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Body image is a person’s mental opinion or description of his or her own physical appearance. It also involves the reactions of others toward that person’s physical body based on what is perceived by that person. The concept of body image slowly develops
(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)
over time, generally beginning in infancy. Perception of body image among people can widely range from very negative to very positive. Depending on age and other factors, the degree of concern with body image can also widely vary among an individual.
A person who has a poor body image perceives their body as unattractive to others, while someone with a good body image views their body as being attractive to others. Body image is studied within the area of psychoanalysis, which is a psychological theory that involves mental functions of humans both consciously and unconsciously.
Generally, within psychoanalytic study, body image is not related to any objective measure (based on facts) but is subjective (based on opinions and feelings) in nature. Consequently, one’s opinion of their own body image may or may not parallel how others judge that person’s body image. For instance, people judging a person may view that person as attractive, however, that person may judge themselves as having an unattractive body image. On the other hand, a person may perceive their body image as attractive but be judged unattractive by most people who come in contact with the person.
Body image, especially with young people going through puberty (a stage of physical and mental development that begins sexual reproduction), can become a problem especially when parents are overly concerned with their children’s weights and appearances; parents, especially mothers, are very self aware with their own weights and appearance; other children use excess pressure on their peers (fellow children) to look or act a particular way; and mass media advertisements and other such means that try to actively imply a certain body look (such as, thin is an ideal
Scientists have found that body image is first formed as an infant during contact, or lack of contact, with people such as parents and family members. Personal contacts in the form of hugs, kisses, and other forms of affection can help develop an early positive body image. Lack of such contact, can have the opposite effect, forming an early negative body image.
The purpose of body image is generally used as a way for individuals to compare themselves against a model (ideal) image and for people to compare others through physical traits and characteristics. It is usually measured against an ideal body shape with respect to various physical characterizations such as facial features and overall body weight of the human body including fatness and muscle mass.
Within the field of psychoanalysis, a person’s body image is often measured by asking a person to rate parts of his/her current body (such as face, stomach, and buttocks) with respect to a series of pictures representing an ideal body image. The difference in rating between a person’s current body image and a perceived idea body image is generally considered the amount a person is dissatisfied with their body.
Concern with body image is generally more important with women than it is with men. Women usually are more critical of their overall body and individual parts of their body than are men. However, the gap between the two genders has been narrowing over recent years as men become more concerned with their body image.
A perception of a poor body image often relates with a feeling of being overweight, especially with women. Men, on the other hand, desire more muscle mass when considering their body image. Their feeling to be more masculine parallels this desire to add additional muscle mass and to produce more definition in their current muscles.
Generally, apoor body image can lead to constant and fad dieting, obesity, and eating disorders, along with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and overall emotional distress. However, for the most part, people with good exercise habits, positive personal and sexual experiences, and excellent emotional and mental states have better and more accurate perceptions of their body image than people without those characteristics and experiences. These people also have fewer problems associated with a poor body image.
Exaggerated and distorted concerns with body image have been linked in medical studies with decreases in self esteem and increases in dieting and eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia. People with body image problems can also have a condition called body dysmorphic disorder, which involves a distorted body image without any eating disorders. Excessive preoccupation with body image and an exaggerated obsession on positive body image has, in the past, been associated with the personality disorder called narcissism (self-admiration, or an overestimation about one’s appearance).
Body image can be affected by outside influences. Media sources, such as television, the Internet, and magazines, often portray people closer to the commonly accepted ideal body type than the average body image in order to sell their products and services. Consequently, people, especially older children and young adults, are overly influenced and swayed by such depictions of body image. For instance, according to Association Body Image for Disordered Eating (ABIDE), the average U.S. citizen was exposed to about 5,000 advertising messages each and every day in 2003. Studies of network television commercials have shown that attractiveness is a desirable trait that advertisers regularly use to convince viewers to purchase their products.
Family life can also affect a person’s perception of their body image. Parents that criticize their children, such as in the way they look, talk, or act, often may have a negative effect on the development of self-esteem in their offspring.
Without a healthy regard for one’s self, people can often become very self-conscious of their body image. Sometimes feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation occur. With low self-esteem and body image problems, some people use alcohol or drugs to offset those negative feelings. Others turn away from their regular activities and their usual friends—becoming withdrawn and showing lack of interest in themselves and the world around them.
Sometimes, a person can recover from such feelings by re-focusing their life on good qualities, accepting things that cannot be changed, and realistically working on things can could be improved. In some cases, outside help is needed in the form of a guidance counselor, parent, coach, religious leader, or someone else that is trusted and accepting of personal feelings. Crisis hotlines are also available to help with such problems.
Parents should be concerned if their children have excessive concerns about their appearance and looks. All children will be concerned with some aspect of their body. This concern is normal and is not a medical problem. However, an obsession with one’s physical body and appearance is not normal. In fact, an obsession with one’s body image is called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
The mental disorder called BDD usually appears in adolescence, already a period in one’s life that causes sensitivities in one’s appearance and body image. In BDD, the person is very critical of their body image even though nothing out of the ordinary is seen by anyone looking at the person. The major criteria for BDD involve a preoccupation with an imagined defect in one’s appearance or an excessive concern with a minor physical blemish or flaw; a reaction that produces excessive distress in one’s social and personal life and/or impairs one’s professional life; and a medical diagnosis that eliminates the cause from being other mental disorders.
Symptoms of BDD include compulsive use of mirrors and other reflective objects, social withdrawal, abnormal grooming behaviors, compulsive touching of one’s skin and body, obsession with plastic surgery, lowered self-esteem, and compulsive attraction toward one or more celebrity figures (often with features that the subject feels they are lacking). The body parts most often the topic of a BDD person’s attention are skin and hair, general face (especially nose, chin, teeth, and lips), stomach, breasts/chest/nipples, eyes and eyebrows, general legs (especially thighs), and buttocks. The person is often concerned with their weight, body build, and bone structure
BDD can often leads to depression, anxiety (especially when in social situations), obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicide. Parents should be aware of any BDD symptoms in their children and consult with their family doctor about their concerns for the health and well-being of their children.
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Preester, Helena, and Veroniek Knockaert, eds. Body Image and Body Schema: Interdisciplinary Perspectives Philadelphia, PA: J. Benjamins, 2005.
Wilhelm, Sabine. Feeling Good About the Way You Look: A Program for Overcoming Body Image Problems New York: Guilford Press, 2006.
Wykes, Maggie. The Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005.
What is body image and why does it matter? UGA Campaign for Every Body, University Health Center, University of Georgia at Athens. [cited April 13, 2007]. <http://nccam.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/sjwataglance.htm>.
National Eating Disorders Association. Home page of NEDA [cited April 16, 2007] <http://www.edap.org/>.
William Arthur Atkins