Body image

How we feel about our bodies can be tricky.

Some people have no problems with their bodies, but for some they might like certain parts and dislike others, others may be okay with their body in some situations but not in others. How we feel, think and/or perceive our bodies and how we look makes up what we call “body image”. Body image can be focussed on many aspects of the body - the shape, the size, the weight, our sex, or even our function, with these feelings being positive, negative, or neutral.

Negative body image could be believing that you are:

- Too big or too small,

- Too short or too tall,

- Too muscular or not muscle enough,

- In the wrong body (often regarding one’s sex or gender),

- Too feminine or too masculine or not feminine or masculine enough,

- Too flat or too round,

- The list goes on.

People with a positive body image often feel comfortable in their skin and value themselves by who they are, not how they look – no matter what size, shape, or weight their bodies are. It is not uncommon however for many people to feel some form of dissatisfaction with their body. People with negative body image may compare themselves to others, feel ashamed or embarrassed by their bodies, lack confidence and self-esteem, and/or see parts of their bodies in a distorted way. While it is normal to feel these feelings at times if it starts to influence your thinking and behaviours in a way that interferes with your life and your ability to enjoy yourself then it can become problematic.

What causes negative body image?

Many things that can cause or contribute to having a negative body image, these are some of the more common examples:

  • Ideals, beliefs, and/or perceptions of what makes a body attractive, healthy, acceptable, and/or functionable. These often begin in early childhood and can be reinforced through the process of socialisation; the process by which we learn what is considered to be good, right, wrong, and/or acceptable from the world around us.
  • TV, media, and social media. Media messages about body ideals may cause us to compare our bodies to unrealistic airbrushed or photoshopped images, distorting our image of ourselves and others.
  • How we feel. There may stuff going on in our lives which we feel like we can’t control, or we simply find too uncomfortable, this can contribute to us focus on our bodies, believing that at least that’s something which we can control or change.
  • Personality traits such as perfectionism, self-criticism and/or self-loathing
  • Trauma and/or abuse, and
  • Low self-esteem.

Having an extremely negative body image can be associated with physical and mental illness such as body dysmorphic disorderanorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

What can I do?

Although it can be challenging to develop positive body image, some ways we can start to challenge those negative perceptions are:

Approach media and social media messages with a critical eye. These images are often digitally enhanced by advertisers to sell products and they can often do that by making you feel bad about yourself. Limit your exposure to unrealistic and manipulated images of fitness, beauty and appearance and call it out when you do see it (“those hips, thighs, abs, skin tone etc., they’re not real!”). Follow people and pages that make you feel good about yourself and your body instead.

Negative body and appearance self-talk destroys body confidence and self-esteem. Notice what you are telling yourself about your body. Try to re-focus your thoughts on seeing and valuing yourself as a whole person. Your qualities, strengths and attributes make you who you are. Celebrate and nurture the things that make you, you.

No two bodies are the same and so it is simply unfair and unhelpful to compare our bodies to others. Embracing our uniqueness can be challenging, but ultimately very rewarding. For example, how do you know the person you are comparing to is not comparing themselves to you? And if it is not to you, someone else? Comparison will forever leave someone as less.

Appreciate what your body CAN do – write down everything your body does for you and celebrate it! But also consider what it can do for others – it is through our bodies that we can express things like kindness, appreciation, love, loyalty, honesty, friendship etc. Many beautiful things come from our bodies that is devoid of how we look. Learn to respect and appreciate your body and all it can do, for you and others.

No one feels great about their body all of the time. Negative body image moments will happen, however it’s important we don’t use harmful behaviour to respond to these difficult feelings.

There is no one way of combating negative body image. Sometimes a combination of these strategies can help, however if you are struggling with a negative body image and are concerned, you can always book in to see one of the University’s Counsellors or seek external support.

Myths and Facts about body image

Myth: Only teenage girls and younger women are affected by negative body image.

Fact: Negative body image is found in men, women and people of all ages—from children to older adults.

Myth: You have to be thin to be healthy.

Fact: Healthy comes in all shapes and sizes. What is healthy for some is very different for others. The focus should shift from what you look like to how you feel on a day-to-day basis.

Myth: You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.

Fact: People with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Many individuals with eating disorders are of average weight or are overweight.

Myth: Having the ideal body will make you happy.

Fact: If having the “perfect body” meant permanent happiness, all those actors, models or influences would not experience the rate of mental illness that they do. Happiness does not come from the “perfect body”, it comes from the inside out.

Support and resources

Internal support

External support