What Is Body Image? Body Image Issues Explained

Written by: Janine Mack – B.Sc (Psychology)

Last updated date : February 09, 2023

To simply put it, ‘body image’ is the attitude- thoughts, feelings, and behaviours- we have towards our physical being when we think of how we look or see our reflection. This can be about their weight, height, skin, hair, the size/ shape of certain body parts, or gender identity. Body image can be positive, negative, or neutral. Sometimes it can fluctuate and is influenced by many factors. A sad reality is that many people suffer from issues with their body image. This creates many challenges for them in their lives.

This article explores the topic of body image. It outlines the basics to provide a better understanding to those wanting to know more. Additionally, ways that can help to address these issues stemming from negative body image will also be discussed. This is to provide some helpful information to anyone facing such issues or knowing anyone who does.

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Chapter 1:

The Four Aspects of Body Image

1. Perceptual – This is how people see their bodies. It may not be an accurate representation of what they actually look like. For instance, they may consider themselves to be ‘fat’ when in reality they’re underweight.

2. Affective – How a person feels about their body and appearance. This is concerning the feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction had towards these.

3. Cognitive – The thoughts and beliefs one has about their body or how they think of it. People can think of their bodies in positive or negative ways. Negative thoughts about our bodies can have harmful impacts as individuals often become consumed by them. They may feel they’ll only look good if they achieve their ideal body and fixate on things such as their food intake and exercise levels.

4. Behavioral – These are the behaviors a person engages in because of their body image. Examples of this are disordered eating, excessive exercising, social isolation, and changing how they dress.

Chapter 2:

Influential Factors

There are many influences that can shape body image. Some of these are:

1. Culture and media

Both culture and the media, which are agents of socialization, have been known to play a big role in body image. Cultural norms dictate what is desirable and what is not and the media usually reflects these norms. They portray the image that certain features are considered beautiful and can attract others. When this is constantly reinforced through the media it can influence people’s beliefs about beauty and body. As a result, body image issues may arise among individuals if they aren’t part of what’s idealized in their culture.

It’s very common that people become victims of cultural standards such as this. It is mostly because people grow up surrounded by culture. They are constantly exposed to it. through the media for example. Even before a person can shape their own thoughts and beliefs, it’s shaped by their culture. And often, it’s immensely difficult to build a healthy relationship with one’s body and have a positive body image if it’s different from what the culture perpetuates as the ideal body. For instance, living in a culture that considers fair complexions to be more attractive makes it hard for those with darker complexions to be very confident and content with how they look.

2. Family

The family is one of the primary agents of socialization. How older members think and act often influence the other, younger members. This can go both ways, negative and positive.

Research has shown links between family and body image issues. For instance, the ways parents view themselves can influence how their children see themselves as well. This could be due to exposure that makes them develop the same attitudes. There is evidence showing families who greatly priorities their appearance have fueled body dissatisfaction and caused disordered eating amongst daughters especially. Criticisms on weight and size are also common occurrences in these cases. These heighten negative body image. Such remarks, when heard constantly and from many, can make people grow very self-conscious and/or insecure about their bodies.

On the other hand, studies have also evidenced that parents who are nurturing as well as supportive create lasting impacts on their children’s body image, making them more satisfied with their appearances. Additionally in the same way that criticisms on a person’s body can impact them, compliments can as well. These can help with how they view themselves.

3. Peers

The company a person keeps can influence them. Research shows that being around people who overly focus on their bodies and aspects such as weight loss and dieting can be harmful as well. This exposure can influence others and alter their thoughts and behaviors about their bodies. Furthermore, peers can even body shame. In certain cases, they may even exclude others just because of their appearance. These experiences can affect a person’s attitude towards their body.

On the other hand, friend groups where body positivity is present will have different outcomes. In the current context, it can help people feel good about their bodies and more comfortable with their natural appearance. They can have healthy levels of self-esteem and confidence. The support, acceptance, and empowerment they received from their friends can play a significant role in this.

4. Social media

Today, almost everyone uses social media and it holds a prominent place within the daily lives of many. It shapes how many people see the world, but also themselves. It is undeniably a very powerful influencing tool. This impact can be on anyone but younger social media users are at a higher risk. This is because their minds are more impressionable.

Social media is one of the most known causes of body image issues. This is because it has constantly shown unrealistic beauty standards and idealized certain body types. The constant exposure can be damaging for some individuals. They begin to desire the bodies seen on social media or the filtered and edited versions of themselves. It’s then hard for them to feel satisfied with their natural appearance and have positive feelings towards it. A lot of individuals become very self-conscious and insecure about parts of their bodies they might have never been if not for social media. Evidence shows that social media has even caused the development of eating disorders in many.

