Body Image and Eating Disorders: What’s the Connection?
By Lauren Krouse
It’s normal to feel all sorts of ways about your body. One day you may happily share a selfie, and the next you may find yourself standing in front of the mirror berating yourself. The view you have of yourself—and how you feel about it—is what we call body image, and it changes all the time. People, however, often generalize body image into two categories:
- Positive body image means you have a clear and realistic view of your body. You see and accept yourself as you are, and you understand that what you look like does not determine your value as a person.
- Negative body image means you have a distorted view of yourself, and it’s hard to accept yourself. Thinking about your body makes you feel self-conscious, uncomfortable, disgusted, sad, or anxious.
Your body image can change over time, shift from moment to moment, or bring up mixed feelings. Sometimes negative body image can take over your life or even be one of many warning signs of a potential eating disorder.
Here are some helpful things to know about body image, signs you may be struggling with yours, and what you can do to begin to heal your body image—without changing a thing about your body.
Who Can Struggle With Negative Body Image?
Anyone can feel down about their appearance, and body-image struggles often begin at an early age. Girls start to express concerns about their body size in kindergarten, and in elementary school about half worry about gaining weight. By adolescence, three out of four boys feel unsatisfied with their body too.
Transgender and nonbinary people face the same pressure to aspire to gendered beauty ideals such as thinness, specific curves, or toned muscles. On top of that, they may also experience gender dysphoria—anguish and discomfort due to living in a body that doesn’t match their gender identity—as well as bullying and discrimination from people who don’t accept them as they are. Young trans and nonbinary people who don’t feel satisfied with their bodies based on gendered appearance ideals face a significantly higher risk of disordered eating and eating disorders than their cisgender peers
What Can Increase Body Image Struggles?
Many factors in our society and culture can fuel struggles with body image, including:
- Comments, expectations, and feedback from people you know, such as elders, parents, siblings, friends, coaches, and doctors.
- The media’s emphasis on the ideals of thin, muscular, or curvy bodies in heavily photoshopped posts from influencers and celebrities, news stories, movies, ads, and more.
- Disordered eating habits such as fad diets or cleanses that dial up the focus on weight loss.
- Hobbies and sports focused on your body and weight, such as modeling, cheerleading, running, gymnastics, dance, or bodybuilding.
What’s the Connection Between Body Image and Eating Disorders?
The relationship between body image and eating disorders is complex. Not all people who struggle with body image will develop an eating disorder, and not all people with eating disorders experience negative body image.
There’s no single cause of eating disorders, but negative body image is an extremely common culprit in the development of an eating disorder, especially anorexia and bulimia. In this situation, your drive to change your body’s appearance leads to painful and dangerous measures that sacrifice quality of life for a future appearance goal that is almost always out of reach.
Negative body image is also harmful in itself. It can make you fixate on weight loss, feel worse about yourself in general, and feel depressed or like you don’t want to be around other people.
How Can I Tell If I Have a Problem With Negative Body Image?
Feeling bad about your body has become so normalized you may not even realize negative body image is starting to interfere with your life. Look out for these signs:
- Struggling to have fun or enjoy life due to persistent thoughts about your body.
- Avoiding or skipping social activities due to concerns about your appearance.
- Feeling compelled to look in the mirror multiple times a day.
- Frequently asking friends for reassurance about your looks.
- Avoiding having your picture taken or having to pose in a certain way.
- Unwillingness to have unedited photos of yourself posted online.
- Feeling incredibly stressed when getting dressed or shopping for clothes.
- Constantly comparing your body to others’.
- Dieting or exercising with the goal of changing your body.
- Not going out without shapewear or covering up.
How to Get Help for Negative Body Image
If you’re struggling with negative body image, you’re not alone. But it is possible to challenge negative thoughts, begin to feel better, and even find peace with your body. Learn how body neutrality and body positivity can help and how to practice it.
If you’re struggling with negative body image and you think it could be a sign of an eating disorder, know that good treatment is available. Like any other serious medical condition, eating disorders need to be treated by professionals—and the sooner you get support, the better treatment tends to go.
Reach out for support right now from the National Alliance for Eating Disorders Helpline, which is run by licensed therapists who specialize in eating disorders.
- Call 866-662-1235 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get referrals to all levels of care. The helpline is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday. If help is not immediately available, your call will be returned as soon as possible.
If you need help right now:
- Text HEALING to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
- Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
- If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.
Learn more about eating disorders and getting help:
- What Is an Eating Disorder?
- What are the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder?
- Struggling With Body Image? Body Positivity and Body Neutrality Can Help
- What Is Bulimia Nervosa and How Do I Get Help for It?
- What Is Anorexia Nervosa and How Can I Get Help for It?
- What is Binge Eating Disorder?
- How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder
- Do Eating Disorders Increase the Risk of Suicide?