All About Body Image: How Psychologists Define It and How It Affects Health and Well-Being

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illustration of person looking in mirror
Having a negative body image can lead to serious physical and mental health problems. But you can take steps to improve yours.Canva; iStock; Everyday Health

How do you feel about your body? What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see imperfections? Do you see strength? Do you feel appreciation? Do you feel shame? Do you feel frustration? Do you feel capable?

That internal chatter and the tone you use when thinking or talking about your appearance (the positive and the negative) is all part of your body image.

Here, learn about what it means to have a positive or negative body image, how body image affects your mental and physical health, and what you can do to improve yours.

The Definition of Body Image, According to Psychologists

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines body image as “the mental picture one forms of one’s body as a whole, including its physical characteristics and one’s attitudes toward these characteristics.”

It’s how you see yourself, how you feel about your body and its shape, and how you physically feel in your body, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

And data suggests that living through a global pandemic has not been helpful for people’s body image overall. A U.K. survey published in April 2021 found that social distancing and lockdown measures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic increased poor eating habits and body dissatisfaction. Women were more likely than men to report struggling with eating and worsening body image; and nearly 50 percent of those surveyed reported being more concerned about the way they looked.

“Body image is the way we view ourselves physically — the way we internally and externally talk about ourselves based on how we look, the reflection we see in the mirror,” says Jessica Cortez, RD, a Denton, Texas–based dietitian with Connections Wellness Group who specializes in eating disorders and body image.

She adds: “Are we neutral, kind, or mean to ourselves? Do we find ourselves being critical or neutral about the observations we make about our body and appearance? Do we find ourselves making strong judgments about our body that leave us feeling unworthy, less than, or undeserving?” How we answer those questions is all part of our body image.

How Is ‘Body Positivity’ Related to Body Image?

Yes, the body positivity movement — which is about loving your body and having a positive outlook no matter your shape or size — is related to body image. Body positivity means having a healthy body image regardless of what you look like, according to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

When the body positivity movement started is less clear-cut. Some trace its roots to the 1960s, when the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (then named the National Association to Aid Fat Americans) was formed to advocate for fat acceptance.

The term “body positivity,” however, is more often traced back to the mid-1990s and the creation of the Body Positive, a nonprofit with the goal of ending “the harmful consequences of negative body image,” according to the group’s website.

It was originally an effort started by fat activists to center and liberate marginalized bodies from oppressive forces such as fat phobia, racism, and ableism, says Samantha DeCaro, PsyD, director of clinical outreach and education with the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, a residential eating disorder treatment facility. “The movement was designed to challenge the conventional definitions of health and beauty.”

How Is ‘Body Neutrality’ Related to Body Image?

Body neutrality is a different concept. “It encourages taking a neutral approach to our bodies,” DeCaro says. “The term reminds us that we do not have to love our body to respect it, to nourish it, listen to its cues, or to have gratitude for what it can do.”

Embracing body neutrality rather than body positivity may be a more achievable goal for people with body image issues and those struggling with eating disorders. “It creates the space to cultivate an authentic identity that focuses less on the physical self and more on our core values,” DeCaro says.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, body neutrality is defined as not supporting the hatred or the love of your body.

Learn More About Body Neutrality

Common Questions & Answers

What’s the definition of body image in psychology?
Body image is defined as the mental picture one forms of one’s body as a whole, including its physical characteristics and one’s attitudes towards these characteristics.
Why might someone have a negative or positive body image?
Media, societal messages, messages from adults and peers we know, and personal experiences can all affect body image. Evidence suggests we start forming a perception of our own body image at an early age.
Why is body image important?
Having a negative body image can affect physical and mental health. Eating disorders often involve negative body image issues, as can substance abuse issues. A negative body image can also be connected to stress, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
Who is more likely to struggle with body image?
Studies have shown that women are more likely to deal with body image issues than men. Certain personality traits, like high neuroticism, are connected to poor body image in women, but not for men.
Are body image issues more common in certain ages compared to others?
Body image issues can affect people of all ages, from adolescents and teenagers to adults.

What Causes Someone to Have a Positive Body Image?

The foundation for a positive or negative body image starts early.

“Young kids and adolescents are very impressionable,” says Paakhi?Srivastava, PhD, an assistant research professor and interim director of the?Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science?(WELL Clinic) at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Their body image is shaped by what they consume in traditional media and on social media, as well as via the messages they receive regarding body and appearance from adults, Dr. Srivastava says. If these messages are positive, chances are greater that the young person will establish a positive body image.

A positive body image means you feel good in your skin, regardless of whether your body meets the definition of what those around you would consider the ideal shape. “It’s a feeling of satisfaction about one’s body irrespective of the societal ideal being forced at any given time,” says Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, a therapist in private practice in Boca Raton, Florida, who specializes in eating disorders and body image.

For example, consider how you would feel if you tried on shorts from last year and they fit more snuggly than you remember. “A body positive way to respond would be: ‘Wow, I guess I grew this past year, but that’s okay. Bodies are made to change and adapt. I’ll find some different shorts instead so I can enjoy the summer and feel comfortable,’” Cortez says.