On the other hand, there are now more and more initiatives that address and combat harmful impacts of social media such as this. Body positivity and self-love are now major themes on social media platforms. They help individuals break away from these standards and embrace their natural appearance. In turn, these individuals use social media as a means to practice self-love and empower others, thereby creating a sort of ripple effect. Companies are being more inclusive as well to shift the narrative portrayed by media for years and to be more accepting and diverse.

5. Trauma

Traumatic experiences such as bullying, assault, or abuse can change people’s relationships with their bodies. These can act as triggers that cause them to develop issues with their body image. Individuals who have undergone such events often report experiencing low self-esteem plus negative feelings namely shame, disgust, and low confidence as well.

Chapter 3:

What Having a Positive Body Image Is Like

Having a positive body image will mean people are content with how they look. This is inclusive of even the parts they once were insecure about or not fond of. There isn’t a desire to look different from how they do. It is because they accept themselves for how they naturally look and are satisfied with it. They have healthy levels of self-esteem levels and self-confidence as well. There is respect towards one’s body and appreciation for what it does. These are accompanied by healthy behaviors and attitudes related to eating and exercising which can all contribute to a better quality of life.

Chapter 4:

What Having a Negative Body Image Is Like

Those with a negative body image will generally experience unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their body. They will have low self-esteem and confidence because of how they feel about their appearance. Moreover, they will experience feelings such as shame, embarrassment, disgust, or hatred in regards to their bodies or certain aspects of it. Distorted thoughts based on these may also accompany. A feature of such thoughts is their inaccuracy, meaning that the way people see themselves is not representative of how they look.

Usually, individuals become fixated on certain areas associated with their bodies, for instance, weight, size, calorie intake, exercise, surgery. These thoughts take up large spaces in their mind, often consuming the rest of their thinking so that it is what they think about the most, which is characteristic of body dysmorphia. Additionally, individuals adopt many behaviors that are unhealthy. This is usually because they become obsessed with their appearance and often so unhappy about it. Because of this, they resort to doing just about anything to help them achieve the appearance they want.

Unfortunately today a massive number of individuals suffer from negative body image and other related issues. It can take a toll on various aspects of people’s lives and adversely impact it.

Consequences of Negative Body Image

  1. Low self-esteem and confidence
  2. Obsessively thinking of appearance and figure
  3. Dissatisfaction with body and life
  4. Constant comparison with how others look
  5. Mental health conditions (such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder)
  6. Serious, sometimes irreversible impacts on physical health
  7. Relationship problems
  8. Unhealthy, harmful behaviors

Some of these Behaviors Are:

    1. Avoiding social interaction
    2. Disordered eating (for example eating too much or too little, starving)
    3. Self-harm
    4. Substance abuse
    5. Purging behaviors
    6. Excessive exercising
  1. Suicidal behaviors

It is crucial to address body image issues to combat or avoid more serious consequences that can result otherwise.

Chapter 5:

Overcoming Body Image Issues

Interventions exist that can help with these instances. These have displayed efficacy in doing so as well. Some of these include the involvement of professionals trained to assist in such areas. Seeking professional help is the most effective way of dealing with difficulties.

Given that body image is related to the thoughts and behaviours we have about our bodies, interventions that are psychological can help address the situation. Therapy pairs professionals with clients to work on solving their problems and helping them live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on people’s thoughts and actions. It is one of the most known therapeutic interventions due to its effectiveness levels and success rates. How it mainly works is by helping people change their unhelpful, unhealthy thoughts and/or behaviors to healthier versions. A lot of the time those with body image issues have distorted thought processes. This means that their ways of thinking and looking at things are not accurate of what is reality. Due to this, interventions such as CBT are helpful because they can tackle these and help people move past these struggles.

The therapy sessions will uncover and deal with people’s attitudes towards themselves. They will explore relevant areas such as the way clients talk to themselves plus how they think, see and feel about their bodies. The problems in these areas will then be addressed. For example through cognitive restructuring, altering self-talk and intrusive thoughts related to such areas, becoming more aware of thoughts and being able to identify them, exposure to unpleasant body image scenarios, and methods of relaxation.

Chapter 6:

What Can You Do for Yourself?

