Body image refers to how an individual sees their body and their feelings with this perception. Positive body image relates to body satisfaction, while negative body image relates to dissatisfaction.

Many people have concerns about their body image. These concerns often focus on weight, skin, hair, or the shape or size of a certain body part.

The way a person feels about their body can influenced by many different factors. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), a range of beliefs, experiences, and generalizations contribute to body image.

Throughout history, people have given importance to the beauty of the human body. Society, media, social media, and popular culture often shape these views, and this can affect how a person sees their own body.

However, popular standards are not always helpful.

Constant bombardment by media images and social pressure can cause people to feel uncomfortable about their body, leading to distress and ill health. It can also affect work, social life, and other aspects of life.

This article will look at positive and negative body image and provide some tips on how to improve body image.

person looking down into a mirror on the groundShare on Pinterest
Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Body image refers to a person’s emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body. Experts describe it as a complex emotional experience.

Body image relates to:

  • what a person believes about their appearance
  • how they feel about their body, height, weight, and shape
  • how they sense and experience their body

Positive body image is related to body satisfaction and acceptance, while negative body image is related to dissatisfaction and wanting one’s body to be different.

A negative body image can contribute to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), eating disorders, and other conditions.

When a person has a positive body image, they feel comfortable in their body and have a healthy relationship with how their body looks and feels.

Having a positive body image includes:

  • accepting and appreciating one’s body
  • having a broad concept of beauty
  • taking steps to care for one’s body and appearance in ways that feel healthy and fulfilling
  • striving for a good relationship with your body, independent of outside influences or societal messages

The Office on Women’s Health reports that having a positive body image is associated with good mental and physical health.

A 2015 study of university students found that for both men and women, positive body image was associated with fewer reports of depression and unhealthy dieting. People with positive body image also had higher self-esteem.

In fact, some researchers who study body image issues suggest that health education should include a focus on self-confidence and positive body image.

A person with a negative body image feels dissatisfied with their body and their appearance.

The person may:

  • compare themselves with others and feel inadequate when doing so
  • feel compelled to monitor their body: measuring, weighing, or looking in the mirror frequently
  • feel ashamed or embarrassed
  • feel uncomfortable or awkward in their body
  • see parts of their body in a distorted way

In some cases, having a negative body image can contribute to the development of mental health conditions, such as depression.

A person may also pursue unnecessary surgery, unsafe weight loss habits, or an inappropriate use of hormones to build muscles. There is a strong link between eating disorders and negative body image, according to NEDA.

Some people may develop BDD. A person with BDD sees a part or all of their body in a negative way. They may ask for cosmetic surgery to “correct” their nose size, for example, when to everyone else, it appears normal.

Where does a negative body image come from?

A body image does not develop in isolation. Culture, family, and friends all convey positive and negative messages about the body.

The media, peers, and family members can all influence a person’s body image. They can encourage people, even from a young age, to believe that there is an ideal body. The image is often an unnatural one.

The fashion and beauty industries also set an unhealthy example when their products and ads promote a very limited range of body types as acceptable or desirable.

Discrimination based on race, size, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and age also plays a role. Exposure to daily microaggressions at school or work and in society can cause people to feel that they do not measure up or that they are somehow lacking.

Accidents and long-term health conditions can also have an impact. Skin conditions, a mastectomy for breast cancer, or a limb amputation can cause people to rethink how they appear to themselves and to others.

All of these factors can impact a person’s mental and physical well-being.

Anyone can experience negative body image, regardless of gender, age, or other factors.

According to studies of children and adolescents, 35%-81% of girls feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Among boys, 16%-55% feel this way. This means body dissatisfaction is somewhat more frequent among girls, but it is also common for boys.

Overall, body dissatisfaction appears to persist throughout a person’s life, according to a 2019 review.

But with greater awareness of these issues, new interventions are being developed. A 2022 review suggests that online programs for eating disorder prevention could help people reduce body dissatisfaction.

LGBTQIA+ people may face additional stressors when it comes to body image. NEDA reports that the development of eating disorders among LGBTQ+ people can be influenced by factors such as:

In one survey, over half of the participants who were gay, bisexual, or lesbian felt anxious or depressed about their bodies, compared with around one-third of the heterosexual respondents. Furthermore, 33% had considered suicide due to body image issues, compared with 11% of the heterosexual people surveyed.

Trans people may also have specific reasons for struggling with body image issues. For example, someone might feel that their body conflicts with their gender identity.

That said, body image can improve over time as a person makes choices about how to express their gender outwardly. Some people may experience improvements as they make and follow up on choices about transition, such as opting for medical or surgical intervention.

But every person’s transition journey is different. Not everyone will feel that these interventions are necessary to develop a more positive body image.

Like many other health concerns, problems related to negative body image can benefit from early treatment. Finding supportive mental and physical health care providers is an important first step for LGBTQIA+ individuals experiencing serious body image concerns.

A 2021 review suggests that rejecting beauty ideals, placing less value on appearance, and appreciating one’s body can contribute to a positive body image.

Here are some tips endorsed by NEDA that may help a person feel more positive about their body:

  • Spend time with people who have a body-positive outlook.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Say, “My arms are strong” rather than, “My arms are too big.”
  • Wear comfortable clothes that you feel good in.
  • Remember that beauty is not just about appearance.
  • Appreciate what your body can do, such as laughing, dancing, and creating.
  • Be actively critical of media messages and images that make you feel as if you should be different.
  • Make a list of 10 things you like about yourself that aren’t related to your appearance.
  • See yourself as a whole person, not an imperfect body part.
  • Do something nice for your body, such as getting a massage or a haircut.
  • Instead of spending time thinking about your body, start a hobby, become a volunteer, or do something else that makes you feel good about yourself.

“Fat talk” and body dissatisfaction

It is common for people to criticize their own bodies in casual conversation. But these little words can add up to big impacts.

Body disparaging conversations include “fat talk,” which refers to when people talk about how “fat” they look or feel. Fat talk can also include making negative comments or comparisons about another person’s body.

Studies suggest that these conversations can lead to further negative feelings, low mood, or negative eating patterns.

Having compassion for your body, on the other hand, has been linked to a reduction in unhealthy eating behaviors.

Body image and physical activity

Exercise can boost a person’s confidence in their strength and agility and contribute to their mental and physical well-being. It can also reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

However, people exercise for different reasons.

In 2015, researchers found that people who exercise for functional reasons, such as for fitness, tend to have a more positive body image. Those who exercise to improve their appearance feel less positive about their bodies.

The study authors suggest that promoting exercise for functional purposes rather than to improve appearance may help people foster a more positive body image.

Sometimes, concerns about body image can affect a person’s daily functioning. If this is the case, professional help may be needed.

Working with a licensed therapist can help a person improve their body image. One evidence-based option is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help change behaviors, thoughts, and feelings about body image by:

  • identifying harmful thoughts and behaviors
  • modifying negative self-talk
  • challenging negative beliefs about your body
  • teaching stress management and coping strategies

Some people with BDD or certain eating disorders may benefit from taking antidepressants. Those considering this option should consult a doctor or psychiatrist.

A person with a positive body image will feel confident in their appearance and in what their body can do.

However, media messages, past experiences, and life changes can all lead to a negative self-image, which causes a person to feel unhappy with their body. In some cases, this can lead to mental health conditions, such as depression and eating disorders.

If feelings about one’s body are causing distress, it may be beneficial to see a mental health professional. They can help a person explore the reasons for these concerns and find ways to resolve them.