What is Body Image?
A person’s body image is defined by feelings and judgments they have about their own body and appearance; perceptions around how others experience, compare, or judge their body; and the relationship or quality of the connection they have with their own body.
Body image, sometimes referred to as body image dissatisfaction, and related topics around self-esteem and unrealistic beauty standards often arise during discussions about eating disorders. That’s because most people – even if they know nothing else about disordered eating or eating disorders – are aware that body image plays a role in eating disorders’ development.
Some people are not naturally burdened with an abundance of home-grown disdain or shame regarding their own bodies but could still develop negative attitudes and unhealthy habits for fear of being judged or rejected by others. This is hardly surprising; diet culture insists that healthy moderation is mediocrity, thinness equates to health and discipline, and that fat bodies are evidence of poor health and bad behavior.
Body image dissatisfaction motivates people of all ages, abilities, incomes, and genders to do exercises they don’t enjoy to an excess; to unshakeable feelings of shame, sadness, agitation, and anxiety; to restrict their favorite foods out of fear, and more. It is important to remember that body image dissatisfaction is not a bug, it’s a feature; body image issues play right into diet culture’s goals and create unhealthy fixations on body shape, weight, and how we must change/what we must buy to change if we are to solve the shameful problem of being a normal human being in a filtered, predatory world.
Negative body image consequences
Negative body image – or body image dissatisfaction- isn’t something experienced exclusively by teen females. It does not discriminate and is associated with poorer quality of life and psychological distress. It is also an intentional byproduct of diet culture and a key factor for countless people who believe there is no other option but to sabotage healthy relationships with food, movement, and with their own bodies- all in pursuit of achieving standards that are not designed to be achievable because if they were, they would not be so profitable.
Negative body image can’t be blamed for every eating disorder, but it is fertile ground for body distrust, fatphobia, restriction, shame, orthorexia, comparison, loneliness, and despair to flourish.
Body image and social media
It doesn’t take much scrolling on social media before most users are bombarded by some unrealistic beauty standard or another. But it’s not just diet and beauty brands taking part in this assault on our collective psyche; health, wellness, and even some accounts masquerading as “self-care” experts or “body positivity” ambassadors now hope to profit off their audience’s insecurities- whether from their dollars or simply their attention.
I can remember growing up and seeing images in teen magazines of what was deemed desirable and beautiful, and it didn’t feel good. Comparing our real bodies to photoshopped bodies never feels good. That was bad enough, but at least avoid diet culture propaganda. Now – and this goes double for young social media users – we are served daily with ads that look like real content, filtered content that purports to reflect “real life,” and even predatory messaging from those who claim to have our best interests at heart.
Are the accounts you “follow” nourishing or detrimental?
Whenever you find yourself endlessly scrolling, inundated by tempting but questionable content, wondering if any of it is worth the effort, I encourage you to ask yourself these two simple questions:
- Is the content being shared by someone qualified to do so?
Anyone can share a curated snapshot of their life with #wellness, #selfcare, and similar tags in the caption. Regardless of a person or brand’s audience size, photogenic meals, or any #bodyposi messaging they may use, oftentimes they do not have the credentials or education to qualify as experts. Even if their advice works for some, it’s unlikely that a stranger’s advice will work for you or even most of their audience. Some well-meaning social media influencers may cause harm simply by virtue of the fact that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to hold them accountable for any consequences their posts may have.
- Are the promises “too good”?
Beware of content that promises amazing results if only you X, Y, or Z. Be even more cautious of content claiming that a smaller waist or “cleaner” diet will make you happier or love your body more.
Shame sells and causes people to feel vulnerable. Body image dissatisfaction, weight stigma, and diet culture overall are extremely profitable. How diet culture affects body image, buying behavior, worldview, mental health, etc. is yet to be fully known, but so far, it doesn’t look good. Still, it may be empowering to know that how we interact (or not) with this content really does matter because the more engagement (including likes, shares, saves, reactions, comments, follows, and even negative feedback) an account receives, the greater the reach their shame-inducing content will have.
To stop the perpetuation of body shame and body image dissatisfaction, it’s not enough just to take social media posts “with a grain of salt,” telling ourselves we won’t be affected although we know others who are. You’re never just observing social media- we absorb it. And the algorithm is designed to get better and better at showing us borderline addictive content based on our behavior- not only on the platform but everywhere on the web.
Body image impact on physical and mental health
Body image dissatisfaction occurs when a person has persistent negative thoughts and feelings about their body. Negative body image is linked to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. We need to create space for people to have open and honest conversations about how they are struggling with body image because, among other reasons, it is a life-and-death matter. A skilled therapist or counselor can help someone understand how they came to have a negative body image and the road to healing. For some, negative body image begins the cycle of eating disorder behaviors as a way to try to change or control their body.
Addressing negative body image
Body image is closely linked to self-esteem. Low self-esteem in adolescents can lead to eating disorders, early sexual activity, substance use, and suicidal thoughts. For someone struggling with negative body image and/or eating disorder behaviors you can take the first steps towards healing by doing some of the following:
- Ask for help
- Talk with a mental health and/or eating disorder-specialized professional
- Delete/unfriend/unfollow accounts on social media that make you feel worse or encourage you to alter your appearance/weight.
- Stop using social media accounts that constantly show triggering content in your feed (I know this may feel like a big loss, but your health and happiness are worth so much more!)
If you identify as having a positive body image, be part of the antidote to diet culture’s lies!
- If an account promotes unhealthy or restrictive ways of being in relationship with one’s body, food, or movement, do not support them with follows, likes, shares, or saves; all of these engagement types improve the account’s rank in the platform’s algorithm, which means more people will see the content- even if they don’t explicitly ask for it.
- Speak up! Stand up against weight stigma, diet culture, and lifestyle comparison in general. If you must be on social media, be a voice of truth.
- Have hard conversations with your friends and/or family about how they are feeling in their body and with body image. Be vigilant, inquisitive, and compassionate; when you hear someone say, “I feel fat” or “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” etc., talk to them. Comments that seem benign are often only the tip of the iceberg.
Lolly Wool, LPC, NCC, CEDS started her career as a Special Education teacher working with kids with Autism. After completing her Master’s degree, she began working for Alsana as a primary therapist. Throughout her time at Alsana she has been Lead Therapist, Director of Clinical Services for Residential, and now Regional Executive Director. She also spent a year and a half as a Clinical Director of a substance abuse program. She is trained in EMDR and has Advanced training in Somatic Experiencing. She is also a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist.