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

Many men and women are concerned about their body image.

Body image is not just what we see in the mirror. It involves memories, assumptions, and generalizations, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).

Throughout history, humans have given importance to the beauty of the human body. Society, media, and popular culture often shape how a person sees their own body, but popular standards are not always helpful.

Constant bombardment by media images can cause people to feel uncomfortable about their body, and this can lead to distress, illness and unhealthy behavior. It can affect how we interact with others, and how we feel about many aspects of our life.

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A person with a positive body feels comfortable and happy in their body.

Body image refers to a person’s emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body.

It has been defined as “the multifaceted psychological experience of embodiment.”

Body image relates to:

  • what a person believes about their appearance
  • how they feel about their body
  • how they sense and control their body as they move
  • how they feel about their body, including their height, weight, and shape

It can be positive or negative.

A negative body image is frequently linked to disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), body integrity identity disorder, and eating disorders.

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Studies suggest that our attitude to our body image remains stable through most of the lifespan.

A person with a positive body image has a true and clear perception of their body shape and appearance that other people would agree with.

The person is happy about the way they look, and they accept and feel good about their body and their appearance, even if it does not match what the media, family, or friends suggest is desirable.

They are aware that how they look is not their personality. They are proud of the way they look and feel confident in their body.

A healthy lifestyle, with a balanced diet and exercise, can contribute to a positive body image.

Part of having a positive body image is the ability to separate how we value ourselves from how we look. People who realize that self-worth is not linked to appearance tend to feel good about how they look.

A negative body image can arise when a person feels that their looks do not measure up to what society, family, friends, and the media expect.

They may frequently compare themselves with others, and they may feel inadequate when doing so. They may feel ashamed, embarrassed, and lacking in confidence. They often feel uncomfortable and awkward in their body.

The individual often has an unrealistic view of themselves. They may look in the mirror and see parts of their body in a distorted, unreal way. A woman with a normal body mass index (BMI) for example, may persistently see herself as fat.

Some people develop a disorder known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). A person with BDD sees their body, or part 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.

This can be dangerous if it leads to mental health problems, such as depression. The person may pursue unnecessary surgery, unsafe weight-loss habits, such as a crash diet. A man might engage in an inappropriate use of hormones to build muscles.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, Chicago, found that young women with normal or low weight who believed they were too heavy were more likely to pursue unsafe weight-loss behaviors than those who were able to assess their weight status accurately.

Where does a negative body image come from?

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

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A person with a negative body image may worry that they do not match up to images promoted by the media.

The media, peers, and family members can all influence a person’s body image. They may encourage men and women, and even young boys and girls, to believe that there is an ideal body. The image is often an unnatural one.

Advertisements may suggest that all men should be tall with large muscles, and all women should be slender. This is not always realistic, because everyone is made differently.

As viewers compare themselves to clinically underweight professional models and reality TV stars who have undergone radical cosmetic surgery, some feel pressure to set themselves unrealistic and unnatural targets.

The fashion industry sets an unhealthy example by employing underweight models to display their products. Their influence can affect both mental and physical wellbeing in a susceptible individual.

As the body changes with age, this can affect a person’s body image. Illness and accidents, too, can have an impact. A mastectomy for breast cancer or a limb amputation can cause people to rethink how they appear to themselves and others.

Many people with obesity have a negative body image. Studies suggest that in people with obesity, successful weight loss interventions may improve body image.

Emotional insecurity can make someone more susceptible to developing a negative body image.

Studies have shown that girls and women with greater resilience, linked to family support, gender role satisfaction, copying strategies, fitness and wellbeing are more likely to have a positive body image.

Negative thoughts and feelings can be perpetuated through interactions with others.

“Fat talk” happens when people, most often women, get together and comment on how “fat” they look or feel.

It can be a way of bonding and making oneself and other people feel better by showing that they are not alone in “feeling fat.” It can also lead to further negative feelings, low mood, and negative eating patterns.

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Men, too, are concerned with their body image.

It is commonly believed that women are likely than men to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

However, studies that men are also concerned about their appearance. According to one report, 95 percent of male college students are unhappy about some aspect of their bodies.

Studies suggest that there are many similarities between a negative body image in men and in women, and that they share many of the same factors. However, men tend to be “quieter” about their discomfort.

A 2004 study found that women’s attitude to their body image tends to remain stable throughout their lifespan, although the importance of shape, weight, and appearance decrease with age.

Here are some tips for improving how you feel about yourself:

  1. Celebrate what your body can do: run, swim, dance, sing, and so on
  2. List 10 things you like about yourself and pin it up where you can see it
  3. Remember that beauty is not just about appearances
  4. See yourself in the mirror as a whole person, not as a nose or a thigh
  5. Think positive: Overpower negative messages with positive ones
  6. Wear comfortable clothes that look good on you
  7. Avoid or be actively critical of media messages and images that make you feel as if you should be something different
  8. Use the time you would spend fretting on volunteering, exercise, or a hobby
  9. Avoid “fat talk,” and encourage your friends to do the same
  10. Do something nice for your body, for example, a massage or a haircut

Body image and physical exercise

Exercise can help a person to be more confident in their strength and agility, and it can contribute to maintaining a healthy weight and body size. It can also reduce anxiety and depression. However, people exercise for different reasons.

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

The authors suggest emphasizing the functional benefits of exercise and de-emphasizing the motives that related to outside appearances, to help people foster a more positive body image.