Body image is a concept that occupies a lot of space in modern conversations about health and wellness. The painful reality is that many of us, particularly female-identified folks, have intensely conflicted relationships with our bodies. This dissonance between how our bodies are and how we want them to be puts us at increased risk for mental and physical health problems. The distinction between keeping our bodies healthy and keeping our bodies in line with unreasonable standards of beauty, fitness, or attractiveness can become blurry if we aren’t aware of the forces impacting body image, so let’s take a deeper look at this important construct.
A brief history of body image
The general concept of body image was first used in the early 1900s. Neurologist Henry Head identified the body schema, which he suggested was a neural network controlling body posture and movement. Our modern understanding of body image didn’t emerge until the late 1990s, when researchers began to consider the interaction between cultural identities (such as gender and race), socially-driven ideas of beauty, and self-esteem. The most current working definition of body image proposes that:
1) every culture has a standard for beauty,
2) notions of beauty are communicated in a variety of ways within and outside of the culture,
3) assumptions about beauty are internalized by individuals, and
4) body satisfaction or dissatisfaction relates to how we feel we match up against social standards and how deeply we internalize assumptions about beauty (1).
Where we learn about our bodies
Beliefs about bodies start incredibly early. Children as young as five preferred smaller bodies to bodies their own size in one study (2), and offered dieting advice to researchers when asked what someone should do if they want to lose weight (3). By age 8, children have begun to form connections between moral character and skin tone, labeling darker children as more likely to be poorly behaved and lighter children as more likely to be well-behaved (4).
Beliefs about body size, skin tone, and other markers of beauty are shaped by our families of origin and our increasingly complicated social networks. One of the best predictors of poor body image in young girls is a mother’s dieting behavior, for example (5). But as children grow and seek connection outside of their families, friends and media take on a much larger role in shaping body image. Digital and social media platforms can act like a “super peer,” exerting intense pressure on teens and young adults to be thin, whichthat increases the likelihood for eating disorders dramatically (6).
By one marketing firm estimate, people are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads per day. Many of the images contained in ads are photoshopped to “correct” everything from waist size to eyelash length, reinforcing unrealistic and harmful standards of beauty. Much of our interaction with ad content happens at a subconscious level, giving us minimal opportunity to challenge potentially problematic messages about body image.
The main idea: We are inundated from a young age with information about what our bodies should look like in order for us to have value and be happy. The messages we receive about body image support notions of beauty that are generally unattainable, and set the stage for intergenerational patterns of body-focused self-worth.
The cost of poor body image
Poor body image poses significant risks to mental and physical health. Eating disorders including Bulimia, Anorexia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder impact between 1.5 and 3.8 percent of individuals in the United States alone (7). Disordered eating is far more prevalent and includes behaviors geared toward weight loss, such as use of diet pills and laxatives, and skipping meals. One study estimated that as many as 56% of 14-15 year old females in the US had engaged in at least one dangerous dieting behavior (8). Research continues to emerge regarding how dieting behavior is normalized and extends into adulthood.
The physical cost of disordered eating is grave - cardiovascular conditions, lowered immunity, and reduced bone density are all potential consequences of prolonged dieting behavior, even when those behaviors don’t reach the level of severity required for an eating disorder diagnosis.
Mental health is also severely negatively impacted by poor body image. Poor body image overall has been linked to increased incidence and severity of depression (9) and is the strongest predictor of being diagnosed with an eating disorder.
The main idea: Even mild to moderate problems with body image can lead to negative physical and mental health outcomes. We are often unaware of the extent to which we are engaging in behaviors that support poor body image (such as calorie counting, restrictive diets, or body altering practices) because so many of these behaviors are considered socially acceptable. The more we try to change our bodies, the harder it is to feel at ease in our bodies and our lives.
While the forces impacting body image are expansive and powerful, it is possible to change how we feel about our bodies. In our next segment, we’ll explore ways to improve your body image and cultivate a sustainable, respectful relationship with your body.
In the meantime, what experiences have shaped your understanding of your own body? How has your body image changed over time? What factors have influenced your body satisfaction or dissatisfaction the most? We are always interested in learning more about your lived experiences, so questions and comments are welcome!
Written for Fitness Blender by Candice C, PhD
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Supervisor
1. Cash, T. F., & Smolak, L. (2012). Body Image, Second Edition: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (Second ed.). The Guilford Press.
2. Hayes, S., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2010). Am I too fat to be a princess? Examining the effects of popular children’s media on young girls’ body image. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28(2), 413–426. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151009x424240
3. Lowes, J., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8(2), 135–147. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910703321649123
4. Neto, F., & Paiva, L. (1998). COLOR AND RACIAL ATTITUDES IN WHITE, BLACK AND BIRACIAL CHILDREN. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 26(3), 233–243. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.19184.108.40.206
5. Abramovitz, B. A., & Birch, L. L. (2000). Five-Year-Old Girls’ Ideas About Dieting are Predicted by Their Mothers’ Dieting. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 100(10), 1157–1163. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-8223(00)00339-4
6. Pai, S. & Schryver, K. (2015). Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image A Common Sense Media Research Brief.
7. Striegel-Moore, R. H., Rosselli, F., Perrin, N., DeBar, L., Wilson, G. T., May, A., & Kraemer, H. C. (2009). Gender difference in the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 42(5), 471–474. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20625
8. Croll, J., Neumarksztainer, D., Story, M., & Ireland, M. (2002). Prevalence and risk and protective factors related to disordered eating behaviors among adolescents: relationship to gender and ethnicity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31(2), 166–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1054-139x(02)00368-3
9. Johnson, F., & Wardle, J. (2005). Dietary Restraint, Body Dissatisfaction, and Psychological Distress: A Prospective Analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114(1), 119–125. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843x.114.1.119