Body Image and Self-Esteem 

Written by Karl Perera, MA, DipLC 

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From a young age, people are inundated with images of beauty, body shape, both male and female, and the ideal way to look. The standards are high and almost always impossible to achieve in a healthy way for the body and mind.

Body image and self-esteem are connected. If you have poor body image, you may suffer from low self esteem. A study in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2019 showed that body image and self-esteem issues do not have a boundary in gender or age. They affect both males and females alike throughout their lifespan.

Below, amongst other things, we will talk about what body image is,  its effect on self-esteem, and ways you can improve yours. 

What is Body Image? 

Body image is “The picture of our own body, which we form in our mind, that is to say, the way in which the body appears to ourselves.” (Schilder 1950, p.11). Poor body image can cause low self esteem and, in extreme cases, eating disorders. Women, men, adolescents and even children can suffer from negative body image.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), body image is how you personally see yourself whenever you look in the mirror or picture yourself visually in your mind. Your body image is comprised of many different components. These include:

  • Your own beliefs about your appearance.
  • Your feelings about your body. These can consist of your weight, height, and body shape. 
  • Your overall sense and control of your body. It is how you feel in your body.

Unfortunately, most of us begin to internalize messages about our body image starting at a young age.  These messages can lead to adopting either a positive or negative body image. A healthy body image is essential to your mental wellbeing.

How Does Body Image Affect Your Self-Esteem?

Your body image and self-esteem directly link to one another. Self-esteem is the value and respect you have for yourself as a person. Your self-esteem has an effect on how you take care of yourself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. A healthy body image allows you to recognize your physical strengths and qualities that give you a positive outlook on life and make you feel good about your body.

It is crucial to a person’s self-esteem and body image to have a positive environment where family and friends are supportive and accept each other’s appearance. If someone has a poor body image that affects their self-esteem, they may not take good care of themselves. Not doing so can include:

  • Not eating well or enough.
  • Getting poor or inadequate sleep.
  • Avoiding friends and family.
  • Declining opportunities to do things they enjoy.
  • Neglecting hygiene and grooming.

The above can lead to depression and eating disorders, among other physical and emotional tolls on a person’s health.

Who Suffers the Most from Body Image Issues? 

Although usually most commonly associated with girls and women, body image issues do not discriminate. They can affect boys and men and people of all ages, including children, teens, and adults. In fact, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, underweight boys are more likely to suffer from depression than girls who are overweight.

Overwhelming, girls and women suffer the most from body image issues. The statistics paint a sad picture. Data shows that almost 91% of women feel unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting to achieve the body they see portrayed in mainstream media. Alarmingly, research suggests that children as young as three years old can begin having body image issues. The young age at which this is beginning is because children start forming opinions on their bodies at a very young age as those around them influence them. These opinions continue to grow as teens and the mounting pressure to fit in with peers and look like the influencers on social media or the celebrities in movies, television, and music.

Body Image and women

Self esteem in women these days seems dependent on how they think they look. Many women check the scales several times a day as if that will make a difference. This a form of obsession. Women are more unhappy with the appearance of their bodies than men (Grogan 2017).

In fact this study showed that even watching half an hour of TV could be enough to negatively affect a woman’s body image. Myers and Biocca (1992) go on to state there is much evidence that connects poor body image in women with eating disorders such as Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa. The biggest problem appears to be advertising on TV and in the media, where images of slim and healthy women are often shown.

“I’m fat, short, skinny” – these are opinions you may hold and are most likely not true. Body image is often a distortion from reality.

Body image can affect self esteem (generally this is accepted according to Miller and Downey, 1999, though there is some disagreement). If you have poor body image you may also suffer from low self esteem and a lack of confidence. This appears to be quite a common problem these days due to the reasons so far given.

Although the ideals portrayed on TV and in the media focus on being slim and youthful, anyone can experience positive body image no matter what their appearance. We’ll take a look at techniques you can try a bit later.

Often women try to impress men with their looks and appearance and consequently feel self conscious about their body shape and their weight. In fact, most men, (in my experience as a guy), see beauty in women of all shapes and sizes. Attractiveness does not always lie in appearance. In my opinion, the most attractive quality in a woman is having self confidence and a positive outlook on life. Appearance does matter, but not as much as most women believe.

Body image and women in the US source

Your body is unique, enjoy it and love it. Focus on your good points. If someone likes you they will see the good and not the bad. Make yourself worthy of love and like yourself first.

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Body Image and men

Men also suffer from body image issues and this causes low self esteem and a lack of confidence.

Men worry about how tall, strong or muscly they are. The worst thing for men is probably being short or underweight. Many men can suffer low self esteem if they think they are short or too thin. Like women these men can become obsessed.

According to Grogan (2016), many men want to be like society portrays the ideal man, slender and muscular. If someone thinks they are too skinny or too fat, or weak looking, this can cause problems with body image and a resulting low level of self esteem.

