Body image refers to how an individual sees their own body and how attractive they feel themselves to be.

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.

However, body image does not only stem from what we see in the mirror. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), a range of beliefs, experiences, and generalizations also contribute.

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 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.

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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 control their body as they move

A person’s body image will range from positive, or satisfaction with their body, to negative, or dissatisfaction with their body.

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 understand that their sense of self-worth does not depend on their appearance.

Having a positive body image includes:

  • accepting and appreciating the whole of one’s body, including how it looks and what it can do
  • having a broad concept of beauty
  • having a body image that is stable
  • having inner positivity

The body positive movement aims to help people manage the pressure that media messages impose on their body image. According to The Body Positive organization, “Beauty is not a single image, but the active embodiment and celebration of the self.”

Some have asked whether accepting a larger body may deter people from taking action to be healthy. However, body positivity is not just about the size or appearance of the body. Confidence and control are also key factors.

Research suggests that focusing on building self-confidence and a positive body image may help reduce obesity and achieve wider health goals.

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 ashamed or embarrassed
  • lack confidence
  • feel uncomfortable or awkward in their body
  • see parts of their body, such as their nose, in a distorted way

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

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

Some people 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.

Learn about some myths and facts related to eating disorders here.

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 industry also sets an unhealthy example when they employ underweight models to display their products.

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

Illness and accidents 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.

Studies have suggested that females who have greater resilience — linked to family support, gender role satisfaction, coping strategies, fitness, and well-being — are more likely to have a positive body image. This suggests that emotional insecurity may also contribute to a negative body image.

Body disparaging conversations include “fat talk,” which refers to when people talk about how “fat” they look or feel. These conversations can lead to further negative feelings, low mood, or negative eating patterns.

Although some people may believe that body dissatisfaction is more common among females, one review reports that female and male adolescents experience similar degrees of body dissatisfaction.

Overall, body dissatisfaction appears to persist throughout a person’s life, according to one review. That said, a study mentioned in the review found that older females were more likely to be satisfied with their bodies than younger females.

Researchers have found many similarities between a negative body image in females and males. However, males seem to be less likely to talk about it or seek help.

LGBTQIA+ communities face additional stressors when it comes to body image. Discrimination and bullying, discordance between a person’s body and their gender, and confusing images of the ideal body can all contribute.

These pressures can increase the risk of eating disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

In one study, 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 often face additional challenges. That said, a person’s body image can become more positive over time as they make and follow up on choices about transition, such as opting for medical or surgical intervention. However, this course of action is by no means necessary for a person to develop a more positive body image.

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

  • Spend time with people who have a positive outlook.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Say, “My arms are strong” rather than, “My arms are flabby.”
  • Wear comfortable clothes that look good on you.
  • Avoid comparing yourself with other people.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Aim for a healthful lifestyle, which might include eating a varied and nutritious diet.

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 exercising for functional purposes rather than to improve appearance may help people foster a more positive body image.

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 issues, such as depression.

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.