Body image isn’t just looking at yourself in the mirror to check on your outfit.
It’s about the feelings you have about your body. These feelings can be about your height, shape, weight or how your body moves, as well as how your clothes feel on your body. The feelings can be about your body in the present – like when you’re looking in the mirror – or as you think about your body in the present, past or future.
How we talk about physical selves – our internal voice and monologue – is our body image. Body image can be positive or negative. A healthy, positive body image means you feel comfortable in your body, and secure in the way that you look.
For many individuals, negative body image is a struggle – and it can bring mental and physical health risks.
“Body image is so much more than just physical appearance. And we know that when we treat patients who have eating or feeding disorders, anorexia and bulimia, it really is about your perception of yourself as well as who you are and what you need to be happy. It really can impact your mental wellness in health in so many different ways,” said Dr. Amy McKenzie, vice president of clinical partnerships and associate chief medical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “When you have negative thoughts about your physical appearance, that can lead to so many different things.”
Causes of negative body image
How you talk to yourself about your body can start from events at a young age. How you’re treated by others – like if you’ve been teased, bullied, or criticized for your appearance – can impact your inner monologue. Comparing your body to others’ bodies – whether to your peers, to images on social media or to bodies in magazines, movies and TV – can also internalize negative messages about how you look.
Negative body image isn’t just about being overweight. It can also come from being underweight – or any other attribute about yourself that someone may exploit to make a comment about, whether directly to you or behind your back.
In the era of social media, it’s easier than ever for comments about someone’s appearance to widely circulate – even if it’s coming from information that is fake, misleading, or private and personal and never intended to be exposed. This type of exposure to online gossip can lead to damaging consequences to a person’s body image and feelings of self-worth.
Body image issues affect men and women
Issues of negative body image and body dissatisfaction are often thought of as only affecting women – yet studies show men struggle with the same problems. Some experts estimate 20% to 40% of women and 10% to 30% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies – yet there is less research on men and body image available.
Several studies indicate men tend to keep their feelings of body negativity quiet, and their shame may hold them back from seeking treatment or help longer than women. Conversely, women tend to internalize negative thoughts about their body and other bodies more than men.
Body image and mental health
How we feel about our bodies is often directly connected to our mental health. Often, individuals tie their feelings of self-worth to their body image.
Low self-esteem can create additional anxiety, stress and loneliness – which can lead to depression. It can interfere with friendships and relationships, impede your performance at work or school, and can lead to risky coping behaviors like drug or alcohol use.
These negative impacts of low self-esteem – like losing a romantic partner, or failing on a big project – can reinforce the negative stream of self-talk for someone who is already struggling. This cycle of behavior can continue – which is partly why negative body image is often linked to a risk for eating disorders and depression.
“This relationship between our body image and our emotions is very connected. When you feel poorly about your body, it can increase your risk of depression. When you're depressed or anxious, it can impact the way you're seeing your body. And we get into this kind of cyclical thinking as well that can really create some dysfunction,” McKenzie said.
Confronting negative self-talk
Addressing the negative cycle of critical self-talk is important to overcoming body image issues. There are two movements that have recently gained popularity for the way they re-frame the inner mindset about how we interact with our bodies:
- Body positivity: This movement promotes the acceptance of that all bodies – no matter their gender, shape, size, color or physical ability. It challenges unrealistic societal norms of beauty by proclaiming that all bodies are beautiful.
- Body neutrality: This is a newer movement that pushes the boundaries of the body positivity movement. Body neutrality is detaching any feelings of self-worth from what the physical body looks like, and instead focuses on the body’s function. Body neutrality means you don’t love or hate your body.
“Beauty is not just framed in the context of what we look like physically. There's so much more. We have a soul, a spirit, an essence, whatever people want to call that, of who we are. And learning to identify all the things that make us a beautiful person, that isn't just the physical aspects of that, that you can be an amazing person without just identifying or tying that just to your physical being,” McKenzie said of how feelings of self-worth don’t have to be tied to the physical self.
Healthy self-talk is an important part of being healthy. But being healthy means taking care of our whole health – mental and physical. The human body needs to stay hydrated, be fed balanced diet with more whole foods and less processed foods, as well as regular activity and exercise.
“There is a component of having a balanced perspective here that is important. We know that obesity is linked to developing certain diseases in life such as heart disease and diabetes. When we start getting into body neutrality or body positivity, it is really important to remember that we need to be focusing on being healthy by living a healthy lifestyle and feeding ourselves food that fuels our bodies,” McKenzie said. “Many of the things your parents or grandparents may have told you about food such as eating more fruits and vegetables, truly are important to fuel your body. Exercising routinely and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and weight are also important for in preventing disease. And part of that is how we talk to ourselves, but part of that is also how we're taking care of the body that we've been given.”
Learn more about how body image impacts mental health by listening to the “A Healthier Michigan Podcast” featuring a conversation with Dr. McKenzie: