Health Agenda

Mental Health

What is body image?

Our perception of how we look influences how we feel and interact with the world. But how important is a healthy body image and what kind of impact can it have?

Frizzy hair. Wonky teeth. Weird feet. We all have something about our physical appearance that we’d like to change. But, ideally, we also see things we like each time we look in the mirror. Clear skin, kind eyes, strong muscles.

Good and bad, this perception of our physical self makes up our body image – the way we see and feel about our body and what we look like. But, what we believe to be true about our body is often a skewed review from our inner critic.

So, what is body image and how do we get a positive or negative view of ourselves?

Positive and negative body image

A healthy body image doesn’t come from how we look, but from how we feel.

“Having a healthy or positive body image is when we appreciate and respect our bodies,” says Ranjani Utpala, a psychologist and Clinical Director at the Butterfly Foundation. “A positive body image allows us to be proud of how our bodies behave and function, and accept that while we might not be able to do everything, our bodies take us places and allow us to do things that we enjoy.”

A positive body image can also make our relationship with eating and exercise healthier, and make us less susceptible to negative self-talk. “When we have positive body image, it can actually enhance our self-esteem and self acceptance, and make us resilient when faced with messages we receive from media or friends and family about what the “ideal” body should be” Ranjani adds.

A negative body image means we may judge or compare our bodies, either to others or to images we believe to be better than our own. A negative body image can lead to serious health issues, like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, compulsive exercising and body-image disorders.

Feeling as if our body isn’t “right” – too tall, too big, too thin, etc – can lead to issues with self confidence and self-esteem, where we may choose to isolate ourselves or not take part in social or work opportunities because we don’t feel as if we’re good enough.

Who's at risk of negative body image?

We all have a perception of our bodies and how we look, liking some aspects of our appearance but also disliking others. When negative body image starts to impact not just how we feel about ourselves but also how we behave it can be more serious.

While this can happen to anyone, there are particular groups who may be more at risk due to their age or stage of life.

Adolescents

When puberty hits, the body changes dramatically. A young person can experience a sudden weight gain and hair developing in places it wasn’t before, and they may start to look different from their peers. All of these factors can create a negative body image.

Fact: Adolescents who were dieting reported more emotional problems, lower levels of school adjustment and more social difficulties than those who were not restricting their food intake.

The LGBTIQA+ community

“Anyone who feels as if they, or their body, is divergent from the norm, may experience negative body image,” says Ranjani.

Fact: Research shows that two-thirds of young people who identify as transgender report limiting their eating because of struggles with gender identity.

New mums

While it’s socially acceptable to look different when we’re pregnant, as soon as we aren’t, we can start to judge our bodies for not “bouncing back” to our pre-baby shape. “There’s huge pressure in our society to lose baby weight, and for some reason people think they can make comments about that to mothers, without thinking about how those comments might make her feel,” says Ranjani.

Stat: One Australian study of 400 postpartum women found that one-third had disordered eating behaviours.

Women

Historically, women have been more at risk of having negative body image. “The objectification of women’s bodies by society has put women at a greater risk of negative body image,” says Ranjani. “But this is changing rapidly and men can also be affected.”

Stat: Two-thirds of Australians who experience an eating disorder are women, according to the Butterfly Foundation.

Older people

Age changes our metabolism and affects the way our body functions, which can lead to negative body image. “Older men and women are bombarded with the same images from social media and society as everyone else, and may be affected by those unattainable ideals,” says Ranjani.

Stat: One UK study found that about 20% of adults surveyed felt either anxious or depressed because of their body image.

The consequences of negative body image

Negative body image can have a significant impact on many areas of our life, including how we interact with others.

“Negative body image may lead some people to isolate themselves and withdraw from opportunities, either in having relationships or in their career,” says Ranjani. “Even if they do manage to fight the feeling of not being good enough to perhaps speak at a work function or have a relationship, their output or success may be impacted because they don’t truly believe they deserve it.”

Other side effects of negative body image can include:

  • obsessively comparing your body to others
  • developing a habit of disordered eating, either not enough or too much
  • exercising obsessively
  • self-harm.

Getting help with body image

If you or a loved one are experiencing negative body image and need help or support, ask your GP for a referral to a local service.

You can also chat online or email the Butterfly Foundation, or call its national helpline on 1800 334 673.

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health professionals.

Where to find more mental health help:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

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