Beauty and the Beast Inside: How Body Image Impacts Mental Health

Published On: September 4, 2017Categories: Eating Disorders, Recovery

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The term “body image” refers to how you see and feel about your appearance and how you believe others see you. It’s the way you view yourself when you gaze into a mirror, which may not always be an accurate perception. It’s also the picture you get in your mind when you imagine what you look like to others as well as how you feel within your body.

Having a negative body image can lead to some serious mental health issues, such as eating disorders.

Negative and Positive Body Image

Some signs of having a negative body image include:

  • Often looking in mirrors or weighing yourself multiple times a day
  • Excessively checking your body for imperfections
  • Comparing your shape or weight with others, whether with people you see in your daily life or with celebrities and models
  • Commenting negatively on the way you look, either aloud to others or silently
  • Feeling desperate or anxious about your appearance (this can lead to the beginning of eating disorder behaviors)

Having a negative body image means:

  • Viewing your body’s shape in a distorted way, such as believing you are obese when you actually are not overweight
  • Feeling sure that you are not attractive, while most other people are
  • Feeling embarrassed, self-conscious and anxious about your appearance
  • Feeling strange and awkward in your body

Having a positive body image means:

  • Having a true perception of your body shape
  • Being happy with and appreciating your body’s figure in its natural form
  • Accepting your unique body as it is
  • Being comfortable and confident in your appearance

Body Image and Mental Health

The media often has a huge effect on how people believe their bodies should look. Magazines picturing models with near-perfect shapes and faces, advertisement messages, television celebrities, movie stars and images seen on internet-related social networks all serve to influence body image ideals which are unattainable and even undesirable for most average Americans. It’s difficult to ignore or get away from these media images that are not true reflections of reality.

Scientific studies have found a significant relationship between body image and mental health. Having a distorted body image can lead to the development of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa. It is estimated that there are at least 8 million Americans who suffer from an eating disorder, 7 million of which are women and 1 million men.

People who have a distorted or negative body image often have an unrealistic perception of how other people view their appearance. Distorted body images are more prevalent in females, but males can suffer from this disorder also.

Body Positivity or Body Obsession?

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

When someone has a negative, unrealistic perception of one or more of their bodily areas, they may be diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is a psychological, body-image disorder that involves becoming overly preoccupied with a tiny, or even a nonexistent, perceived flaw on the face or body. Some individuals become so distressed that their daily functioning becomes impaired.

Someone suffering with BDD may avoid social interactions and cope with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem issues. About one out of every 50 people in the US suffers from body dysmorphic disorder. That figure represents roughly 2% of the general population.

It’s uncertain as to what causes BDD to develop, but this disorder mostly begins to develop during the adolescent and teenage years. There may be a genetic component to predispose a person to developing BDD, but other biological and environmental factors can also be a causal factor.

Someone who suffers from BDD develops obsessive behaviors that are very difficult to control. These obsessive thoughts and actions make it difficult to focus on things other than the perceived body image imperfections, leading to lowered self-esteem, self-inflicted social isolation and interference with work and/or school performance.

BDD oftenco-occurs with anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, all of which can also co-occur with eating disorders.

Here are some of the behavioral signs and symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder:

  • Covering up or camouflaging the body, such as wearing oversized clothing, excessive makeup, changing body positions
  • Seeking surgery to fix perceived flaws
  • Constantly checking out mirrors or avoiding mirrors completely
  • Picking at the skin
  • Grooming excessively
  • Exercising to an extreme

Related Eating Disorders

Harboring a negative body image is a common issue among people who have an eating disorder. Body dissatisfaction is a major risk factor for unhealthy dieting that can then often forecast the onset of a serious eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

Teens and young adults who suffer with anorexia nervosa are typically between the ages of 15 and 24.5 Someone diagnosed with anorexia nervosa isnot getting the required nutrients to maintain a healthy body weight. This diagnosis is typically accompanied by a perception of body weight inconsistent with reality. They may also not be able to recognize how serious it is to become excessively underweight with extreme dieting and exercising.

This disorder affects nearly every aspect of a person’s life. It also occurs more frequently in girls and women than in boys or men. Anorexia nervosa is an extremely serious, life-threatening disorder. Those who suffer from it may not believe there is anything wrong. They may also attempt to hide their low body weight.

If you suspect that you or someone you know suffers from anorexia nervosa, consider some of the following symptoms of anorexia:

  • Being post-puberty and no longer getting menstrual periods
  • Body becomes more sensitive to cold
  • Heart rate and blood pressure decrease
  • Weight loss is extreme
  • Skin is pale and dry
  • Hair thins out and is dry
  • Brittle nails
  • Lightheadedness, fainting
  • Goes on the scale often to check weight
  • Looks in the mirror whenever one is available
  • Withdraws from social gatherings
  • Converses about food, weight, dieting obsessively
  • Exercises compulsively
  • Fear of gaining weight, even when weight loss is evident
  • Denies being hungry
  • Hides food to avoid eating
  • Easily irritated
  • Very self-critical
  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Self-worth is determined by appearance and weight

Complications that are serious, including death, can include heart rhythm disturbances, electrolyte imbalances, anemia, bone loss, gastrointestinal issues and kidney problems.

Anorexia is a difficult disorder to overcome, but with treatment, individuals can return to eating a balanced diet and reverse the physical and emotional complications that have occurred.

How To Improve Body Image

It’s very important to mental, physical and emotional health that you feel comfortable and confident within your own skin. If you are having issues with negative body image, there are ways to take better care of yourself and improve the way you perceive things.

1. Practice media self-care

Choose to view media that builds self-esteem and confidence. Limit your screen time to lessen exposure to unrealistic body standards. Get the message out to advertisers who refuse to make changes concerning their body representations. Be an advocate for positive body discussions and make a difference.

2. Make a list of things you appreciate and like about yourself

Don’t include anything related to your weight or appearance. Keep the list handy, perhaps on sticky notes, so you can refer to it often, and add to it when you can.

3. Keep in mind that true beauty lies within

When you have a real sense of confidence, self-worth and self-acceptance, you will feel and look beautiful.

4. Look in the mirror and see ALL of you

Don’t just focus on certain parts of your body, but rather look at yourself as a whole person. That’s how others will see you, too.

5. Let positive people into your life

You’ll feel better about yourself if those around you are upbeat, supportive and realize how important it is to be who you are, naturally.

6. Relegate negative thoughts to the background

When you find yourself thinking badly about your body image, replace those thoughts with more positive ones. Have a list of affirmations ready that will shut those voices down immediately.

7. Wear comfortable clothing

Dress yourself in clothes that work with your body’s shape and feel comfortable instead of restricting.

8. Be kind to yourself

Appreciate your body by rewarding yourself with a luxurious bubble bath, a massage at a spa or a nap in the shade.

9. Be generous with others

Doing something for others almost always helps us feel better about ourselves. Reach out and donate your time and energy to those who need it, rather than spending another minute thinking about weight, food and your appearance.

10. Avoid body conversations

If the conversation turns to caloric intake, dieting and disappoint in the way someone looks, change the subject or place the focus on feelings instead. You don’t want to get caught up in talking about body image negativity, which can lead to thinking about your own issues.

Building your self-esteem and improving your body image takes some work. If you suffer from an eating disorder or BDD that may stem from negative body image, it’s important to get professional help.

If you realize that you have a poor body image, begin the practice of self-care through using some of the methods listed and don’t be afraid to talk to a professional. You will learn to love yourself and become a more confident, healthy person as a result.


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