Body image is a mental opinion or description that individuals have of their own physical appearance. It is a subjective concept, based on comparisons to socially constructed standards or ideals. A person's body image can range from very negative to very positive. Depending on age and other factors, the degree of concern with body image can also vary widely among individuals.
Individuals who have a poor body image perceive their body as unattractive to others, whereas those with a positive body image view their body as acceptable to others. Their views do not necessarily reflect their actual appearance or how others perceive them, though outside judgments may skew personal perceptions.
Scientists have found that body image is first formed as an infant during contact (or lack thereof) with people such as parents and family members. Personal contact in the form of hugs, kisses, and other forms of affection can help develop an early positive body image, whereas the absence of such contact can have the opposite effect, forming an early negative body image.
Body image, especially among young people going through puberty, can become a problem, especially if there is excessive concern placed on appearance. For example, parents who are overly concerned with their children's weight and appearance may cause their children to develop negative views of their body. Similarly, parents who are preoccupied with their own weight and appearance can indirectly teach their children to be critical of their bodies. A person's peers or colleagues can exert pressure, urging each other to attain a certain ideal figure or criticizing individuals who somehow do not measure up to their expectations. Media depictions of models and actors and popular discussion of celebrities in terms of their physical appearance may contribute to beliefs about the “ideal” body type. Body image is also closely associated with self-esteem, which is defined as the amount of value or personal worth individuals subjectively feel they have.
Older children and young adults tend to be more concerned about how other people view them than other age groups, so they are usually much more sensitive regarding body image and vulnerable to external pressures. This can affect their self-esteem as their body goes through dramatic changes from adolescence to adulthood during puberty. Boys may be overly concerned with height when seeing girls of their same age growing faster. Girls may be sensitive about their height, weight, or other noticeable changes happening within their bodies.
Statistically, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 91% of young college women report having been on at least one diet. Seventy percent of young college men report being unhappy with their body image—with 32% of all college men stating that they have been on one or more diets. Other studies show similar percentages in older children and young adults, which help to support the contention that young people are very concerned with body image—a body image where the ideal is to be very slim.
Concern with body image is generally more important to women than it is to men. Women are usually more critical of their overall body and individual parts of their body than men. However, the gap between the two genders has been narrowing over recent years as men become more concerned with their body image.
Poor body image often relates to a feeling of being overweight, especially with women. Men, on the other hand, desire more muscle mass when considering their body image. A desire to be more masculine can parallel an interest in obtaining additional muscle mass and more definition in current muscles.
Body image can be affected by outside influences. Media sources, such as television, the Internet, and magazines, often portray people closer to a supposed “ideal” body type than the average body type in order to sell their products and services. Consequently, people can be overly influenced by such depictions of the “perfect” body. The average United States citizen is exposed to potentially thousands of advertising messages each day, and studies of network television commercials have shown that attractiveness is a desirable trait that advertisers regularly use to convince viewers to purchase their products.
Family life can also affect a person's perception of their body image. Parents that criticize their children in the way they look, talk, or act may have a negative effect on the development of self-esteem in their offspring, and young people may also be adversely affected by the comments of classmates and peers. Children and adolescents often try to pressure their peers to conform to what is currently popular in clothing styles, language, and other characteristics, and not meeting these expectations can negatively affect body image.
Exaggerated and distorted concerns with body image have been linked in medical studies with decreases in self-esteem and increases in dieting and eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is an eating disorder marked by episodes of binge eating followed by one or more behaviors to control weight, most commonly self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, fasting, or excessive exercise. The disorder is rare in children under age 14. It is estimated to occur in 1%–3% of high school and college-aged women in the United States.
People with extreme body image problems may have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which involves a distorted body image without any eating disorders. Body dysmorphic disorder was recognized as a psychiatric disorder in 1997, although its symptoms have been exhibited in patients for more than 100 years. The disorder involves obsession and complete preoccupation with an imagined or mild physical flaw. It is known to occur in 1%–2% of Americans, but it is thought to be underdiagnosed because it often occurs in conjunction with other psychiatric disorders such as major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Excessive preoccupation with body image and an obsession with positive body image has also been associated with narcissism, a personality disorder marked by self-admiration or an overestimation regarding the attractiveness of one's appearance.
If taken to the extreme, the behaviors that accompany these psychological disorders can be life-threatening. Body image disorders are often accompanied by additional psychological problems such as depression or anxiety and even thoughts of suicide. For some individuals, body image eventually becomes an all-consuming preoccupation.
If poor body image is not addressed, it could develop into a more serious problem. Feelings of depression, anxiety, or isolation may occur. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs to offset those negative feelings, while others turn away from their regular activities and their usual friends, becoming withdrawn and showing lack of interest in previously enjoyed situations.
Sometimes, people can recover from such feelings by focusing on their good qualities, accepting things that cannot be changed, and realistically working on things that could be improved. In some cases, outside help is needed in the form of a guidance counselor, parent, coach, religious leader, or someone else that is trusted and accepting of personal feelings. Crisis hotlines are also available to help with such problems.
See also Anorexia nervosa ; Binge eating ; Bulimia nervosa ; Calorie restriction ; Eating disorders ; Intuitive eating ; Nutrition and mental health ; Obesity .
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William Arthur Atkins
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD