        • There is always a balance that you are working towards regarding exercise. The human body is capable of so many amazing things, and we take our bodies with us for our entire lives. Instead of celebrating all of the things our body can do, we can fall into punishing our body for the way it looks. Reframing the way you think about your body can be helpful because we should work towards exercising because we love our body, not because we hate it.
    • Nourish your body with food that will make you feel good.
        • Work towards feeling good about the food you put into your body. Be kind to yourself as you are finding the balance in consuming food that will fill your body with energy and nutrients.
  5. Surround yourself with positive, uplifting, and loving people
    • You are who you surround yourself with. This applies both in real life and online. Try surrounding yourself with good friends who accept you both on the inside and outside. Start following people online who promote body positivity and who are supportive. 

Starting the process

Body image issues can impact your mental health. It can be challenging to start the process of changing the way you feel and think about your body. Therapy can be a useful way to assist you with creating a more realistic and positive body image. If you want to explore your mental health issues related to body image or have questions about starting the process, feel free to schedule an appointment at The Better You institute with one of our Philadelphia therapists. Call us today, at 267-495-4951 to set up your appointment. 

 

Meet The Author:

Claire Savage, M.Ed

Claire Savage, M.Ed

Professional Counselor

Claire Savage, M.Ed, a Professional Counselor and Practicum and Intern Liaison, is known for her caring and open-minded nature. Her background as a first-generation Irish American has shaped her focus on identity development in therapy, helping clients understand their passions, purpose, and values. Drawing from her Division I Rowing experience at Temple University, Claire emphasizes the importance of mental health and the role of failure in personal growth. She approaches therapy like a puzzle, using person-centered, experiential, somatic, emotionally focused, and cognitive behavioral approaches to help clients gain new perspectives and control over their lives. Claire holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Counseling Psychology from Temple University. Passionate about Philadelphia, she enjoys exploring coffee shops, attending workout classes, and spending time with loved ones. Claire is dedicated to guiding clients on their wellness journey.

Learn more about Claire Savage ⇒

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