Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. These feelings can be positive, negative or both and are influenced by individual and environmental factors.
Positive body image occurs when a person is able to accept, appreciate and respect their body. Positive body image is important because it is one of the protective factors which can make a person more resilient to eating disorders. In fact, the most effective eating disorder prevention programs use a health promotion approach, focusing on building self-esteem and positive body image, and a balanced approach to nutrition and physical activity. A positive body image will improve:
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When a person has negative thoughts and feelings about his or her own body, body dissatisfaction can develop. Body dissatisfaction is an internal process but can be influenced by several external factors. For example, family, friends, acquaintances, teachers and the media all have an impact on how a person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. Individuals in appearance oriented environments or those who receive negative feedback about their appearance are at an increased risk of body dissatisfaction.
One of the most common external contributors to body dissatisfaction is the media. People of all ages are bombarded with images through TV, magazines, internet and advertising. These images often promote unrealistic, unobtainable and highly stylised appearance ideals which have been fabricated by stylists, art teams and digital manipulation and cannot be achieved in real life. Those who feel they don’t measure up in comparison to these images, can experience intense body dissatisfaction which is damaging to their psychological and physical wellbeing.
The following factors can increase the risk of developing a negative body image:
In western society, body dissatisfaction has become a cultural norm.
Body dissatisfaction is the top ranked issue of concern for young people (Mission Australia, 2011). Body image issues have increased worldwide over the last 30 years and do not only concern young people but affect people of all ages. This pervasive problem is concerning because overvaluing body image in defining ones self-worth is one of the risk factors which makes some people less resilient to eating disorders than others. People experiencing body dissatisfaction can become fixated on trying to change their body shape, which can lead to unhealthy practices with food and exercise. These practices don’t usually achieve the desired outcome (physically or emotionally) and can result in intense feelings of disappointment, shame and guilt and, ultimately, increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
While some aspects of your appearance can be changed, others, like your height, muscle composition and bone structure are genetically fixed. It is important to understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to weight, shape, size and appearance. Challenging beauty ideals and learning to accept your body shape is a crucial step towards positive body image.
While changing your actual appearance can be counterproductive, improving your body image is a constructive goal. We have the power to change the way we see, feel and think about our bodies. Here are some helpful tips:
Programs that effectively increase positive body image focus on reducing risk factors (e.g. thin ideal internalization, peer pressure, bullying and ‘fat talk’, perfectionism) and increasing protective factors (e.g. self-esteem, social support, non-competitive physical activity, healthy eating behaviours and attitudes, respect for diversity).
If you feel dissatisfied with your body or are developing unhealthy eating or exercise habits seek professional help. Some counsellors and psychologists have specialised knowledge in body image. Professional support can help guide you to change negative beliefs and behaviours.
Find help in your local area
The National Helpline provides free, confidential support for anyone.
Phone 1800 33 4673.
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