Understanding Body Image Struggles
What does it mean to struggle with body image? According to the American Psychological Association, body image is defined as both the mental picture you form of your own body and the attitude you have towards its characteristics. Many of us internalize messages from a young age that can contribute to having a positive or negative body image.
- Having a positive body image means having a clear, realistic perception of your body. You see and accept your body as it truly is, and you’re aware that your physical appearance doesn’t determine your value as a person.
- Having a negative body image means you’re likely to have a distorted perception of your body. You may have trouble accepting how your body looks and how much it affects your self-worth. If you struggle with body image, you may feel deep shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness related to your physical appearance.
Of course, it’s not usually that black-and-white. It’s possible for your body image to shift over time–or even from day to day. You might even experience both positive and negative body image in the same moment. The good news is that you can improve your body image and be more resilient to negative thoughts–all without changing a thing about your body itself.
Who Experiences Negative Body Image?
People used to think only women and girls struggled with body image, but we now know that people of all genders can feel bad about their appearance.
Body image issues are common, and they can start at a young age. By kindergarten, girls start to express concerns about their body size; 40-60% of girls ages 6-12 are worried about gaining weight. Recent research shows that by adolescence, 75% of boys feel dissatisfaction with their body.
Worries about weight, height, muscularity, or other physical features can affect anyone, in any size body. If you’re trans or nonbinary, navigating body image can be particularly complex.
Risk Factors for Body Image Struggles
There are several external factors (things outside our control) that can increase the risk of developing a negative body image.
People we know–our family, friends, coaches, doctors–can influence how we view our bodies. Larger cultural messages from the media, especially social media, also have a powerful impart on how we perceive and feel about ourselves.
Being in an environment focused on appearance (such as modeling, sports, entertainment, dance) or receiving negative feedback about our bodies can also increase risk. Even getting compliments on looks can trigger an unhealthy body image, as you can start to overvalue the importance of appearance and worry about losing that praise.
Disordered eating (such as dieting, going on “cleanses,” or cutting out food groups without a medical reason) can also aggravate body image problems. Many of us begin restricting our diet in an attempt to change our appearance, and the research shows that dieting actually makes body image worse, not better. Trying to change our body size–even if we “succeed” temporarily–does not improve body image because we tend to become even more fixated on our appearance and worried about whether we’re measuring up to an unrealistic standard.
The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Body Image
The relationship between eating disorders and body image is complex. And it’s important to know that not all people with eating disorders experience negative body image.
But eating disorders can make any pre-existing body image concerns worse, and for many people with eating disorders, the illness itself creates new body image problems. When you’re undernourished, your perception of your body can become distorted, and you can feel obsessed with every detail about your looks.
Someone with an eating disorder may suffer from extremely negative body image or even body dysmorphia, a condition in which you can’t accurately perceive how your body looks.
Eating disorders are not about vanity. Although someone might start a new diet or fitness regimen in order to try to change their appearance, once someone is controlled by an eating disorder, their negative body image is a symptom of their illness, not a driving cause.
If you are concerned you may have an eating disorder or are worried about a friend, contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline or, for immediate help, reach out to or text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk with a trained counselor anytime.
How to Tell if Someone Has an Unhealthy Body Image?
Feeling badly about our bodies has become so normalized that we may not even realize that our appearance worries are starting to interfere with our lives.
Here are a few things to look out for as signs you or someone you know has an unhealthy body image:
- Thoughts about your body interfere with enjoying your life
- You avoid social activities because of concerns about your appearance
- You feel compelled to look in the mirror many times throughout the day
- You frequently ask friends for reassurance about your looks
- You avoid being in photographs or feel you have to position your body in a certain way
- You spend a lot of time editing photographs of yourself
- Shopping for clothes or getting dressed is incredibly stressful
- You find yourself constantly comparing your body to others’
- You diet or engage in exercise you don’t enjoy
- You feel you can’t go out in public without shapewear under your clothes
How to Create a Healthier Relationship with Your Body
Experts find it’s helpful to introduce and practice new thought patterns and behaviors related to your body and your self-image. These could include:
- Appreciating and celebrating what your body can do
- Practicing seeing yourself as a whole person by keeping a list of things you like about yourself that don’t relate to your appearance
- Spending time with people who value you for who you are, not what you look like
- Unfollowing social media accounts that make you feel worse about your appearance
- Wearing clothes that fit your body comfortably
- Engaging in physical activities you enjoy (vs. exercising with an appearance goal in mind)
How to Get Help or Support Someone Who’s Struggling
Negative body image is important to tackle, as it interferes with your life and can put you at higher risk for additional challenges, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Having an intensely negative body image can also make you want to avoid social plans or shy away from getting close or intimate with others. In other words, suffering from negative body image can affect all areas of your life.
If you’re experiencing negative body image, it’s important to seek help. Negative body image and eating disorders can be treated successfully by appropriately trained health and mental health care professionals. You can start with the National Eating Disorders Association helpline or provider directory. For immediate help, reach out to or text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk with a trained counselor anytime.
Additionally, our article Tips for Body Positivity: Ways to Feel Better About Our Bodies, offers resources and information that can help you start to feel better about your one and only body.