What is body image?
Body image refers to the way you see your physical self — your body — and the thoughts and feelings that are caused by the way you see it.
Having a healthy body image means being comfortable and knowing that there is more to you than just your physical appearance. You accept your body, including its limitations, and appreciate it.
Conversely, having an unhealthy body image involves always thinking your body is unattractive. This 'body dissatisfaction' is driven from an internal process, but can be influenced by external social factors. Sometimes, it can make a person forget that they have value beyond what they look like. It can lead to shame or anger associated with a person's body.
What factors affect body image?
Body image can fluctuate between positive and negative at different times. It is impacted by internal factors, such as your personality and external factors, such as your social environment.
Factors that affect body image include:
Age — body image develops at a young age, but dissatisfaction with body image may become more prevalent in mid life or as people age.
Puberty, pregnancy and after giving birth — times when the body changes naturally, can be times when body dissatisfaction may increase.
Personality — high achievers and perfectionists are more at risk of being dissatisfied with their bodies.
Being teased or bullied — this can lead to an increased risk of developing poor body image, especially if subject to discrimination due to weight.
Having mental health problems — suffering from depression or anxiety leads to a greater risk of negative body image.
Poor role models — being exposed to poor role models in relation to unhealthy attitudes to body image, exercise and eating, such as restrictive dieting and excessive exercise can lead to negative body image.
Why is negative body image an issue?
If you have a negative body image, you might:
- think you look too fat
- feel like you're not pretty or muscular enough
- believe your value as a person is determined by your looks
- be fixated on trying to change your body shape
Having a sustained unhealthy body image can make people susceptible to developing an eating disorder, and to become fixated on changing their body shape, via exercise, supplements or food. It can be associated with illnesses that affect the mind and body such as body dysmorphic disorder (where a person becomes pre-occupied with a perceived defect in their appearance), anorexia nervosa and binge eating.
It's beneficial to be aware of negative body image and actively attempt to develop a healthier body image.
How to improve your body image
Having an unhealthy body image is bad for general wellbeing and can be time consuming. Below are a few tips for improving your body image:
- Question media images — we are bombarded with images of unrealistic and unobtainable bodies; try not to compare yourself with them and remember that often what you see on TV and online are not true depictions of real people.
- Avoid any media, social media or websites that make you feel bad or suggest you need to change the way you look.
- Focus on the positive things your body can do.
- Look for similarities between your body and the bodies of other members of your family.
- Wear clothes that make you feel comfortable.
- Try positive self-talk and avoid negative self-talk.
- Eat foods that make you feel healthy — don't obsess over kilojoule counts.
- Set health goals rather than weight-related goals
- Avoid being critical of other people's bodies — negative attitudes are contagious.
Where to get help
If you are not satisfied with your body or are developing unhealthy eating or exercise habits, you can seek professional help. There are counsellors and psychologists who have specialised knowledge and experience in body image.
Call the Butterfly Foundation national helpline on 1800 33 4673 for support, information and access to resources or referrals to counsellors.
How can parents help children with their body image?
Parents have a big influence on how children feel about their bodies, sometimes not consciously. Encourage your children to have a healthy relationship with their bodies and with food.
Your own attitude to your body will influence your children, so try not to be negative about your body. Try to project a feeling of being comfortable with your body. Help your child understand that images in the media are not realistic and help them to recognise diversity.
Be alert to signs of body dissatisfaction, such as constant weighing, fussy behaviours and obsessions around foods and mealtimes. If you think your child has a problem with body image, you can speak to your doctor, or contact the Butterfly Foundation national helpline for advice on 1800 33 4673.
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Last reviewed: January 2022