By Paige Bierma, M.A.
What is body image?
It's your own subjective idea of how you look, summed up in your reaction to what you see in the mirror. If you're among the millions of Americans who say "Ugh," you have problems with body image.
Because such problems are surprisingly potent -- especially in a culture like ours, which places so much emphasis on being thin, young, and beautiful -- negative body image can and has become a serious difficulty for countless women, men, and even children. In small doses, dissatisfaction with your body can cause low self-esteem and low spirits; in large doses, it can contribute to clinical depression and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
Some people also suffer from body-image distortion, a condition in which they're incapable of seeing how they really look and inaccurately believe that some feature of their bodies is hideously ugly. Body dysmorphic disorder (see below) is a serious psychological disease that arises from a person's sadly distorted image of his or her own body.
How did my body image become what it is?
Your body image develops throughout your life on the basis of experiences you've had, the kinds of things people may have said to you about your body or done to your body, and the way you feel about your body's look and shape. Your experiences and emotions during childhood and adolescence are likely to be of particular importance in forming your body image.
A woman who was ridiculed in childhood for being overweight, for example, may continue to look down on her body during adulthood. Another woman might misinterpret a doctor's comments about weight or appearance, which can affect how she sees herself.
Where do these problems with body image come from?
Psychologists have some theories. In our society, we're constantly bombarded by media images of fashion models who are extremely thin, look passive and childlike, and possess certain physical characteristics (like youth, long legs, straight noses, and pale or tanned skin) that are touted as beautiful. Sometimes the models are dangerously underweight. This sends us the message that we have to look the same way in order to be thought attractive. Since most of us don't, we end up feeling bad about our bodies.
Some experts believe that negative body image may be rooted in early childhood development issues: Babies or toddlers who aren't touched enough, for instance, may grow into adults who don't appreciate their bodies. And according to a recent study, people who were physically or sexually abused as children are more prone to dislike or feel disconnected from their bodies.
How can I improve my image of my body?
If your negative body image centers around your weight or body shape, one answer may be to exercise more and eat better, choosing more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Just moving around -- walking a couple of miles daily, say -- tends to make people feel better about themselves and their bodies.
In many cases, however, the more important answer lies in learning to accept and appreciate your body the way it is. Buy some new clothes that fit, make you feel good, and emphasize your favorite features. Think of all it does and has done for you: It lets you hug children, make love, go to work, pet the cat, hike in the woods, hold hands. So what if you don't look like the anorexic model on the cover of Cosmopolitan?
Exercise regularly. Getting yourself to exercise can boost self-esteem, self-image and energy levels. Your body has treated you well, and it deserves your respect.
Remember that your sense of self-worth should come from you, not from what other people think of you or your body and not from your idea of what they think. Learn to accept all aspects of yourself with kindness -- your body, your mind, your emotions, and your spirit -- and choose friends and partners who have learned the same lessons, who respect themselves and love you for what you are.
What if I can't persuade myself to like my body?
If you feel your body image is interfering with your ability to enjoy life, try joining a support group or talking to a therapist about what it is that's keeping you from liking your body.
Therapists generally treat body image problems by leading you through a series of exercises to:
- Acknowledge your negative feelings about your body and then confront those feelings and work on changing them
- Distinguish between the unrealistic body images we are fed by society and the image of a normal, healthy body
- Teach assertiveness training to increase confidence
- Practice stress management
- Learn to allow yourself to feel and constructively express anger and other negative feelings that society or your family have encouraged you to repress
If you're a parent and concerned about your child's body image, consider challenging the media's obsession with thinness. Most models today are between 12 and 18 percent below their expected weight -- a body size that approaches or meets the criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia and that creates an unhealthy goal for girls and women. Look around for ways of encouraging advertisers to portray people in a wider range of sizes and shapes.
What is body dysmorphic disorder?
If your preoccupation with a real or imagined defect in your appearance causes you great distress and begins to interfere with your job or social life, you may have body dysmorphic disorder. BDD is a psychological condition in which a person may spend much of the time worrying about a perceived physical flaw, repeatedly check himself or herself in the mirror (or avoid mirrors if at all possible), and even try not to go outside in order to keep from being seen.
Someone with BDD may be preoccupied about almost any aspect of his or her body, from wrinkles or acne to the body's overall shape or a particular part of it, like breasts or nose. Often the sufferer has surgery to correct this imagined flaw.
BDD is different from general dissatisfaction with body image in that the preoccupation characterizing it interferes with regular work or social activities. Sometimes associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, it's generally treated with psychotherapy and sometimes with antidepressants like fluoxetine, or Prozac.
Philips, Katharine A., et al. Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Merck Manual. Accessed 3/15/2017
Body Image. WomensHealth.gov. Office on Women's Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder. DSM-IV-TR:507-510. American Psychiatric Association.
Stice E, et al. Body-image and eating disturbances predict onset of depression among female adolescents: a longitudinal study. J Abnorm Psychol 109(3):438-44.
Riva G, et al. Body image and eating restraint: a structural modeling analysis. Eat Weight Disord 5(1):38-42.