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Few people are completely satisfied with their bodies. Whether it’s weight, height, body shape, facial features, or some other aspect of their body, most everyone has an inner critic who feels they could do something to improve their physical appearance. When these negative feelings take over, though, and having the “perfect body” becomes their obsession, they may have a mental health condition known as negative body image or a more serious mental illness known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
What is body image?
The term “body image” was coined in 1935 by Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Paul Schilder. Schilder’s research suggested that a person’s body image is “molded by one’s interactions with others, and to the extent that these interactions are faulty, the body image will be inadequately developed.” In other words, body image is your mental image of and attitude toward your own body based on how you believe others see you. It’s how you feel when you see your body in photos or the mirror. It’s also how your thoughts or feelings about your body impact your behavior.
If you have a positive body image, you’re comfortable with the way your body looks. You clearly see and appreciate your body’s unique attributes for what they are, and you’re not affected by what others may think about your physical appearance. People with a positive body image are more likely to have high self-esteem and lead a mentally and physically healthy lifestyle.
Conversely, a negative body image can result in a myriad of physical and mental health problems. For example, a person with weight-related body image issues may become preoccupied with shedding pounds. Their preoccupation with weight loss may lead to eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. This level of body dissatisfaction is inextricably tied to low self-esteem and often leads to depression, anxiety, and shame.
No one is born with a negative body image. However, people can begin developing dissatisfaction with their physical self at a young age. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 40 to 60% of girls aged six to 12 are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat. Sometimes poor body image starts with a classmate who teases or bullies you based on the way you look or a family member who compares your weight or body shape to a sibling’s.
Women especially are exposed continuously to supposed “ideal body” expectations through social media platforms and advertisements influenced by the fashion industry—even into adulthood. Despite relatively recent efforts by the fashion industry to include models with a variety of body shapes in advertisements, many young women still believe that thinness and particular body shape are a necessary part of being physically and sexually attractive.
Young women might be more susceptible to developing a poor body image if their mothers were worried about their weight or looks. Women are also more likely to struggle with their body image when they have low self-esteem in other areas of their lives, feel peer pressure to look a certain way, or they experience natural weight gain during puberty. Negative body image is also more common if you suffer from obesity or are underweight due to biological or environmental factors.
How common is negative body image?
Poor body image is not limited to one gender. However, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health (OWH), negative body image is more prevalent among women and girls in the United States than among men and boys. The OWH also finds that body image conditions vary based on ethnicity. White women and girls are slightly more likely to develop negative attitudes toward their bodies than Hispanic or African-American females.
Common symptoms of negative body image?
People who have a negative body image are often preoccupied with negative thoughts about the way they look and may demonstrate the following behaviors:
- Excessive attention to minor physical flaws
- Frequent diets or short-term obsession with exercise or healthy foods
- Constant “fat talk” or self-deprecation about one’s weight
- Attempts to hide perceived flaws with makeup or clothing
- Comments about being ugly, overweight, or unattractive
- Requests for reassurance about appearance from others
- Obsession with the physical appearance of people in advertisements or social media
- Comparison with peers and others on social media
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Types of Body Image Disorders
In extreme cases of poor body image, a person may develop a mental health condition known as body dysmorphic disorder or BDD. Symptoms of BDD are similar to those of negative body image, just more severe. The self-esteem of people with BDD is extremely low, and they are their own worst critic, constantly sharing their negative messages about themselves with others.
A person with BDD may pursue excessive cosmetic surgery. Their extreme dieting may lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia to achieve their perceived ideals. They demonstrate perfectionist tendencies, but can never seem to realize that perfection or body satisfaction. They become overly concerned with what others think of their physical appearance and may avoid social situations for fear of someone seeing their perceived flaws or defects.
Additionally, people with body dysmorphic disorder may feel these flaws or defects are a deformity. They might obsessively focus on the attributes of one or more parts of their body, such as facial features, breast size, muscle tone or size, skin and vein appearance, or their hair.
Do I have a Body Image Disorder?
A person’s body image is an attitude; you are the best judge of your own opinion of or comfort level with the way your body looks. If you have a healthy body image, you’re probably not preoccupied with what others think about your physical appearance. You may not struggle with low self-esteem or maintaining a healthy weight, BMI. If you have a healthy body image, diet is simply part of your health routine rather than an effort to improve the way you look.
However, if you demonstrate the symptoms of body dissatisfaction listed above, you may need to work toward a healthier body image. In addition to extreme cases like body dysmorphic disorder, negative body image can hurt your performance at school or work, affect your satisfaction with relationships, and impact your overall wellbeing and quality of life.
Treatment for Negative Body Image
The first step to a healthier body image is to accept your body as-is, flaws, and all. No one—and no body—is perfect, because “perfect” means different things to different people. Some body ideals, such as the extreme thinness of some in the fashion industry or the often-retouched and heavily edited images on social media, are unrealistic for many body types.
However, it may be difficult to overcome a lifetime of poor body image on your own. A therapist or mental health professional can help you focus on what your body can do, stop shaming yourself, and identify the thoughts or impressions that initially led to your condition.
If your negative body image has developed into an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, your physician and your therapist will work together to help you achieve not only a healthy body image but also a healthy weight.
Common Barriers to Body Image Treatment
You can achieve a healthier body image with proper help. Don’t let these common barriers keep you from finding the right assistance:
- Believing there’s a stigma associated with seeing a mental health therapist,
- Thinking your situation is beyond help, or that you don’t deserve it, or
- Frustration finding the right person to help you with your body image issues.
Your first step to recovery is to schedule an initial appointment with a licensed therapist or mental health professional easily using WithTherapy’s innovative and user-friendly tool.
WithTherapy is a matchmaker service that uses science to pair you with a personalized shortlist of therapists. You’ll start by finding therapists who are available when and where you are. Then you’ll be able to narrow down your list with preferences —for example, someone who specializes in or has experience treating body image disorders.
WithTherapy will also take into consideration demographic considerations like race, gender, and sexual orientation of your preferred therapist. You can schedule an appointment immediately, directly through the WithTherapy website.
Find a Therapist for Help With Body Image Issues
If you’re ready to address your body image beliefs or for further information, visit WithTherapy and start a productive relationship with a professional mental health provider today.