Body Image at a Glance
- Body image is the way you see yourself and imagine how you look.
- Having a positive body image means that, most of the time, you see yourself accurately, you feel comfortable in your body, and you feel good about the way you look.
- It is common to struggle with body image, no matter who you are.
- Severe negative body image can lead to serious eating and exercise disorders.
We all have a body image. We all have feelings about the way we look. And we have ideas and feelings about how others think about our looks. Your overall body image can range from very positive to very negative. You may feel good about certain parts of your body or the way you look and not as good about others — that’s totally normal. Body image is also how you feel in your body — if you feel strong, able, attractive, and in control.
Many of us struggle with body image. Sometimes it is difficult to understand all of the feelings we have about our bodies and ourselves. You may have questions about body image and whether the things you think and feel are normal. Here are answers to questions that are commonly asked about body image.
What Is Body Image?
Body image is how you feel and what you think when you look at yourself. It’s also how you imagine other people see you.
How you feel about your body and all of its parts — your build and your legs, nose, stomach, the color of your skin, and the color or texture of your hair, for example — plays a role in your body image. This also includes your sex organs — the vagina and vulva, breasts, or penis.
What Shapes Our Body Image?
We do not develop our body image all on our own. The people around us and our culture strongly influence it. We get both positive and negative messages about our bodies from family and friends all the time — starting from when we’re very young. For example, we may develop a love of exercise and a sense of being strong and capable if our parents share their own enjoyment of physical activity with us. On the other hand, we may develop a negative body image if our parents criticize the way we look.
We also get messages about body image from television, magazines, films, and other media. Many of the beliefs we have about the way women and men “should” look come from the models and celebrities we see in the media. But models and celebrities do not look like most people. For example, on average, women who are models have very different builds. They weigh 23 percent less than women who are not models.
All we have to do is look around — the bodies in the real world are much more diverse and unique than those we see in the media.
Body image is also influenced by the natural aging process and our life experience. We have different feelings about our bodies when our bodies change. Certain times in life, like puberty or menopause and andropause, are key times when a person’s body image may change. If people are hurt, sick, or disabled, their body images may be affected, too.
Our emotional state also influences our body image. When work or relationships become stressful, many people notice that their body image can be affected.
What Is a Positive Body Image?
People who accept the way they look and feel good about their bodies most of the time have a positive body image. Their appearance may not match their family’s ideals or the ideals in the media. But they have learned to be proud of the way they look.
You do not have to be thin or tall or have any other specific physical traits to have a positive body image. It does not matter what you look like from the outside. Having a positive body image is about how you feel about the way you look.
Part of having a positive body image is thinking about the way you physically feel and what your body can do — not just the way you look. For example, people who can easily climb stairs may have a better body image than people who struggle climbing them.
Having a positive body image also means that you see yourself as you really are. Many people with a positive body image know that certain parts of their body may not be the same as someone else’s, but they accept, appreciate, and even love the differences.
People with a positive body image also understand that how they look does not determine their self-worth.
What Is a Negative Body Image?
A negative body image develops when someone feels her or his body does not measure up to family, social, or media ideals. Many people feel as if they don’t measure up — especially when they measure themselves against the standards of beauty commonly seen in the media.
Unlike people with positive body images who are satisfied with their body image, people with a negative body image are often very dissatisfied. They may not even see themselves as they truly are. People who have a negative body image may look in the mirror and see themselves or their body parts as larger or smaller or otherwise different from the way they really are.
If you have a negative body image, you may feel self-conscious or awkward, and you may feel shame about your body. We may all feel this way about our bodies and ourselves from time to time — that’s normal. But if you have negative thoughts about the way you look or the way you think other people see you most of the time, you may have a problem. And it could be serious. Having a negative body image can have a harmful effect on one’s health and well-being, and you may want to talk with a professional counselor.
Is My Body Image Positive or Negative?Here are some questions to get you thinking about your body image:
- How do you feel when you look in the mirror?
- How do you feel when you see pictures of attractive people in magazines, on TV, or online?
- What do you think other people think about how you look?
- Do you ever avoid activities like exercising or having sex because you are uncomfortable showing your body?
- Do you often feel critical about the way you look?
- How do you usually reply when people compliment how you look?
- Can you list your three favorite things about your body?
- Do you often feel jealous of other people for the way they look?
How Can a Negative Body Image Affect My Health and Well-Being?
Having a long-lasting negative body image can affect both your mental and physical health. People who have a long-lasting negative body image are more likely than people with a positive body image to
- have anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, shame, and trouble concentrating
- take risks with their sexual health
- cut themselves off from being with other people socially
- stop doing healthy activities that require them to show their bodies, such as exercising, having sex, going to the doctor, or swimming
- suffer from serious mental health problems, such as anorexia, bulimia, over-exercising, or overeating. These disorders can be very serious.
It is very difficult to deal with an eating or exercise disorder on your own. If you or someone you know is struggling with one of these disorders, it is a good idea to seek help. Staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center can refer you to resources in your area.
You can also contact the National Eating Disorders Association.
Body Image and Sexual Health
Body image is an important part of your sexual health. People who feel comfortable in their bodies are more likely than others to make healthy sexual decisions, like protecting their health by using condoms. People who feel comfortable with their sex organs are more likely to be comfortable talking openly about sex with a partner. People who feel ashamed of their bodies, including their sex organs, may not feel confident and strong enough to make healthy sexual decisions.
What Can I Do to Improve My Body Image?
There is a lot you can do to improve your body image, even without changing your body. Remember, body image is not about how you look, but how you feel about the way you look.
Some people choose to change the way they feel about their bodies. Many times, talking with a person you trust, such as a friend or family member, about the way you feel can help. Professional help from a therapist may also be useful. Talking about your negative feelings and developing new ways to think about your body and your self-worth is a good way to address a negative body image.
Think differently about your body. Pay attention to the times when you feel bad about your body. Did you just weigh yourself? Did you just read a magazine? Did you just talk to a friend or family member who is negative about her or his body?
Tips for a Positive Body Image
In a world that is constantly showing you narrow definitions of beauty, how can you maintain a healthy body image? Here are some tips:
- Remember that health and appearance are two different things.
- Accept and value your genes — you probably inherited a lot of traits from your family members, so love those traits as you love your family.
- Keep a list of your positive qualities that have nothing to do with your appearance.
- Surround yourself with people who are supportive and who make you feel good about yourself.
- Treat your body with respect and kindness.
People may choose to change their appearance in many ways, for a variety of reasons. If you want to change the way you look, be sure to have realistic expectations. If you have a negative body image, it is important to deal with the mental and emotional aspects of it in order for any physical changes to be truly successful.
Some people choose to make lifestyle changes, such as adopting a specific diet and an exercise program, in order to lose weight, gain muscle, or change their bodies in other ways. Often, this can be a healthy choice. If you are planning to make a considerable change in your lifestyle, it can be a good idea to talk with a health care provider who can advise you about the healthiest way to do so.
People also change their looks in other ways, such as coloring or processing their hair, or using products to change the appearance of their skin. Some changes can boost your self-esteem and body image, and some changes may not be as effective. The key is to have realistic expectations about how much changing your appearance can change how you feel about yourself.
Some people choose to have plastic surgery to change the body parts that they don’t like. This is one way to address a negative body image. But changing a body part does not necessarily change the way a person feels.