Body Image

Person on doctor's scale

Body image is how I look--right? No! Body image is a mental idea about your physical body and how you look. Body image is something that constantly changes as it is based more on feeling than fact. Dr. Debby Burgard, founder of the Body Positive website encourages a “Health at Every Size” approach. Burgard says that your body image is not a picture you are supposed to improve if you want to feel better; it is a relationship with your home, your sanctuary, yourself. This definition is different from what our culture and the media tells us, which tells us the external--how we look--can control the internal--how we feel.

Body Image Distortion

Because body image is based on feeling rather than fact, it is very vulnerable to distortion. We are constantly bombarded by media that promotes body image as something outside ourselves. You only have to turn the TV on for five minutes to hear the message that if we look a certain way, we, too, can have that stellar-looking partner hanging off our arm or that perfect dream job. In fact, all we have to do is buy the advertised shampoo, get the right hair, attain the correct weight, and all the love, success, and glory we desire will follow! The problem with this excessive focus on externals or how we look is that it takes us away from our internal felt sense of what has true value and meaning for us. When people move away from their truth they become disempowered. It is really disempowering to be in a constant battle with your own body. Your body then becomes your battleground or ‘shame container’ instead of home for your psyche and spirit. It is a modern tragedy.

Narrow Versus Wide Base for Self Esteem

The best way to build a healthy, strong body image is to move from what is called a “narrow base” for your body image to a “wide base". What is ‘a narrow basis for self-esteem’? It is when your self-esteem is based solely on one thing, such as how you look or how much you weigh. With such a narrow base, your self-esteem is much more vulnerable to collapse.

What is ‘a wide basis for self-esteem’? It is when there are other qualities that form a foundation for your self-esteem. These qualities might include your fabulous personality, your talents and gifts, your smile, your contribution to your community, your culture etc. When you have a number of different things that you value about yourself your view of yourself will also be more stable, steady, and solid.

Healthy body image means that you are comfortable with the body that you have. It does not mean that you think your body is perfect, rather that you accept and commit to loving and caring for it. Healthy body image means having a relationship with your body that is based on more than what you weigh. It is built on a wide basis for your self-esteem. The irony is that when we feel better about ourselves research shows we also take better care of ourselves, this means we are more inclined to feed and exercise our bodies too. Our bodies can be like kids; they respond better to positive reinforcement rather than constant criticism, nagging, etc. Try focusing on talking nicely to and about your body for a day and see if you don’t notice a difference.

Body Image Mental Exercise

Try the following exercise to start developing a wide base for your body image.

  1. First, list five things you value about yourself.
  2. Next, list ten things you value about the people in your life you’re closest to.
  3. Now take a close look at your lists. How many of the values that you listed for those you’re closest to are based on their physical appearance?

Often, how others look actually matters very little to you, and that what you truly value has much more to do with their character and how you feel when you are around them. Developing a wider base for your body image will take focus and effort simply because it is countercultural. The above exercise is a start in a healthier direction but remember reinforcement is key.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is defined by the DSM-IV-TR (a handbook for mental health professionals) as a disorder marked by excessive preoccupation with an imaginary or minor defect in a facial feature or localized part of the body. The condition is sufficiently severe to cause a decline in the patient's social, occupational, or educational functioning. The most common cause of this decline is time lost in obsessing about these minor or imaginary "defects." As many as 50% of those diagnosed with BDD will undergo plastic surgery to correct their perceived defects.

When Poor Body Image Turns to Distortion - Case Example

Marge was working hard on improving her body image. She was taking better care of herself. She was eating healthier foods. She was also creating other sources of nurturing for herself by fostering a more caring, supportive friendship circle. She had found an exercise she enjoyed and was doing that regularly. She was really starting to feel better about herself; her self-esteem and body image were improving daily and it showed. She had a bounce in her step and an excitement about her that was contagious. She started to get more attention. One day she announced to me that she had been asked on a date! She was very excited. The following week she wasn’t doing so well. When asked by her therapist asked her what had happened? She told her that the date didn’t go as she had hoped. Marge had what can be referred to as, “A Fat Attack” She felt rejected and blamed her body. “I suddenly felt so fat and ugly!” she told her therapist. “It was the way he looked at me, I knew I’d never see him again.” Marge went into the date and left it with the same body but somewhere in there she felt like she had put on 20 pounds. This is an example of how vulnerable body image can be to distortion simply because it is based more on our feelings rather than fact. The above incident motivated Marge to start building a wider base for her self esteem which in turn made her body image stronger and more resilient to negative events.

~ Page content provided by Ondina Hatvany,

Resources Related to Body Image:

  • Adios Barbie - Media resources, critiques, and inspiration to feel good about your body when saturated with unrealistic and distorted media images
  • Body Positive - A site that helps change the definition of Body Image, and provides new perspectives about viewing your body for bodies of all sizes

If there is something important you would like us to consider adding to this page, please feel free to suggest your ideas.


Last updated: 07-03-2015

Advanced Search is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on