Body image issues affect people of all ages, genders, and walks of life. These issues can lead to psychological distress, negatively impacting mental health and well-being. This article will explore different types of body image issues and their effects on individuals.
Body Image and Psychology
Body dissatisfaction arises when someone cannot attain this socially prescribed level of attractiveness despite the great effort put into changing a body that they perceive to be inferior. When a person’s realistic body and ideal body images do not match, this can often lead to mental health issues such as eating, mood, and anxiety disorders. Several serious eating disorders are centered around body image concerns.
Eating disorders are serious psychological and behavioral illnesses affecting people across ages and genders. Individuals suffering from eating disorders often have an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. They may engage in disordered eating behaviors such as bingeing or purging or limiting their food intake severely.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and weight loss resulting in low weight for height and age. Anorexia has the highest mortality of any psychiatric diagnosis other than opioid use disorder and can be very serious. Body mass index or BMI, a measure of weight for height, is typically under 18.5 in an adult with anorexia nervosa.
Dieting behavior in anorexia nervosa is driven by an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Although some individuals with anorexia will say they want and are trying to gain weight, their behavior is inconsistent with this intent. For example, they may only eat small amounts of low-calorie foods and exercise excessively. Some persons with anorexia nervosa also intermittently binge eat and purge by vomiting or laxative misuse.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa typically alternate dieting or eating only low-calorie “safe foods” with binge eating on “forbidden” high-calorie foods. Binge eating is defined as eating a large amount of food in a short period and is associated with losing control over what or how much one is eating. Binge behavior is usually secretive and associated with feelings of shame or embarrassment. Binges may be very large, and food is often consumed rapidly, beyond fullness, to the point of nausea and discomfort.
Binges occur at least weekly and are typically followed by “compensatory behaviors” to prevent weight gain. These can include fasting, vomiting, laxative misuse, or compulsive exercise. As in anorexia nervosa, persons with bulimia nervosa are excessively preoccupied with thoughts of food, weight, or body shape, which negatively and disproportionately impact their self-worth.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa can be slightly underweight, normal, overweight, or obese. However, if they are significantly underweight, they are considered to have anorexia nervosa binge-eating/purging type, not bulimia nervosa. Family members or friends may not know that a person has bulimia nervosa because they do not appear underweight and because their behaviors are hidden and may go unnoticed by those close to them.
Eating disorders can have severe physical and psychological consequences, including but not limited to heart disease, electrolyte imbalances, kidney damage, and even death in some cases. Treatment for eating disorders typically involves a combination of psychotherapy, medical monitoring, and nutritional guidance.
Binge Eating Disorder
As with bulimia nervosa, people with binge eating disorder have episodes of binge eating in which they briefly consume large quantities of food, experience a sense of loss of control over their eating, and are distressed by the binge behavior. Unlike people with bulimia nervosa, however, they do not regularly use compensatory behaviors to get rid of the food by inducing vomiting, fasting, exercising, or laxative misuse. Binge eating disorders can lead to serious health complications, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases.
The diagnosis of binge eating disorder requires frequent binges (at least once a week for three months), associated with a sense of lack of control and with three or more of the following features:
- Eating more rapidly than normal.
- Eating until uncomfortably full.
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling hungry.
- Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating.
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after a binge.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is characterized by a preoccupation with perceived flaws in one’s appearance. Individuals suffering from BDD often feel that their flaws are significant, even minor, or not noticeable to others. They may spend countless hours daily obsessing over their perceived imperfections, leading to decreased quality of life and social isolation.
BDD can lead to severe psychological distress, including depression and anxiety, and often requires psychotherapy and/or medication treatment.
What is a negative body image?
Our perception of body image can be complex. For most individuals, it does not amount to simply “I adore my body” or “I don’t appreciate my body.” It likely involves any blend of the following elements:
- your perception of how your body looks to you and others
- your understanding of what your body can do
- your awareness of how your limbs move through space
- your evaluation of individual parts of your body
- your feelings about your body and body parts
- your estimation of body size
- your culturally driven beliefs about what bodies should look like
- the behaviors you believe are necessary to evaluate your body
Negative body image can begin at a surprisingly early age. According to a research review, 40 to 50 percent of first- and second-graders already don’t like some aspect of their body.
When bodies begin changing during puberty, that dissatisfaction can deepen. And a study suggests that relationship problems between parents and children can worsen body dissatisfaction even further.
Culture also exerts an enormous influence on your body image. How your society views the following can affect the way you think and feel about your body:
- size and shape
- skin color
The ideas and values of your family, peers, education, and faith tradition can also shape how you see yourself.
Given the complexity of body image and societal pressure to conform to its ever-changing standards, it’s no wonder body image can be problematic for many people.
Poor Body Image in Women
Women are disproportionately affected by negative body image issues due to societal pressures to conform to unrealistic beauty standards and physical appearance. These pressures can lead to body dissatisfaction, manifesting in various ways. Women with negative body image may be more prone to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and anxiety.
Women can take concrete steps to improve their body images, such as practicing self-compassion, avoiding social media that promotes unhealthy body image and unrealistic beauty standards, and seeking therapy or counseling.
Body Image Disturbance in Men
Men, too, are not immune to negative body image issues. Men may face additional challenges compared to women due to societal stereotypes surrounding masculinity and bodybuilding culture. Men with negative body image may become preoccupied with achieving a muscular physique, leading to disordered eating, steroid use, and exercise addiction.
Men can improve their body image through social support, positive affirmation, and focusing on overall health and fitness rather than specific body goals.
Improving your body image distortion
Your body image develops and changes throughout your life, so shifting from a negative to a positive body image can take time and effort. Suggestions for improving your body image include:
- Reflect on your experiences and try to unravel the development of your body image throughout your life.
- Access information about body image and strategies to support you in feeling better about your body.
- Talk about your feelings and experiences with other women and girls with similar concerns and who you feel safe with.
- Make a pact with yourself to treat your body with respect – this could include giving your body enough food and rest.
- Avoid negative body talk about your own body and the bodies of others. Instead, focus on what you appreciate about your body – what your body can do rather than how it looks.
- Celebrate the positive qualities, skills, and interests that you have as a person rather than focusing on appearance-related qualities.
- Give yourself a break from social media and other media where you notice appearance-focused messages and images. Filter your social media feed to avoid interacting with these messages and images.
- Try to focus on eating a wide variety of foods for nourishment and enjoyment, and try to be flexible with your eating.
- Try to focus on the benefits of physical activity for physical, mental, and social health rather than for changing body size, weight, or shape.
- Try some form of physical activity purely for the fun of it and for enjoyment.
- Avoid weighing yourself.
- Seek support from a mental health professional if you are concerned about your body image.
If you feel dissatisfied or unhappy with your body, that your body image gets in the way of being able to live your life and do the things you would like to, or you are engaging in restrictive eating or other unhealthy eating or exercise behaviors, then seeking professional help is important.
Psychologists, dietitians, and other health professionals trained in body image and eating disorders can assist you in improving your body image and relationship with food and physical activity.
Body image issues can cause significant psychological distress, negatively affecting mental health and well-being. Understanding these issues, recognizing the warning signs, and seeking professional help are essential. By talking about these issues and taking positive steps to improve body image, we can help ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities thrive.