Body image is the representation people create of what they think they look like, subject to the distortions of their emotions, culture, moods, and parenting.
Human beings live in a culture of images made ubiquitous by the advent of the Internet. Cultural depictions of perfect bodies are everywhere and the technology to attain them through altering oneself with technology or surgery has advanced. Criteria for beauty have, furthermore, become increasingly rigid now that it is easy to share images. Body preoccupation begins earlier than ever in the United States. Body image distortion and preoccupation is most present in women and girls. Studies in 2014 showed that 41% of girls in the United States considered themselves to be fat. Body-hating is an actual Internet phenomenon. The time children spend simply inhabiting their body rather than as a spectator of it has decreased. The abundance of social media means that children are constantly exposed to pictures of others and of themselves. Some girls 11 years of age or younger have severe eating disorders, and these often stem from distorted body image.
How physical characteristics correspond to cultural standards plays a crucial role in the formation of body image. In some countries, weight is considered a sign of wealth and elevated social status. Western societies, particularly the United States, idealize the slim, firm athletic form. Deference to cultural standards and concepts can be damaging. Few people naturally attain an ideal body, no matter how it is defined. Those who depart drastically from the social and cultural ideal may suffer a sharply reduced sense of self-worth.
Psychologists are interested in body image primarily to determine whether the image individuals hold of themselves corresponds with reality. People with a seriously distorted or inappropriate body image may have one of a number of mental disorders. In anorexia nervosa, a seriously distorted body image is both a classic symptom and major diagnostic criterion. The anorexic, often an adolescent girl, may perceive or feel herself to be fat even when she is emaciated.
A distorted sense of body image may comprise a disorder in itself, known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People affected by this condition become preoccupied with a specific body part or physical feature, such as asymmetry of face or hair, and show signs of anxiety or depression. Commonly, individuals with BDD mentally magnify a slight flaw into a major defect, sometimes erroneously believing it is the sign of a serious disease, such as cancer. Persons with BDD often resort to multiple plastic surgeries to relieve their distress about the appearance they perceive. Plastic surgery can then lead people with BDD to focus on fixing the imperfections in one surgery with another.
A healthy body image, according to some in the mental health field, is one that does not diverge too widely from prevailing cultural standards but leaves room for individuality and uniqueness.
Humans begin to recognize themselves in the mirror at about 18 months and begin to perceive themselves as physical beings in toddlerhood. By school age, children often face prejudices based on their appearances. Children spend much of their early lives in schools, an environment that is highly social and competitive and in which hierarchies often are based on physical appearances. Studies have found that teachers also are drawn to the more attractive children, which can further compound poor body image for others. In a school-age child, a poor body image may result in social withdrawal and low self-esteem.
As puberty nears, children become increasingly focused on the appearance of their bodies. Adolescents may mature too quickly, too slowly, in a way that is unattractive, or simply in a way that makes them stand out. Any deviation from the ideal can result in a negative body image, and adolescents may diet or use steroids to counter a negative self-concept.
See also Anorexia ; Bulimia .
Cash, Thomas F. What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror? Helping Yourself to a Positive Body Image. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
Costin, Carolyn. Your Dieting Daughter: Antidotes Parents Can Provide for Body Dissatisfaction, Excessive Dieting, and Disordered Eating, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.