One way that men can improve their body satisfaction is through physical exercise. There is quite a bit of evidence that physical activity can build positive body image according to Campbell and Hausenblas, 2009.

Again, the stereotypes that men carry around in their head and that are often reinforced on TV and in the media often contribute to body image issues in men.

Many body image issues for men can be the result of trauma. These can include bullying, sexual trauma, or other childhood trauma. The Newport Institute cites that isolation and the lack of social and physical activity led to increased male body image issues and disordered eating during the pandemic.

Image and adolescents

Adolescents often compare themselves and worry about their appearance. Looks and physical appearance seem highly important for them! The media encourage teenagers to look like the stars and pop idols they see on TV. These stars are not average looking people. The bar is therefore set very high. Comparing oneself and trying to be like these successful celebrities creates pressure and low self esteem.

Bad self image can be a killer! If people had confidence and liked themselves then eating disorders, bulemia and suicides would decrease.

How to Improve your Body Image and Self-Esteem 

These issues are deep-rooted and can be challenging to unpack emotionally and alleviate. It comes with a lot of undoing of the conditioning that may have formed at a young age and compounded during formative years. Fortunately, there are ways to work towards improving them. There are several easy and quick ways to help improve your self-esteem and body image.

8 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Body Image – Starting Right Now!

  1. Recognize your own positive attributes – Whatever makes you feel beautiful or handsome, play up that feature. If you love your lips, maybe rock a bright red lip. Think you have great calves? Show off your legs in a pair of shorts.
  2. Give yourself grace – Nobody is perfect. When something that you would typically beat yourself up over pops in your head, stop for a minute. Tell yourself all the great things about yourself and your body.
  3. Take a break from social media – Schedule a time that you put down your phone or computer each day. Instead of scrolling through your feed comparing yourself to others, do something with someone you love.
  4. Focus on you – Be a little selfish and remember that self-care can help with your body image and your self-esteem. If a midday nap, long shower, or at-home facial makes you feel great, do it!
  5. Stay active – Treating your body well is an easy way to feel great about yourself. It doesn’t have to be a crazy boot camp class. Go for a walk, do some yoga. Any activity that gets you moving and the endorphins flowing. 
  6. Eat whole, healthy foods – Nutritious food fuels our bodies and our minds. Eating well will make sure your body is functioning at its very best and improve your body image. Check out my site about nutrition and health
  7. Find a new hobby – Having something you are good at and love to do can be a great way to improve self-esteem and body image. When we are successful at something, it makes us happy, translating to self-esteem and body image boosts.
  8. Take up a sport. As well as competing against others, you can celebrate your fitness and agility in action and marvel at the activities that your body enables you to do. The bonus is that sport will also help you to feel and look better and feel happier about your body.

Body image and self-esteem are intertwined and impossible to separate. Understanding what they are and how to improve the two can lead to a happier, healthier mental and physical outlook. If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder or mental illness due to body image, please talk to them or reach out to a professional for help.

References

  1. National Eating Disorder Association. Body Image. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-0
  2. Jessie’s Legacy. (2021, February). Body Image & Self-Esteem: A Guide for Parents & Youth. HereToHelp. https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/infosheet/body-image-and-self-esteem-a-guide-for-parents-and-youth
  3. Familydoctor.org, Body Image Issues (Children and Teens). American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/building-your-childs-body-image-and-self-esteem
  4. Newport Institute. The Truth About Male Body Image Issues. https://www.newportinstitute.com/resources/mental-health/male-body-issues/
  5. DoSomething.org, 11 Facts About Body Image, https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-body-image
  6. Quittkat, H., Hartmann A., Dusing, R. Bulhmann, U., Vocks, S. (2019). Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 864. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6928134/
  7. Campbell A, Hausenblas HA. Effects of Exercise Interventions on Body Image: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology. 2009;14(6):780-793. doi:10.1177/1359105309338977
  8. Grogan, S. (2017). Body Image. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315681528
  9. Gallivan, H. (2014). Minnesota Association for Child Mental Health website. Teens Social Media Body Image Presentation. Park Nicollet Melrose Center. https://www.macmh.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/18_Gallivan_Teens-social-media-body-image-presentation-H-Gallivan-Spring-2014.pdf
  10. Miller CT, Downey KT. (1999). A Meta-Analysis of Heavyweight and Self-Esteem. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 3(1):68-84. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0301_4
  11. Myers, P. N., & Biocca, F. A. (1992). The elastic body image: The effect of television advertising and programming on body image distortions in young women. Journal of Communication, 42(3), 108–133. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1992.tb00802.x
  12. Schilder, P. (1935). The image and appearance of the human body. Kegan Paul.

Website Author and Your Guide

Karl Perera is a fully qualified Life Coach (DipLC), Teacher (MA), and author of the book Self Esteem Secrets. He has taught at various universities including Durham, Leicester and Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He has run More-SelfEsteem.com since 1997 since suffering from low self esteem for more than 25 years overcoming it in his thirties.