Despite the body ‘positivity’ movement that encourages self-acceptance, most of us wish that we could change perceived flaws in our appearances. While it’s quite normal to have concerns about your appearance on occasion, it’s a serious problem when these thoughts become obsessive. Body dissatisfaction can sometimes be so severe that it impacts every aspect of life. This kind of extreme negative body image is recognized as a problem itself and is termed as body image dysmorphia disorder. Whether you suffer from body image dysmorphia or not, the preoccupation with body image can have a serious impact on mental health.
Fortunately, recognizing the problem also means that you can do something about it. Of course, this begins with understanding the impact of negative body image.
The Impact of Negative Body Image on Mental Health
If you are happy with your body and your appearance, you are more likely to enjoy good physical and mental health. There is plenty of evidence showing that both adolescents and adults are more vulnerable to mental health conditions like eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression when they have negative attitudes and feelings about their own bodies (1). As women are subjected to intense and unrealistic beauty standards in society and media from an early age, they are more likely to suffer from negative body image. Researchers believe that this higher prevalence of body dissatisfaction in women may also explain higher rates of depression (2).
But, why does a negative body image increase the risk of mental health disorders? There are some pretty straightforward explanations. Having poor body image affects your sense of self-esteem. After all, you can’t feel good about yourself if you’re constantly thinking that there’s something wrong with your appearance. Having low self-esteem then makes you less likely to socialize, increasingly self-conscious, and preoccupied with diets, exercise, or weight loss. If not dealt with appropriately, this can give rise to full-blown eating disorders, social anxiety disorders, and so on.
Negative body image also impacts romantic relationships, as self-consciousness is a barrier to intimacy. Not surprisingly, research shows that women with higher body weight satisfaction tend to find more satisfaction in their relationships (3).
Understanding the Causes of Negative Body Image
While unrealistic beauty standards and a cultural obsession with supermodels may be the most obvious cause of body image disorders, there are other factors at play too. Children who are bullied or teased about their appearance are more vulnerable to body image and anxiety disorders as adults. Similarly, adults who are repeatedly criticized or ridiculed for their appearance are very likely to develop body image and anxiety disorders. Being underweight, overweight, or obese also increases the risk of negative body image. It’s also worth noting that the relationship between negative body image and mental health disorders goes both ways. This means that individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders are also more vulnerable to body image disorders.
Turning the Negative into Positive
- Exercise and eat well, not to gain or lose weight, but for your own health (4)
- Practice mindfulness in every aspect of life to develop an appreciation of yourself and everything around you
- Take up relaxation techniques like meditation and breathing exercises to achieve inner peace and lower feelings of self-doubt and anxiety
- Pamper yourself with spa days and massage therapy regularly
- If you need added help, reach out to counselors or therapists and support groups
In addition to using these strategies in your daily life to fight body negativity, also confide in friends and loved ones who are supportive and non-judgemental. While the power to change rests solely with you, it doesn’t hurt to have a helping hand.
Manaf, Nurajirahbt Abdul et al. “The Prevalence and Inter-Relationship of Negative Body Image Perception, Depression and Susceptibility to Eating Disorders among Female Medical Undergraduate Students.” Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR vol. 10,3 (2016): VC01-VC04. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2016/16678.7341
Ferreiro, Fátima et al. “Toward understanding the role of body dissatisfaction in the gender differences in depressive symptoms and disordered eating: a longitudinal study during adolescence.” Journal of adolescence vol. 37,1 (2014): 73-84. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.10.013
SOBAL, JEFFERY, et al. “BODY WEIGHT AND RELATIONSHIP QUALITY AMONG WOMEN: Associations of Obesity and Underweight with Relationship Communication, Conflict, and Happiness.” International Journal of Sociology of the Family, vol. 35, no. 1, 2009, pp. 25–44. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23028799
Chao, Hai-Lun. “Body image change in obese and overweight persons enrolled in weight loss intervention programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” PloS one vol. 10,5 e0124036. 6 May. 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124036