What Is Body Image?

Students smiling holding textbooksHow many of us are able to look in the mirror and feel 100% satisfied with what we see? Who remembers growing up and hearing the adults around them talk about needing to lose a few pounds to fit into their favorite little black dress or wishing that a certain part of their body was a different shape/size? Maybe we watched our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters criticize their appearance. Maybe we listened to our best friends talk about having a “fat day” or maybe we quietly held onto our own feelings of feeling fat and dissatisfied. How do these feelings of discomfort, dissatisfaction, and/or insecurity shape us? How do they impact our day-to-day lives and relationships? How often do these feelings and experiences contribute to the development of disordered eating or eating disorders?

 

What is body image and do we move towards greater self-acceptance? Body image is defined by a number of factors. Body image is in part how you perceive yourself when you look at yourself in the mirror or picture yourself in your mind. Body image also includes the beliefs you have about your appearance (assumptions, memories, and thoughts). Body image also includes the experiences you have in your body and the experiences you have had about your body (National Eating Disorders Association, 2005).

Someone is likely experiencing negative body image when they experience feelings of shame, embarrassment, or discomfort in their own body. They may also see their own bodies in a distorted manner or believe that their body is flawed while everyone else’s bodies look perfect. Those struggling with negative body image may also believe that

their external appearance has a direct reflection on who they are, their character, and their status in relationships or other environments. Higher levels of negative body image can lead to an increased susceptibility to the development of eating disorders, depression, social isolation, chronic dieting, and self-esteem issues.

Positive body image is when we are able to see our bodies accurately, when we feel comfortable and confident in our own skin, and when we are able to appreciate the vessel that we have been given to move through this world in. Those with positive body image are also able to recognize that their external appearance does not correlate with their character or self-worth and often refuse to spend any extraordinary amount of time obsessing about food, weight, or calories. I realize that this may all be easier said than done, but is something we can all make progress towards.

It is perfectly natural to have those days that are more uncomfortable (“fat days”) or where we just don’t feel as good. Here are some things that are useful to remember when it comes to body image: 1) Incorporate time for self-care. Take care of you, both inside and out; 2) Surround yourself with people who are supportive of who you are as an individual; 3) Invest time and energy doing activities that make you feel good about yourself (this can range from social time with friends to volunteer work); 4) Wear clothes that are comfortable and that you feel good in; 5) Consider removing the scale from your house if you have one; 6) This is a follow-up to items 4 and 5—remember that your value as a person is far greater than the number on the scale or the size of your clothes; 7) Make and keep a list of your strengths—those qualities that make you unique, special, and extraordinary; 8) Appreciate all of the things which your body can do—remember that your body is a vessel for your soul; and 9) Remember that beauty is a state of mind and not a state of your body.

For those of you reading this who are in the recovery process from an eating disorder, please remember that body image is one of the last issues which will be resolved in the treatment process. With that said, it is possible, and there is much hope for greater freedom and self-acceptance. We also must find ways to not only remember and value our own self-worth, but to embrace the friends, sisters, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers around us.

Related articles:
Do I Have a Healthy Relationship With Food and My Body?
Your Body and Defining Self
Body Image Issues and Healthy Boundaries

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anne Khalifeh, PsyD, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • bonnie

    bonnie

    August 24th, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    I don’t blame anyone for me ending up with bulimia, I take the blame for that. But it wasn’t easy always growing up with a naturally thin mom who always made little side remarks about how much cuter I would be if I would just lose some of that baby fat, just a little weight now and then.

    That really wrecked havoc with my own self esteem and my body image. The sad thing is that I look back on my pictures from then, and I was never model slim but not fat either by any stretch of the imagination. I think that I had a mom sharing her own insecurities and unfortunately placing those on me.

    I can’t say that I wouldn’t ever do this to my own daughter, because once you are in this cycle it is so hard to change those behaviors, and sometimes we say things that we instantly regret. But I have trued so hard to not be about eating and bady image, and I want her to know that life is about so much more than what you weigh or what size you wear. I know that it is hard for her to believe that when she knows that I still struggle with my own issues, but I very badly don’t want my issues to become her own.

  • steven

    steven

    August 24th, 2012 at 2:46 PM

    why do most people view themselves with so much negativity when they look at others in awe,although the other person may not be as good as themselves?are we genetically programmed to hate ourselves?because I have never met a single person who says he or she is absolutely happy with his/her own body!

