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What Is Body Image? Flo’s Guide to Self-Love

Body image is the perception you have of your physical self and the feelings (positive, negative, or both) and thoughts that result from that perception. People who are overwhelmed with thoughts about and obsessions with their appearance and any flaws may have a body image disorder or body dysmorphic disorder.
Women with positive body image

Definition of body image 

Body image refers to how people see and identify themselves. It is an individual’s perception of the physical self or aesthetics of their own body. These feelings can be negative, positive, or both, and are influenced by individual and environmental factors. Body image can affect a person’s health.

Body image is a complex construct and comprises thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors. The way we visualize ourselves and our bodies has an effect on our health and relationships.

Positive body image

Someone with a positive body image has a very clear and truthful perception of their body’s appearance and shape. Such individuals may take pride in the way they appear and feel confident in their body. Proper exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and a balanced diet can contribute to a positive body image.

Part of having a positive body image is separating our appearance from how we value ourselves. Individuals who realize that their self-worth is not connected to their appearance are more likely to feel good about how they look.

Negative body image

A negative, or “distorted,” body image is associated with an unrealistic visualization of how someone sees their body. It is mostly seen in women. However, men also experience this disorder. People with a negative body image frequently compare themselves with others, and they may feel incomplete and inadequate when doing so. They may feel embarrassed, ashamed, and lacking in confidence. They frequently feel awkward and uncomfortable in their body.

Body image disorder involves feelings of anxiety, shame, and self-consciousness. Such people may experience low self-esteem, isolation, depression, and eating disorders.

A woman wih body image disorder

People with body image disorder may look in the mirror frequently and see parts of their body in an unreal and a distorted way. For example, a woman with a normal body mass index may persistently see herself as obese and disfigured. Some people with a negative body image develop a disorder called body dysmorphic disorder. The average age of onset of body dysmorphic disorder is between 15 and 20. It is more common in unmarried than in married people. An individual with this disorder visualizes their body, or part of their body, in an extremely negative way. They may have strong beliefs that they are unattractive or disgusting. 

People can spend significant time trying to correct perceived flaws with makeup, dermatological procedures, or plastic surgery. 

Body image and eating disorders 

While there is not a single cause of eating disorders, research reports that body dissatisfaction is the best-known reason why some people develop anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. 

Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating illness where the person’s body mass index is less than 17.5, they have an intense fear of getting fat, and may exercise excessively. 

A woman suffering from an eating disorder

Bulimia nervosa involves binge eating combined with behaviors intended to counteract weight gain, such as vomiting; use of laxatives, enemas, or diuretics; and excessive exercise. Patients with bulimia are often embarrassed by their binge eating and overly concerned with body weight. However, unlike patients with anorexia, they usually maintain a normal weight (and may be overweight). 

There are two subcategories of bulimia: 

  • Purging type — involves vomiting, laxatives, enemas, or diuretics 
  • Non-purging type — involves excessive exercise or fasting

Research suggests that there is a connection between body image and eating disorders.

Eating disorders are complicated mental illnesses caused by genetic as well as environmental factors, negative body image being one potential contributor. Negative body image is associated with eating disorders because many individuals with eating disorders place a high value on their body size and shape when determining their own self-worth.

This self-perception or over-evaluation of shape and weight is a symptom of some, but not all, eating disorders. 

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Tips to love your body 

Here are five ways you can appreciate your body with simple rituals for wellness and self-love.

1. Meditation

A meditating woman

Meditation is a superb and effective way to center yourself. Whenever you feel low and your mind is racing, you can always turn to meditation. The best thing about meditation is that you can do it anywhere. Just find a calm, quiet, and comfortable space; close your eyes; and start taking deep breaths. 

2. Maintain a positive attitude

Remind yourself that other people appreciate and enjoy your company. Accept your strengths and weaknesses boldly and avoid comparisons. No one is perfect. Try not to be highly critical or judgmental of yourself or others. 

3. Mirror work

Mirror work

Look into the mirror every day and tell yourself: “I love you.” Do it even if you feel silly!

Put a few notes on your mirror with loving and positive reminders of how beautiful you are inside and out. Waking up every morning with a kind and loving message to your body and yourself can help change the relationship you have with yourself in a very positive way.

4. Gratitude

Paying gratitude for who you are is an amazing way to boost your self-love. When you wake up in the morning and every night before you sleep, write down two things for which you are grateful. It is a beautiful way to honor yourself and your life. It’s a perfect time to be thankful for your body!

5. Surround yourself with joy

Create an environment you absolutely love and where you find immense joy and happiness. Surround yourself with fresh flowers, pictures of people you love, positive images, essential oils, favorite books, etc. It is an act of self-love when you can smile by just looking around. 

It’s not always easy, but people should aim to love their bodies. Working towards appreciating and accepting your body has many benefits. It’s not possible to improve body image without effort, and the strategies above will take time. Working on your body image is an appropriate goal for therapy, whether or not you are experiencing disordered eating. If you’re struggling with your body image, it’s always a good idea to talk to a trusted health professional about what’s worrying you.

Gagne, D. A., Von Holle, A., Brownley, K. A., Runfola, C. D., Hofmeier, S., Branch, K. E., & Bulik, C. M. (2012). Eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in a large web‐based convenience sample of women ages 50 and above: Results of the gender and body image (GABI) study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(7), 832-844.

Halliwell, E. (2015). Future directions for positive body image research. Body image, 14, 177-189.

Moulding, N. T. (2007). “Love your body, move your body, feed your body”: Discourses of self-care and social marketing in a body image health promotion program. Critical Public Health, 17(1), 57-69.

Olivardia, R., Pope Jr, H. G., Borowiecki III, J. J., & Cohane, G. H. (2004). Biceps and body image: the relationship between muscularity and self-esteem, depression, and eating disorder symptoms. Psychology of men & masculinity, 5(2), 112.

Rosen, J. C., Orosan, P., & Reiter, J. (1995). Cognitive behavior therapy for negative body image in obese women. Behavior therapy, 26(1), 25-42.

Rosen, J. C., & Ramirez, E. (1998). A comparison of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder on body image and psychological adjustment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 44(3-4), 441-449.

Thompson, J. K., & Smolak, L. (Eds.). (2001). Body image, eating disorders, and obesity in youth: Assessment, prevention, and treatment. Taylor & Francis.

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