What is Body Image?

Body Image refers to a person's perception of his or her own physical appearance. Body image also refers to the interpretation of the body by the brain. Society has placed a great value upon beauty of the human body. No one is 100% thrilled with every aspect their physical appearance, but body image is about more than appearance - it is about physical and emotional health, the ability to be in sync with body sensations, and the perception of talents.

A person's body image is thought to be a mixture of personality, social influences, personal experiences, and cultural ideals. The perception of a person's own physical appearance is usually formed in relation to others or cultural ideals. The perception of body image is often different than how others perceive us.

When a person focuses only on their physical appearance, they lose sight that it is who they are that matters.

Body image is what we see in the mirror and can be positive or negative.

How Does Body Image Develop?

We're not born with our body image - culture, society, and people around us influence it. From the time we are babies, we are bombarded with both positive and negative messages about our bodies. We get these messages from magazines, televisions, movies, and other forms of media.

Body image is also affected by life experiences and aging. As our bodies change with age, we may feel differently about our body image - such as during puberty or menopause.

Our emotional states also influence body image. When we're feeling sad or stressed out, we may feel differently about the way we look.

In short, body image is created by a number of factors all working together to make us feel a certain way about ourselves - positive or negative.

What is Positive Body Image?

People with positive body image are those who feel good about their bodies and they way they look most of the time. Perhaps they don't look exactly like others, or what society tells us to look like, but they don't care. They're proud of the way they look.

It doesn't matter if you're tall or thin or built like a model; you can still have a positive body image. What you look on the outside doesn't matter. What matters is how you FEEL about how you look. Part of having a positive body image comes from how you feel about what your body can do, too.

Positive body image involves seeing yourself for who you are, not just how you look.

What is Negative Body Image?

A negative body image develops when someone feels that their body doesn't measure up to some standard - set by family, media, or society. Many people feel they don't measure up when they measure themselves against the standards of beauty the media bombards us with. Those with a negative body image are often very dissatisfied with how they look, even though they may not see themselves as they are. People with a negative body image may look in the mirror and see the flaws - nose is too big, butt is too fat.

Negative body image leads to people feeling self-conscious and awkward, perhaps even shame, about our bodies. Everyone feels that way sometimes. But if it's a persistent problem, it could be serious. Persistent negative body image can lead to serious problems with health and well-being. It may even need to be addressed by a counselor.

Who Has Negative Body Image?

Many people (men and women) struggle with negative ideas or unrealistic expectations of the human body. Body image problems are also a growing problem among children (girls and boys alike).

Women tend to focus on their weight or signs of aging, whereas men are more likely to be concerned by muscle tone and body shape (and many suffer from what is termed an Adonis Complex).

Statistics regarding females and body image (University of CO):

  • As of 1990, girls began dieting on average at age 8.
  • Young girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents.
  • 35% of occasional dieters become pathological dieters.
  • In studies, 74% of women chose an ideal body shape that was 10-20% underweight.

Statistics regarding males and body image (Purdue University):

  • 30% of men suffer from either anorexia or bulimia.
  • As many as 6% of males have taken steroids by age 18.
  • Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Botox treatments men received increased 233%.

Contributing Factors to Negative Body Image:

There are many things that contribute to the development of negative body image. These are just a few.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Unrealistic media portrayals of beauty
  • History of abuse
  • History of being bullied, teased, or harassed
  • Being unprepared for body changes over lifetime

Beyond the health problems caused by disordered eating (such as anorexia or bulimia), poor self-image can affect behavior.

Negative Self-Image May Result In:

Having negative body image for an extended period of time can affect mental and physical health. Here are some ways in which negative self-image can affect us.

  • Poor decision making
  • More apt to succumb to peer pressure
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low-self esteem and shame
  • Take risks with their sexual health
  • Cut themselves off from social contact to avoid activities that require showing off their body (like going to the beach, exercising, or having sex)
  • Develop serious mental health problems like overexercising bulimia and anorexia.

Tips For Developing a Positive Body Image:

There are a lot of different things you can do to develop a positive body image - without changing your body. Body image is, after all, more about how you FEEL about the way you look rather than simply how you look. Sometimes opening up to a family member or good friend about how you feel about yourself can help. Talk to a therapist if you cannot remember a time that you were happy about your image. Try and reframe your thinking about your body.

Here are some additional tips for developing a positive body image:

  • Remind yourself that appearance and health are two different things.
  • Treat your body with respect and kindness - it's the only one you're gonna get. Better get to loving it.
  • Ignore the voices that tell you you're not good enough as you are. Because they are wrong. You ARE good enough.
  • Appreciate and celebrate all that your body can do.
  • Recognize that you're a whole person, not specific body parts.
  • Surround yourself with positive people who love you just as you are.
  • Wear clothing that makes you feel happy and good about your body.
  • Protest and/or ignore the media coverage of "the perfect body."
  • Make a list of your positive non-appearance based qualities. They matter!

Hotlines for Body Image:

National Eating Disorder Association 1-800-931-2237.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:


Anorexia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa

Resources For Body Image:

The Body Image Workbook by Thomas Cash, PhD - many links to useful articles including body image questionnaires.

Body Positive - Boosting Body Image at any Weight - body image links, resources and books all about promoting positive body image.

Promoting a Positive Body Image in Your Children - resources for promoting positive body image in children and tools parents can use to ensure that their kids develop healthy body images.

Body Image and Self-Esteem in Teens - information for kids and teenagers struggling with body image.

Loving Your Body Inside and Out - A-Z topics about body image, eating disorders, and tips for loving your body inside and out.

Shape of a Mother - a website dedicated to exposing the secret and normalizing the postpartum body in women.

Body Gallery - Search for images of women of all shapes and sizes.