Body Image, Emotions, and Identity

woman looking in mirrorHow do you know what you are, what you are not, and why? Where did you gain this knowledge and experience that influences your current behavior and choices? While in the process of developing your Self, did you consciously stop to think if you wanted to be shaped in a particular manner? Certainly there were moments where you may have wanted to stop an experience or avoid pain, but did those experiences shape who you are today anyway? Are you interested in shaping your experiences through re-authoring your Self? Some people look to the body to try to control their experience of self in the world. Does this have any merit? When does it become a problem?

Developing Self-Worth

You were born into the world with certain genetic traits. The environment you grew up in further shaped the development of your inherent strengths and weaknesses. As you grew, you learned values and concepts of self-worth from family, friends, and culture. You took this outline and began testing it on the world, editing bits and pieces of your Self as the ebb and flow of pleasure, pain and belonging shaped your self-narrative. Messages about self-worth are also based on the parts of your identity that have already been shaped. Sometimes without knowing what influences you, you draw a line around yourself that determines what you want to let in, who you will let closer, and what you want to keep out.

In adolescence, an exceptionally important stage for the development of identity and self-worth, you may have experimented with different ways of being, groups to belong to, and new pleasures and pains in your growing body— some of them dangerous— all in effort to solidify a sense of identity and belonging. Although we do this throughout life, it is with a special intensity in adolescence.

Emotions and Body Image

Ultimately, all of these influencing experiences were informed by messages. What kind of messages? Emotions.  Emotions are messengers that tell us if we are doing something right or wrong, frightening or pleasurable. They may be based on perceptions of need or values, and may be experienced in a range of intensities according to variables such as inborn traits or cultural and family norms. However differently we experience them, emotions are the messengers about the Self and are housed in the body. Sadness can be felt by having a heavy heart or lethargic energy. Fear can be experienced by having a racing heartbeat, heightened sensitivity to sensory information, or pulsating muscles ready to flee, fight or freeze. The body is the narrator of the Self, the text is emotion, and the story is You.

People dealing with challenges to their body image often don’t know how they feel. They have been taught somewhere along the line that their feelings are shameful or unacceptable, or that the needs behind the feelings will not be met. They often cannot differentiate what they are feeling from the feelings of others. This could be because of childhood experiences with frighteningly huge feelings, either their own or others’.  They are often unable to identify and fight for what they need as they don’t listen to the messages. They often don’t have a clear sense of who they are and are preoccupied and vulnerable to external messages about their worth. This can lead to an overly controlling focus on the body, a focus that often goes astray.

Learning to Listen

While the body is a good place to start in knowing and defining the self, it isn’t by controlling the shape of the body that identity and worth are strengthened. Getting to know the self by identifying and expressing the emotions in the body— by respecting the messages— is a much healthier and more effective way. A controlled approach to the body is one that doesn’t listen to messages out of fear or avoidance of pain. Avoidance of emotion is self-rejection and inevitably leads to low self-worth. Your body and the emotions housed within it author your life. What are the messages your emotions are trying to tell you? Have you been ignoring them? If you listen, you may learn more about what kind of experiences you want more or less of, how close or far you want certain people around you, and how you want to be treated. By practicing this listening, you will get better at advocating for your Self and hence feel much better about your own worth. You only have to attend to the story— what you do afterwards is your choice. Will you listen?

© Copyright 2011 by By Shirley Katz, PhD, RP, CCC, therapist in North York, Ontario. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jacob


    September 1st, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    you’re so right when you say body isn’t everythin. I feel sad for ppl that think their body is everything and that if that isn’t perfect then they r worthless.

  • Eliza


    September 2nd, 2011 at 4:20 AM

    It is easy for someone who does not have these body issues to say that the way the body looks is not everything. Oh really? That is not the message that we are receiving otherwise. Everywhere we go there are signs that we have to look thinner and consequently better. Sometimes when you get too many of those kinds of messages they can be kinda hard to shake.

  • dan.R


    September 2nd, 2011 at 8:11 AM

    @Jacob and Eliza:Body issues,if you think about it,should not ideally matter.And yes,I do understand that “doesn’t matter” sounds like a lie to those that have body issues but you know why that is? its because people give unnecessary importance to physical appearance.

    What really is and should be given importance is the personality,the thinking and the person!

  • Henry


    September 5th, 2011 at 1:04 PM

    The day that I let what is on the outside determine the value that I feel on the inside is that day that I will have to roll over and die. Kind of silly if you ask me.

  • Shirley Katz Leon

    Shirley Katz Leon

    September 5th, 2011 at 7:45 PM

    It always surprises me when men comment on the silliness of women attaching self-worth significance to their body image, considering men have always reacted to and reinforced that a woman’s worth is directly related to his attraction to her.

  • Ilissa Banhazl, Marriage & Family Therapist

    Ilissa Banhazl, Marriage & Family Therapist

    September 5th, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    Integrating the inner adult and the inner child will improve feelings about one’s body image.

  • C Stiller

    C Stiller

    September 11th, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    I agree with you, often times we don’t know whether our feelings are our own or the feelings of those around us which we have let penetrate our minds. As much as we wish we wouldn’t be influenced by those around us it still happens with great frequency. If we take a step back from everything in our lives, the distractions, the annoyances and the stress we can listen to our bodies to see what WE really want.

    Stop listening to those around you and listen to yourself, because as long as you enjoy doing something and it isn’t hurting anyone by all means you should continue doing it.

    The strongest people in this world are the ones who can listen to their bodies and not allow anyones else’s opinions to crowd their head, yet still manage to be open minded. People who can do this are the leaders, the idols and role models of the world.

  • Shirley Katz, Ph.D., CCC

    Shirley Katz, Ph.D., CCC

    September 14th, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    I agree, there is strength in identifying and expressing the self, however there is also vulnerability in it, the potential for judgement and rejection. That is why people struggle with it. We are driven by self needs and the need to belong and be loved. When we have been taught that belonging and being loved requires putting all of our feelings or needs away – that’s when we are at risk for developing compulsive and addictive or self-harming behaviours. The goal of listening to and expressing the self is a good one, but if its new to you, you might benefit from working with an educated and understanding therapist.

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