What Causes Someone to Have a Negative Body Image?

Having a negative body image is the opposite of having a positive body image; it’s feeling bad or beating yourself up for the way you look. “A negative body image can mean being highly critical of yourself physically and being judgmental about yourself to the point that you start to believe an internal dialogue, which in turn impacts the way you view your worth and value as a person,” Cortez says.

Consider the scenario where you’re trying on that pair of shorts from last year that no longer fit. Someone with a negative body image might react to that situation by thinking that they’re a failure for gaining weight or for not being as lean as they were in the past, Cortez says.

A negative body image might be traceable to a person’s teenage years, when it may have been impacted by things like weight changes caused by puberty, pressure to look a certain way, social media posts with unattainable body ideals, having parents who were overly concerned about their own weight, or being exposed to sexual objectification, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But regardless of any triggers that negative body image issues can be linked back to, it can certainly outlast someone’s teenage years. “I think it can be an issue across the lifespan — teens grow up to be adults who continue to have issues with body image,” says Jennifer Engler, PhD, associate professor and psychology chair at York College of Pennsylvania, who researches adolescent identity development. Adults can also develop a negative body image, especially if they’re prone to comparing themselves to others and feel pressure to meet socially prescribed beauty standards, she says.

Data suggests that women are more likely to struggle with body image than men. An October 2017 article found that men accounted for about 18 percent of study participants with symptoms of disordered eating.

And certain personality traits — specifically high neuroticism — were also associated with poor body image, but the researchers found that this link applied only to women and not men.

How Body Image Bears on Health and Well-Being

Having a negative body image can affect both physical and mental health.

How Body Image Affects Physical Health

“One of the most significant?mental and medical issues that comes along with having a negative body image is the connection to the risk of developing an eating disorder,” Dr. Engler says.

A negative body image can lead to dieting, which can lead to disordered eating and a host of negative health consequences, she explains. Not all dieting leads to an eating disorder, of course, but there is plenty of research that has found that it can contribute.

The most serious side effects of eating disorders include infertility, heart damage, brain damage, and organ failure, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

A negative body image can influence other behaviors as well. “You can see people who have negative body image engaging in other types of behaviors?and activities to try to fix what they perceive to be problematic,” Engler says. “So maybe smoking or substance abuse to manage weight, or excessive exercise, which can lead to health issues down the road.”

Data suggests people with eating disorders are five times more likely than the general population to use alcohol or illicit drugs, and 11 times more likely to become dependent on either alcohol or drugs.

How Body Image Affects Mental Health

Body image problems can also lead to mental health problems, particularly if the body image issues have led to disordered eating. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that there is a link between eating disorders and depression and anxiety.

That anxiety or depression can develop at the same time as the eating disorder, or before it or after it, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Engler says there are some connections between depression and bulimia nervosa, as well as between anxiety and anorexia.

Having a negative body image can impact your overall quality of life. A study published in 2016 found that people who reported having a positive body image (measured by a body image scale that evaluated individuals’ satisfaction with various body functions and parts of the body) was closely related to quality of life for study participants, all of whom were from Turkey and over the age of 15.

Learn More About How Body Image Affects Health

How and Why Social Media Use Affects Body Image

Today, social media is a factor that can have a big effect on someone’s body image and how they see themselves.

For many people, social media shapes what defines beauty and attractiveness. And there are countless examples of people using social media to define themselves as individuals, Srivastava says. “It’s placing more importance on the body and almost objectifying?it.”

Social media can lead people to judge themselves harshly, if their bodies don’t resemble what they see online. “Being bombarded by images on social media can have a negative impact on body image, because in real life nobody will ever live up to the Photoshopped or perfectly curated ideal they see in their Instagram feeds,” Kelman says.

That said, the body image conversations on social media aren’t all negative. “Social media can serve as another mental health resource when used mindfully and consumed critically,” DeCaro says.

Body Image and LGBTQ+ Communities

Members of LGBTQ+ communities may have unique experiences with body image.

“There are overarching body issues [for all groups], and for each little pocket of ‘L’ and ‘G’ and ‘B’ and ‘T,’ there can be very specific challenges as well,” says Paula Atkinson, LCSW, a Washington, DC–based psychotherapist who focuses on helping people with eating disorders. “I work with a lot of male-identifying gay men, and unfortunately fat phobia is rampant in that community,” she says.

Another example Atkinson gives is people with gender dysphoria, which is the desire to be another gender. Body image issues in this case can be people feeling like they’re not as feminine or as masculine as they’d like to be.

Body Image and BIPOC Communities

People from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities may have their own body image struggles, including feeling stuck in between mainstream Western beauty standards that glorify thinness and other body types that are celebrated within their culture, says Tigress Osborn, chair of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

For a study published 2015, a group of 31 African American women, who participated in a series of focus groups, mostly agreed that bodies that are thick, toned, and curvy are considered more ideal than the thin standard of beauty for white people.

That can lead to some confusion. “BIPOC people are contending not only with mainstream body ideals but also with our cultures’ specific body and beauty ideals,” Osborn says. “Those ideals can be contradictory, leaving BIPOC people feeling left out of one or both standards.”

