Body image is how we think and feel about our body’s appearance, and how we think other people see our body. Our body image falls somewhere along a continuum; we can feel different degrees of positivity or negativity towards our bodies, and this can change over time.
In reality, bodies come in all shapes and sizes and there is no one ‘normal’ body type. Unfortunately, however, we are exposed regularly to images of a ‘desired’ body type, which can lead to body dissatisfaction for many. For some, this can cause distress and may lead to symptoms of mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders.
Prevalence of body dissatisfaction
Body dissatisfaction appears to be very common in both males and females. That said, females do tend to have lower body satisfaction than males. Between 13.4% and 31.8% of women and 9% and 28.4% of men in the United States are dissatisfied with their bodies. (1)
All age groups and ethnicities can be affected by poor body image. (2)
Why and how people develop poor body image
The reasons differ from person-to-person, but the following factors have been associated with low body satisfaction: (2)
- Being exposed to images in the media of the (unrealistic) ’ideal’ body type
- Being overweight or obese
- The influence of family and friends
- A tendency to compare yourself to other people
Signs of low body satisfaction
A negative or unhealthy body image can affect people in different ways. Some signs of body dissatisfaction might include:
- Spending a lot of time comparing your body to others and feeling negative about your body as a result.
- Feelings of shame, being worried or self-conscious of your body.
- Avoiding social situations (including school or work) because of your discomfort.
- Trying to disguise your body, by wearing oversized clothing, for example.
- Having trouble concentrating because worries about your body get in the way.
- Considering cosmetic procedures to address the aspect of your appearance.
- Excessively exercising to try to change your body shape.
- Excessive or dangerous dieting to try to change your body shape.
Challenges associated with negative body image
Body dissatisfaction can impact on people in diverse ways. Some examples of associated challenges include:
- Eating disorders
- Body dysmorphia
- Feeling stressed
- Relationship problems
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse
- Sleeping problems
What to do if you are struggling with negative body image
Many people struggle with how they look at some point during their lives. If this is happening for you, consider a combination of the following actions:
- See your physician: If you are concerned about your body, it can be helpful to seek your physician’s opinion. This can not only help you to rule out any medical factors, but can be a valuable objective source of information about how healthy your body is.
- Therapy: Talking therapies in both individual and group contexts can help change body image. Types of therapy to consider are discussed further, below.
- Run an experiment: Sit on a bench and notice each person that walks past you, paying attention to just how different each person’s body is. The point is not to compare your body to others, but to discover the sheer variety of body types and how they differ to the ‘ideal’ body you see in the media.
- Expand your identity beyond body image: Your body image is just one part of your identity. People who are dissatisfied with their bodies often develop an excessive focus on this part of their identity to the exclusion of other aspects. Try to broaden your focus instead. Try new hobbies, join groups, participate in pleasurable and meaningful activities. Try writing down the other things that you like about yourself.
- Practice mindfulness: Learning mindfulness can help you to focus on the present moment and reduce comparing your body to others.
- Support groups: Many people find that support groups are helpful sources of information, advice and support for coping with body dissatisfaction.
- Social supports: Talk to a trusted family member or friend about how you feel. They may be able to offer a different perspective that changes how you feel or think about your body. Additionally, people with strong relationships appear to be less likely to have a poor body image. (2)
- Self-care: Healthy levels of exercise have been shown to help improve body image. (3)
- Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
Therapy types to consider for improving body image
Many types of therapy could be considered for helping to develop a more positive body image, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help change develop healthier and more balanced thoughts and beliefs about our bodies and ourselves as a whole.
- Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness may help if you are feeling anxious or low and can help people to learn self-compassion. Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention to the present moment and therefore reduces body-comparisons.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT involves components of both CBT and mindfulness as well as other strategies to help people take an acceptance approach.
What to look for in a therapist for body image
The best-fitting type of therapist for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms, your location and finances. When selecting a mental health professional, it can be helpful to consider the following factors:
Personal fit: As is the case when you are seeking therapy for any reason, it’s important to consider the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. The trusting working relationship with a therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy.
Qualifications and experience: It is important to look for a licensed mental health professional. This ensures that the therapist you work with has undertaken the appropriate education and training. Also, ask your prospective therapist ahead of time whether they have training and experience in treating body dissatisfaction.
Talk in advance: The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to oblige. This enables you to ask about:
- Their qualifications
- Their experience working with people with body dissatisfaction
- Any ongoing training in body dissatisfaction and related therapies
- What type of therapy they suggest, and what that will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.
Sources and references
- Prevalence of body dissatisfaction among a United States adult sample
- Body image - a rapid evidence assessment of the literature (PDF)
- Effects of exercise interventions on body image: a meta-analysis