For many reasons therapy may not be a feasible option for everyone. If you’re someone or know someone who cannot access therapy but could use some help in going about this issue, here are some tips to do

1. Note Down What You Like About Yourself

List down whatever it is that makes you feel happy and proud of yourself. It can be your positive qualities and traits, skills, talents, or the physical features you like. Often the negative attitudes we have towards ourselves stop us from focusing on our better parts. The issues we have with our body image make us fixate on just that aspect of ourselves and ignore our other beings. When you make it a point to write these things down, they’re actively brought to mind and remembered. Acknowledging these can help how we feel about ourselves. In fact, there might be many things about us that we deserve to feel pride and appreciation for.

2. Make a List of the Things Your Body Can Do

We place so much focus on how our bodies look that we don’t pay attention or appreciate the functions it carries out and what it enables us to do. When we’re not happy with our appearance we may end up expressing negativity towards our body and criticizing it. Our displeasure with how we look externally, unfortunately, defines the relationship we have with our whole body sometimes.

To address this just think of all the things you’re able to do because of your body. Write them down. Remember that nothing is really insignificant or not valid especially when it comes to bodily processes. This is because though it may not seem a big deal for some of us, not everyone may have the ability to do them naturally or with ease. If we do have these abilities, regardless of whether it is to move our limbs, hear, feel sensations, breath without help or see, we are privileged to be able to do these. And we must acknowledge and appreciate this privilege because it allows us to experience and do many things. Doing so also creates a sense of gratitude, which has a range of benefits. Gratitude is known to improve levels of happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and physical as well as psychological health.

3. Alter Your Negative Self-Talk

The inner dialogue you have within is influential especially when it comes to how you think, feel or perceive yourself. This self-talk can be negative or positive. Unfortunately, a lot of the time many of us experience the former. As a result, the dialogue that happens within us is critical, harsh, and unpleasant. And many times, we allow self-talk of this nature to continue without stopping it. This is perhaps because we’re so used to it that and therefore it’s difficult to stop. Or because we feel we deserve to hear it.

The reality is that although it may seem difficult, it can be stopped and that we do not deserve to be spoken to with such language. People who struggle with their self-image and self-esteem may find it difficult to believe when their thoughts and external sources keep telling them otherwise. But it’s crucial to remember that we are worthy and important and that we have more to offer than just our mere appearance. Positive affirmations such as this can help remind and ground ourselves and not be swayed by our biased thoughts for instance.

One of the first things to be done in dealing with self-critical language is being aware of when it happens. The intention is to not let yourself get carried away by this train of negative thoughts but instead to stop it in its tracks. Another alternative is to replace it with thoughts that are positive or more uplifting. Sometimes this may be hard to do. In those times acknowledge the presence of the negative thought you’ve had; not the content of the thought, just that it’s there in your mind. Do that and then let it go. Don’t fight it or try to suppress it.

Example of How to Do This

You may go about it by saying “I acknowledge that this thought is in my mind….but now I am letting it go. By doing this I will not hold on to it and let it control me or affect how I am feeling. I won’t give it power over me. I let it go and free myself from the grip it could have on my thoughts, feelings, and actions. These thoughts will not be allowed to control me.

4. Associate With Healthier Influences

Specifically, people that are body positive and have good relationships with their bodies, food, and exercise for example. As mentioned earlier, the company a person is around can influence them. This can be either good or bad. How to make use of it for a positive outcome is by socializing with those who can be a better influence. It can cause improvements within people and their lives, sometimes with or without their awareness. It can even motivate, inspire or support them to initiate change themselves. This can all be of great help for those trying to work on their body image issues and lead better lives.

Apart from meeting and socialising with such people in person, this can happen virtually as well. Numerous online communities promote concepts such as self-love and body positivity and some allow members to interact with each other. A lot of support, upliftment, learning, empowerment, assistance, and acceptance are passed around in these spaces and immensely help people who could benefit from them. Apart from all of these it provides people the feeling of being understood and represented and can also make them feel less lonely, all of which can make their lives better.

5. Be Mindful of Your Social Media Usage

Social media does play a very impactful role in people’s body image and does fuel issues related to it. Although people can try to manage this by staying away from social media or reducing their usage levels, this may not always be all that feasible. It can be a helpful strategy to combat personal difficulties due to social media. But that being said, it may not possible for everyone. In today’s world social media helps us keep in touch and stay engaged and staying away can inconvenience some. Additionally, sometimes social media can provide help those who are struggling to feel less alone, more understood and give them a place to express themselves as a means of coping with what they’re going through.

Therefore, the way one can go about such a situation is by using social media consciously and being mindful about what they expose themselves to. How to do this is by adjusting your social media experience to fit your needs. Don’t be hesitant to remove your exposure to content you don’t want to see or don’t sit right with you by unfollowing accounts that promote them. Instead, follow and engage with accounts and individuals whose content resonates with you and inspires you.