These body image issues can be exacerbated by the fact that people of color often don’t see people that look like them in the media, Osborn says.

Finally, body image problems facing people in BIPOC communities may be brushed aside. “BIPOC people also face having our body image struggles belittled?or dismissed by those who believe that our cultural backgrounds protect us from anti-fatness,” Osborn says.

“There is sometimes a narrative that worrying about body image, especially weight, is a white-people problem, one we either don’t have the luxury of worrying about because our communities have more urgent needs or one we simply don’t need to worry about because our communities are allegedly more accepting of?larger bodies,” she says.

Body Image and People With Disabilities and Chronic Illness

About 26 percent of the U.S. population has a disability of some kind, including mobility, cognition, and hearing and vision, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Feeling different from others, or potentially inferior, can negatively affect body image.

“A person who is differently abled or has a chronic illness can experience even greater feelings of ‘my body has betrayed me,’ something those affected by diet culture and thin idealism already feel when their body doesn't ‘behave as it should’ and get thin or stay thin,” Atkinson says, adding that she doesn’t speak for people who are differently abled or diagnosed with a chronic illness, but that these are sentiments reported to her through her work.

For example, men with physical disabilities, such as those who use a wheelchair, may find it difficult to live up to traits commonly associated with masculinity, such as dominance, strength, and athleticism. And women with disabilities may worry about others viewing them as unattractive and may avoid forming intimate relationships as a result.

“A large part of finding freedom and sanity around [body image] issues?is committing to rebuilding a relationship with one’s body, which requires trusting that it is doing the best it can,” Atkinson says. “When one is struggling with a disability or chronic illness, that trust can be harder to come by.”

How to Adopt a Healthier Body Image

Having a positive body image may not come naturally — and that’s okay. The Cleveland Clinic outlines a few things you can do to improve the way you see yourself, including the following:

  • Notice your body’s strengths and abilities, rather than nitpicking your appearance.
  • Write down five things you love about your personality and then five things you love about your body.
  • Place positive affirmations around your home to remind yourself about your positive qualities.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others.
Research suggests a few strategies that can improve body image:

  • Recognize and restructure cognitive distortions that reinforce negative body image.?For instance, be realistic about how others are viewing your physical appearance, rather than assuming others are criticizing you behind your back.
  • Use positive self-talk, rather than negative self-talk. Tell yourself “I look happy,” not “I’m so fat.”
  • Avoid triggers that set off negative thoughts. Try unfollowing social media accounts, for example, that cause you to feel worse about your body image.

Another tip: Don’t expect to feel 100 percent great about your body 100 percent of the time. “It’s almost impossible to be sane around your body and food in this culture,” Atkinson says. Accept that you’re going to have uncomfortable moments, and don’t be mad at yourself when you do, Atkinson says.

It’s when these negative thoughts about your body interfere with daily functioning (for example, if you’re engaging in excessive dieting or exercise or avoiding social activities) that it may be time to consider seeking professional help from a mental health provider, Kelman says.

“Everyone has negative thoughts about how they look from time to time, but when these harmful behaviors are the response to those kinds of thoughts, it’s time for professional help to work through it,” she says.

If you are actively in crisis and need immediate support, call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text 741-741 to reach a trained counselor with Crisis Text Line.

Learn More About How to Build a Healthy Body Image

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

APA Dictionary of Psychology: Body Image. American Psychological Association.

Body Image. National Eating Disorders Association.

Robertson M, Duffy F, Newman E, et al. Exploring Changes in Body Image, Eating, and Exercise During the COVID-19 Lockdown: A UK Survey. Appetite. April 2021.

Healthy Body Image: Tips for Guiding Teens. Mayo Clinic. April 6, 2021.

MacNeill LP, Best LA, Davis LL. The Role of Personality in Body Image Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating: Discrepancies Between Men and Women. Journal of Eating Disorders. October 2017.

Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. National Institute of Mental Health. 2021.

Baumeister RF, Campbell JD, Krueger JI, et al. Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest. May 2003.

Nayir T, Uskun E, Yurekli MV, et al. Does Body Image Affect Quality of Life? A Population Based Study. PLoS One. September 2016.

Awad GH, Norwood C, Taylor DS, et al. Beauty and Body Image Concerns Among African American College Women. Journal of Black Psychology. December 2015.

Disability & Body Image. Bradley University.

Body Image, Eating Disorders, and Individuals with Disabilities. Illinois State University. January 26, 2021.

7 Tips for Building a Better Body Image as an Adult. Cleveland Clinic. May 8, 2019.

Alleva JM, Sheeran P, Webb TL. A Meta-Analytic Review of Stand-Alone Interventions to Improve Body Image. PLoS One. 2015.

Mind Over Matter: Defining Body Positivity. Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. September 1, 2021.

5 Steps to Body Neutrality. National Eating Disorders Association. 2022.

Memon AN, Gowda AS, Rallabhandi B, et al. Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good? Cureus. September 2020.

Anxiety, Depression, & Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association.

Disability Impacts All of Us. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 16, 2020.

NAAFA’s Origin Story & Fat Activism History. National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

Our Work. The Body Positive.

Substance Use and Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association.

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