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How Does Body Image Affect Mental Health?

The next time you walk past a mirror, take a second to stop and look at yourself – whatever version you see in the reflection is your body image. These thoughts and feelings can either be positive or negative.

While many people are proud of how they look, there is a faction of others who have issues with their version of themselves. These negative views can have an impact on both your physical and mental health. We will detail the four aspects of body image, how societal norms affect body image and highlight tips on how to keep a positive body image.


What is body image?

Since the word “body” is a general term, what you see can be anything from your weight to your face to your skin. In other words, body image isn’t always dependent on your weight; it can also be an issue you perceive with your nose or some other body part.

There are four aspects to body image. They include the following: 

Perceptual: This is what you see in terms of your body image. Perception isn’t always reality. What you perceive and what others see can be totally different. For example, you may think you’re overweight when you’re actually thin.

Affective: This is how you feel about your body image. You may be happy about certain aspects of your body, yet dislike other areas.

Cognitive: This is how you think about your body. Constant criticism and preoccupied thoughts tend to arise due to this aspect of body image. For example, you may think you’d be more popular or had a more successful dating life if you were thinner or had more muscles.

Behavioral: This is how you act in regard to your body image. People unhappy with their body may choose to work out more, try a restricted diet or undergo a cosmetic procedure. 

Body image issues

Body image isn’t a black or white issue – there is some gray area involved – but people tend to fall under the body acceptance category or the body dissatisfaction category.

Body acceptance vs. body dissatisfaction

Body acceptance is just that – learning to accept your body for what it is. The act of acceptance means you respect and understand your body, knowing you may both struggle with it and celebrate it at times.

There are three types of body acceptance:

  • Body positivity: People who practice body positivity have unconditional love for their body, no matter how they look or feel. Comfortable and confident are key pillars.
  • Body neutrality: This neutral point of view doesn’t overemphasize positivity yet doesn’t focus on judgment of their body.
  • Body liberation: Instead of being positive all the time, body liberation promotes autonomy and diversity among body shapes and sizes.

By comparison, body dissatisfaction – also called negative body image – involves negative thoughts and feelings associated with your body image. Most often, this dissatisfaction is a distorted view of how you truly feel or look. In general, women have a negative body image more so than men, mainly due to societal norms.

Unfortunately, these negative thoughts and feelings tend to start at an early age. About half of elementary school girls have weight concerns or are worried about becoming fat, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Children are more likely to have body image issues if they’re bullied at school for their appearance or grow up in a household where weight is an issue.

Body image and mental health

Issues with your body don’t start and end with physical appearance. The mental aspect of having poor body image can create a toxic environment. A person who thinks they’re too overweight or not muscular enough is only part of the problem. More issues arise when people begin to second guess their worth.

For example, you may not like how you physically look and allow yourself to think negatively about how you’re not good enough or not attractive enough.

Having negative thoughts about your body image can create a whole host of problems, including the following feelings and actions:

  • Anxiety
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia)
  • Feelings of shame or guilt
  • Financial strain
  • Guilt
  • Negative self talk
  • Poor self esteem
  • Preoccupation with weight/body type

What is body dysmorphic disorder?

Some people with body image issues may also have body dysmorphic disorder, a mental health condition that stems from preoccupied thoughts about your appearance. Although rare (it affects 1.5 to 3 percent of people), this disorder is a preoccupation that goes beyond simply worrying about how you look in the mirror. People with body dysmorphic disorder may be so ashamed of how they look that their social life suffers as a result.

Body dysmorphic disorder can also cause people to obsess over how they look to the point where it takes them hours to get ready – their outfit may not be perfect or their makeup doesn’t look right. They may also become addicted to cosmetic procedures to enhance their appearance.

Poor body image increases risk for depression and anxiety

Feelings of shame or unhappiness can arise from a negative body image. Constantly pointing out these flaws increases anxious thoughts or depressive feelings. For example, people with body image issues may wear a shirt to swim because they’re fearful of others judging their body.

The relationship between body image and anxiety and depression is cyclical in nature. People with a negative body image may suffer from depression, whereas people with depression may suffer from body image issues. It’s often hard to distinguish which problem occurred first.

Social Media and Self Esteem

Social media and body image

Ever since marketing and advertising became more mainstream, the idea that women have to be thin and men have to be muscular is ingrained in our minds. These views have been magnified during the last decade with the rise of social media.

Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok focus on catchy photos and videos to grab your attention. The content on social media paints a false picture and depicts an inaccurate representation of how people should look. It’s important to remember these photos and messages aren’t reality. Look no further than face filters that can be used to enhance your skin, remove blemishes and plump up your lips as if you received a cosmetic procedure.

As people constantly view these images, the more they view this as reality. The exposure taps into a vulnerable side of people. Not only does this result in cases of negative body image, but it also increases the likelihood people undergo procedures to change their appearance. 

How to improve body image

The first step in improving your body image is to identify the triggers of your negative thoughts and feelings. For example, feelings of guilt should be explored to find the source. Once identified, you can learn from your experiences by allowing compassion and self-gratitude instead of being critical.

Try not to compare yourself to others. It may take time and effort, but it’s important to learn to appreciate your body for what it truly is – and not what it can or should be. People with a positive outlook tend to view themselves in a more positive way and free of judgment. 

Improving your body image isn’t as simple as losing or gaining weight – it’s still possible for people to be unhappy with how they look if they’re thin. The more important part is to promote a healthy lifestyle instead of obsessing over a certain number on the scale.

While it may be hard to get over the physical nature of your body, know that one aspect doesn’t define who you are as a person. There is no such thing as the perfect face, the perfect complexion or the perfect height and weight. 

It can help to limit media consumption – especially social media – as many body image triggers occur from looking at edited images of men and women. In some cases, unfollowing certain celebrities, personalities and influencers on social media can help to avoid these triggers.

If you find yourself struggling with body image, contact a mental health provider in your area to discuss how you can change the way you view yourself. Your body is something that should be celebrated – not to be ashamed of!


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