Body image is a term that is often used to describe how we think and feel about our bodies. We all come in different shapes and sizes, which makes us unique. Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies can impact us throughout our lives, affecting the way we feel about ourselves and our mental health and wellbeing.
Having body image concerns is a relatively common experience and is not a mental health problem in itself. However, it can be a risk factor for mental health problems. Research has found that body dissatisfaction is often associated with a poorer quality of life and poor emotional wellbeing. It is also thought to increase the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours such as stress eating, binge eating and eating disorders1. This highlights the importance of understanding our body image, and making sure we are kind to ourselves when experiencing negative body image thoughts.
There is research to suggest that those who are overweight may struggle with body image issues as a result of the stigmatisation of obese individuals. In turn, these messages are internalised making people feel badly about the way that they look2. Whilst weight loss is not the only answer to improved body image, research suggests it may play a role for some3.
Together, let’s explore body image and understand how we can work to improve this to better support our mental and physical health.
What Causes Body Image Concerns1?
How our experiences and environment affect our body image will differ for everyone. However, overall, the research suggests that body image can be influenced by:
1. Comments From Others:
The way that our family and friends speak about their own or our bodies can impact how we feel about our body image.
2. Ideal Body Types:
The pressure to look a certain way to match cultural or societal ideals can influence how we view our unique body types.
3. Social Media:
Exposure to images of idealised or unrealistic bodies which lack diversity can impact our perception of our reflection.
4. Health Conditions:
Long-term health conditions that impact our weight may lead us to feeling angry or demotivated as no matter what we try we cannot achieve our goals.
5. Gender and Sexuality:
Discrimination, intersectionality, and expectations can contribute to body dissatisfaction based on gender and sexual orientation.
6. Personal Experiences:
Traumatic events, bullying, or teasing related to appearance can influence body image by internalising comments.
7. Peer Comparisons:
Comparing oneself to others, especially peers or individuals, can affect body image perceptions.
8. Physical Activity Levels:
Engagement, or disengagement, in sports or fitness activities, and the associated emphasis on physical performance, may influence body image concerns if we are unable to obtain a body type desired by society or without our sport.
9. Mental Health:
Conditions such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders can profoundly impact how individuals perceive their bodies.
The Impact of Negative Body Image:
1. Diet and Exercise:
Stress, a poor diet and excess weight can impact neurotransmitters that control our mood. In turn, this can affect body fat distribution and negatively impact our body image4.
2. Relationships and Intimacy:
Poor body image can hinder relationships and intimacy by causing insecurity, reduced self-esteem, and difficulty in being fully present and comfortable during intimate moments5.
3. Low Self-Esteem:
Fostering negative perceptions of one's appearance, this may lead to diminished self-worth and confidence, and potentially contribute to mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression6.
4. Social Isolation:
Individuals may feel self-conscious, fear judgement from others, and withdraw from social interactions, diminishing their overall sense of connection and belonging7.
Heightened self-doubt and poor confidence may impact someone’s development. Poor body image can lead to social isolation and hinder task performance, for example it may affect an individual's ability to meet clients or go to work1.
Whilst body image can have a big impact on our lives, there are a number of actions that we can take to improve how we feel about our bodies. This helps us to protect, promote and maintain a positive body image throughout our lives.
Those Steps Could Be1:
1. Talk to Someone You Trust:
Share your concerns with a friend, family member, or healthcare professional. They will be able to help you work through your concerns and appreciate things about yourself other than the way you look.
2. Clean Up Your Social Media:
Unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, and follow body positivity accounts which embrace the diversity of body types that exist in our society!
3. Set a Positive Example:
By talking about yourself in a positive way, not only will you support your own mental health but this will help others to see themselves in a positive light as well.
4. Understand Your Emotions:
Often when we have poor body image days, the cause is not really our body but other emotions we are feeling. Acknowledge your feelings and be inquisitive - what is really going on right now for you?
5. Change Your Language:
Our society has become obsessed with talking about everyone’s bodies in a casual way. Comments like “You’re looking great, did you lose weight?” might feel good in the moment but reinforce the notion that smaller bodies are better.
6. Stay Active:
A healthy amount of exercise each week can make us feel better about our bodies, encourage a good mood and decrease stress. Find something that you enjoy and that makes you feel good this in turn will help to increase your confidence and mood!
In summary, recognising the factors behind poor body image is essential to promote positive mental and physical health. Its impact on our social lives, self-esteem, and health highlight the need for promoting body positivity and self-compassion. By challenging societal norms, we can create a more inclusive environment, fostering self-acceptance and empowering individuals to lead fulfilling lives beyond narrow beauty standards.
Activity: Social Media Cleanse
Social media has its pros and cons. It allows us to connect with friends and family, and find communities for instances like your weight loss journey. However, it also allows us to find unrealistic images and make ourselves feel bad about the way that we look.
Download our Social Media Cleanse Worksheet to support your mental health and weight loss journey by following accounts that support and motivate you by making you feel good about yourself.
Remember that a social media cleanse is a personal process, and it's essential to tailor it to your specific needs and preferences. Nobody needs to know who you follow, or don’t, and it’s okay to do what feels right for you.
- Mental Health Foundation, 2023, Body Image Report Executive Summary. Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/articles/body-image-report-executive-summary
- Schwartz M and Brownell K, 2004, Obesity and body image, Body Image, 1 (1), Pages 43-56, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1740-1445(03)00007-X
- Chao HL, Body image change in obese and overweight persons enrolled in weight loss intervention programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2015 May 6;10(5):e0124036. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124036.
- Epel E et al., 2001, Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26 (1), pages 37-49, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0306-4530(00)00035-4
- Afshari P, Houshyar Z, Javadifar N, Pourmotahari F, Jorfi M. The Relationship Between Body Image and Sexual Function in Middle-Aged Women. Electron Physician. 2016 Nov 25;8(11):3302-3308. doi: 10.19082/3302.
- UK Parliament, 2022, The impact of body image on mental and physical health, Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5803/cmselect/cmhealth/114/report.html#footnote-141
- Pop LM, Iorga M, Iurcov R. Body-Esteem, Self-Esteem and Loneliness among Social Media Young Users. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Apr 21;19(9):5064. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19095064.