  • maureen

    maureen

    August 24th, 2012 at 11:38 PM

    what is body image? it is the way you view or perceive yourself.and that view or perception of yours may well not be accurate! also, it may not be how others see you! and most importantly your physical attributes do not dictate your character! now to all those who have a NEGATIVE body image-please ponder over those points and try to stop hurting and torturing yourselves!

  • GraysonP

    GraysonP

    August 25th, 2012 at 4:34 AM

    I used to have a terrible body image, times when I so badly wanted to live in another body. Know what helped me? I started exercising, and that was hard because I felt so bad about how I looked that I didn’t want to go to the gym because I was worried about what other people would think that I looked like in workout clothes!

    But I sucked it up, sucked it in a little, and there I went. That was two years ago, and now I have never felt better. No I am not model thin, I haven’t yet met my ultimate weight loss goals yet, but I am getting there. I know that I am doing something that’s good for myself and that makes me feel better about myself.

  • Mary Jane

    Mary Jane

    August 25th, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    I have always had self image problems. Here I am at 57 years and I still woryy about being over weight. My sister has anerxia and I at times of high stress can be border line. I got rid of my scale years ago. I eat healthy when I eat which is once a day. It’s just a fear that weight will leave me unloved I guess. It’s silly but getting older makes me want to be still attractive.

  • julia

    julia

    August 25th, 2012 at 10:26 PM

    mom was always concerned about her weight and body and so am I.I don’t see this as something negative as neither of us indulged into starving or any such behavior but constantly ask ourselves if we really want to have that pastry and it also pushes us to work out on a constant basis.being concerned about your body image is not always a bad thing.it becomes bad only if you get into unhealthy practices.

  • janet

    janet

    August 26th, 2012 at 6:16 AM

    Mary Jane- I am so proud of you for talking about your issues on here, something that I have always been unwilling to own up to. I am almost the same age as you are and always thought that I would eventually stop worrying about how I look and my weight but I guess that for us that just hasn’t gone away. I know that someone else could read all of this and think that we are being vain, but it’s not that. I see that you are like me, always trying to control what we eat and thinking that if only we were just a bit thinner, a bit this or that then things would be better. I want to stop looking in the mirror and having this self loathing. I am searching for that self love that eludes me, so maybe by being honest here, maybe you and I and others who feel these same things can find that.

  • Julio

    Julio

    August 27th, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    I really do not understand all of these issues that women seem to have from their bodies.
    Don’t they know that we find them beautiful, that there is something intrinsically glorious about any female body?
    What have we as a society done to reinforce this issue that they have to look a certain way to be deemed as beautiful?
    Something has to give here because there is a whole generation of young women growing up who think that they are not worthy of any praise and attention, and that is ruining how my own daughters feel about themselves.

  • anonymous

    anonymous

    August 28th, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    What is body image?
    It is that thing that keeps me at home all day
    afraid to go out
    afraid to let others see me
    ashamed of my body
    and what I must look like to others
    it is that shackle that weighs me down day after day
    whispering that I need to do the right thing
    make better choices
    be something else
    that I’m not prepared to do
    Body image is what controls my life in so many negative ways
    i feel so ashamed but can’t seek help because I don’t know where to go
    Can someone plese help me?

  • Dr. Khalifeh

    Dr. Khalifeh

    August 28th, 2012 at 8:42 PM

    Hi Everyone,
    Thank you all for your sharing and for your comments. Janet, I think you have said something that I hear in my office quite often– this idea that if we could be just a little thinner or eat just a little less, we might just feel better or be happier. This is where so many get stuck! We can’t fix how we feel on the inside by changing our outside appearance. The problem isn’t really on the outside to begin with! So often it is easier to try and change something that we can see and measure, but the pain and hurts are deep within. Those things can be healed as well, they just take time, patience, compassion, and little different approach.

    There are many resources out there and available- both for body image and self-esteem issues, and for eating disorders. Remember that it is never too late!
    Best,
    Dr. Khalifeh

  • becky

    becky

    July 19th, 2014 at 7:59 PM

    What about when you are 21 and have a low body image because you actually are disgusting but feel powerless to change it. I very rarely go out any more :(

  • GoodTherapy.org Support

    GoodTherapy.org Support

    July 20th, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Becly. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Kat

    Kat

    July 20th, 2014 at 6:58 AM

    There is a really good book with daily readings called, “Inner Harvest,” that addresses self esteem and body image and eating disorders of any kind. I read it everyday for 14 years a long with a couple of other books from the Hazelden Treatment Center in Minnesota. Every little bit helps, baby steps. My OBGYN also told me years ago to get rid of the scale which I was obsessed with.

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