People can use social media to their advantage. They just have to tailor their experiences with it to suit their requirements.

6. Remind Yourself That Media Can Be Unrealistic

The reality is that a fair number of things you see in the media are not all that accurate or representative. The portrayals could be exaggerated or true of only a minority of people. Additionally, a lot of photo and video manipulation happens to produce the end result we see before us. Editing body shapes, airbrushing skin, whitening teeth are some of them. It’s important to remind yourself that what you see in front of you may not be accurate.

7. Don’t Shy Away From Criticizing Media Messages

You don’t have to accept content put out by the media that for example may be discriminatory or tone-deaf. Don’t be afraid to speak up and voice yourself. Thanks to social media people have platforms to express themselves and audiences to listen. Social media can make content go viral and reach various parts of the world and gain global attention. For reasons such as this, it’s now possible for anyone to start movements that end up holding cooperation’s accountable and having to handle their mishaps.

It is important to convey to the media that people are no longer passive receivers of the messages they put out. Doing this places pressure on them to be more responsible and mindful about their content as well as cater to what people want to see. Additionally, being vocal about the changes we wish to see is us taking the required steps in ensuring it happens. This can make us feel satisfied with ourselves and also create a sense of accomplishment at the thought of a future with more inclusive content.

8. Wear Clothes That You Like

The trick here is that wearing clothes that you like could make you feel better about how you look and raise your confidence as well. There are occasions that we refrain from purchasing or wearing certain clothing because we’re self-conscious. We may think it doesn’t look good on us and that it’ll suit a different body type better. Or we feel it makes us look thinner or fatter. Sometimes instead of these comments coming from ourselves, it comes from those around us. Due to reasons such as these, we shy away from wearing what we want. Instead, we resort to something that seems the safer, more appropriate option, given how our bodies look. But these pieces may not make us feel happy and confident or to the extent that wearing what we liked would’ve made us feel.

Moving away from this practice could do us good. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that you dress for no one else but yourself. So if you feel comfortable and confident in something, wear it! It can have positive impacts on your happiness and boost your self-esteem and confidence. Your body doesn’t have to get in the way of what you want to wear and you won’t have to feel like it does. Just always know that you’re dressing to make yourself happy and not others; if anyone has a problem with it, it’s reflective of them and not you.

9. Identify and Change the Behaviors You Engage in Because of Your Body Image

As mentioned above, sometimes people’s body image issues stop them from doing certain things. It ends up controlling various aspects of their lives. This can negatively impact them. There is a range of behaviors people engage in because of their bodies. To address the issue, the person must first discover what their behaviors are. For instance, it could be refusing to take pictures with others, not going swimming, avoiding social gatherings, restricting their calorie intake, constantly checking their weight. Remember what they are and the next time you find yourself about to do any of them, stop yourself. After doing this you can replace the behavior with an alternative version. Simply, this could be the opposite of that behavior.

Actively stopping yourself from engaging in behaviors that stem from negative body image and instead opting for what it prevented you from doing can make you slowly regain control of your own life. Because usually when something grows out of habit it is hard to fall back into it and pick it up again. However, through this, that is possible.

10. Steer your thoughts away from your body by keeping yourself occupied

One of the features of negative body image is the obsessive thoughts people have about their bodies. It takes up much space in their minds that it’s hard for them to think about much else. Sometimes the more people keep thinking about their bodies the more difficult it becomes to let go of the fixation they have on it.

A way to manage such a situation is by engaging in other things that can keep your mind occupied. These can be other tasks or hobbies or even just things you enjoy doing. Moving away from constantly spending time focusing on our bodies and immersing ourselves in other activities can help in taking it off our minds. Gradually the grip these thoughts have over us could loosen and reduce in power.

Chapter 7:

Final Note

Body image is a wide topic to look into. This article outlined some of its aspects in order to provide a basic understanding of this area, including the issues that develop from it. Awareness about such matters is of great importance. This is especially true about body image issues given their rate of prevalence in today’s societies. The more informed people are on matters, the better they become at being able to help themselves or others who need it.

For those struggling with body image issues remember that you are not alone and also that help is available. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out. This article is a fair start because it could’ve helped introduce you to some helpful tips as well. Just don’t forget to practice these as much as you can because consistency is key. The journey may be challenging but it is one that can be done. Take care of yourself and good luck!

"Learnt a lot from this course" Sally

51 sections

6-Weeks Self-Paced

  • Educational Content
  • Quizzes
  • Self-reflection material
  • Suggestions & feedback
  • Worksheet, tips & tools to use

$9.00 $12.00

25% discount