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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

Steps to help your child develop a positive body image

  • Make sure your child understands that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty
  • Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape
  • Allow your child to make decisions about food, while making sure that plenty of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available
  • Compliment your child on her or his efforts, talents, accomplishments, and personal values
  • Restrict television viewing, and watch television with your child and discuss the media images you see
  • Encourage your school to enact policies against size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing, and name-calling; and support the elimination of public weigh-ins and fat measurements
  • Keep the communication lines with your child open

SOURCE: National Women’s Health Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

(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


Anorexia nervosa—A mental eating disorder that features an extreme fear and obsession of becoming overweight, which leads to extreme forms of dieting even with incidences that result in sickness and sometimes even death.

Binge eating disorder—A mental eating disorder that features the consumption of large amounts of food in short periods of time.

Body dysmorphic disorder—A mental disorder that features a distorted or disturbed body image by the subject who is very critical of their physical body and body image even though no defect is easily visible.

Bulimia—A mental eating disorder that is characterized by periods of overeating followed with periods of undereating.

Narcissism—Excessive admiration of one’s self.

Objective—Based on facts.

Obsessive compulsive disorder—A mental disorder that is characterized by obsessive thoughts and related compulsive activities that in the subject’s mind are attempts to counter and remove the unusual thoughts.

Psychoanalysis—A psychological theory that concerns the mental functions of humans both on the conscious and unconscious levels.

Puberty—A stage of physiological maturity that marks the start of being capable of sexual reproduction.

Subjective—Based on feelings and opinions.

body image). Body image is also closely associated with self-esteem, which is defined as the amount of value and worthiness a person inwardly feels.

Older children and young adults are more concerned about how other people view them than other age groups, so are much more sensitive with body image and vulnerable to external pressures. This can affect their self-esteem as their body goes through dramatic changes from adolescence to adulthood (puberty). Boys may be overly concerned with height when seeing girls of their same age growing upward faster. Girls may feel sensitive about their height, weight, or other noticeable changes happening within their body.


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.

Parental concerns

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.


Knoblich, Gunther, et al. eds. Human Body Perception from the Inside Out Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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]. <>.


National Eating Disorders Association. Home page of NEDA [cited April 16, 2007] <>.

William Arthur Atkins