What is body image?
Updated September 2023 | 5m read
Expert contributor Ranjani Utpala, psychologist and Clinical Director at the Butterfly Foundation
Words by Kerry McCarthy
Our perception of how we look influences how we feel and interact with the world. But how important is having a good body image and what kind of impact can it have on our health?
How do you feel when you look at yourself in the mirror? Which parts do you focus on, and what thoughts do you have about them? The perception of our physical self is what makes up our body image, and for some people, it can be a complex emotional experience.
The way we see – and assess – our physical appearance can determine whether we navigate life with a positive or negative body image. But what we believe to be true about our body is often different to the view of our inner critic.
What is 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.
Having a negative body image means we may judge or compare our body, either to others or to images of bodies we believe are 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 and body shape, 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.
When puberty hits, the body changes dramatically. A young person can experience sudden weight gain, acne and hair developing in places it wasn’t before. They may start to become aware that they look different from their peers – and the curated images they're seeing on social media. All these factors can create a negative body image.
Fact: One-third of Aussie teens between the ages of 14 to 17 reported at least one instance of body discrimination due to body size, shape or physical appearance according to the Growing up in Australia longitudinal study of Australian children.
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.
After having a baby, instead of being celebrated for the strength, resilience and incredible power of their bodies, some women can feel judged or pressured about what their post-baby body looks like.
“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.
Fact: One Australian study of 400 postpartum women found that one-third had disordered eating behaviours.
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.”
Fact: Two-thirds of Australians who experience an eating disorder are women, according to the Butterfly Foundation.
Age changes our metabolism and affects the way our body looks and functions. This can lead to negative body image in a society which generally equates beauty with youth. “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.
Fact: One UK study found that about 20% of adults aged 55 and over 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
How to improve negative body image
If you'd like to minimise the negative self-talk and foster a more positive body image, there are techniques you can start implementing today.
- Focus on what your body can do: think about all the incredible things your body enables you to do, rather than how it looks. Focus on appreciating and respecting your body, as well as acknowledging your unique skills and talents.
- Edit your social media feed: the more images we see of unattainable bodies, the more we compare ourselves and feel worse. Unfollow anyone on social media who has a negative impact on your self-esteem.
- Prioritise self-care: looking after your overall health is beneficial for improving your mood and how you feel about yourself. Getting a good night's sleep, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and avoiding drugs and excessive alcohol is a way of telling your body that you respect and appreciate it.
- Control your inner critic: instead of criticising yourself, stand up to your inner bully and replace the negative self-talk with something positive. Start the day by saying something like "I'm proud of my body because it grew my babies", or "I'm grateful for my legs because they help me go for a run".
Find more tips to help you overcome negative body image.
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.
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 services offer eligible HCF members* access to a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a registered psychologist from PSYCH2U.
Where to find more mental health help:
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SIGNS OF AN EATING DISORDER
Eating disorders often go unrecognised and untreated, but increased awareness and understanding can drive positive change.
BODY DYSMORPHIC DISORDER
While it’s normal to think about your appearance from time to time, for people with body dsymorphia, it can become an obsession that interferes with their life.
* 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.
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