SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Your body image is how you think and feel about your body.
- People of all genders can experience body dissatisfaction.
- Poor body image is often linked to dieting, over-exercising, or eating disorders.
- Frequent dieting can affect your mental and physical health.
On this page
What is body image?
Your body image is how you think and feel about your body. Body image involves your thoughts, perceptions, imagination and emotions. People can experience a positive or negative body image and can be influenced by both the internal and external factors in our lives. Your body image does not necessarily reflect what you see in the mirror or what other people see. For example, a person may think and feel that their body is much larger or smaller than it is.
Body image issues affect people of all ages, genders and across all cultures. A negative body image can lead to dieting and disordered eating behaviours, and increases the risk for the development of an eating disorder. A positive body image is associated with better self-esteem, self-acceptance and healthy lifestyle behaviours, including a balanced approach to food and physical activity.
Effects of negative body image
A negative body image (or experiencing body dissatisfaction) can lead to:
- the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder
- the development of other mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression or anxiety.
Poor body image or body dissatisfaction can often result from comparing your body with what society tells you is the ideal body size and shape (television, social media, advertising). The perceived body ideal can vary over time and between cultures.
Some people may engage in dieting because they are experiencing body dissatisfaction, rather than because they want to eat nutritionally well, or be in a healthy weight range. While it is important to maintain healthy eating behaviours, dieting can lead to physical illness and depression, especially if your weight goes up and down after dieting.
It is well documented that even 'moderate' dieting can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Dieting or restrictive eating can also lead to preoccupation with thoughts about food.
Why diets don't work
Dieting is a significant risk factor for developing an eating disorder. While dieting is normalised in society, it is not normal or healthy, and can lead to serious physical health complications.
A national survey of 1,033 Australians aged 18 to 64 years found that 46 per cent of adults had actively tried to lose weight in the previous year.
Research shows that dieting for weight loss is not effective in the longer term, and may actually be associated with weight regain. In some cases, people may regain more than they lost through dieting.
The diet cycle
The typical diet cycle involves:
- Starting a diet – often quite rigid and limits the amount, type of frequency of food and eating.
- Short-term weight loss – noticing changes in body shape or weight and feeling successful and in control.
- Deprivation – the body responds physically and mentally. Your metabolism slows, hunger increases, and people experience a preoccupation with food and eating.
- Diet rules are broken – inevitably, due to deprivation, the diet rules are broken. People experience feelings of guilt, failure and disappointment.
- Weight loss is regained – this can be associated with eating foods not part of the diet, eating when not hungry, and sometimes overeating or binge eating.
This weight cycling (repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain) may put you at risk of physical health complications such as heart problems.
If you are concerned about your own or your child's weight, consult with your GP (doctor) or dietitian, or a paediatrician.
Where to get help
- Aussies wasting time and money on fad diets, 2017, Dietitians Association of Australia.
- Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients, 2011–12, 2014, Australian Bureau of Statistics, no. 4364.0.55.007.
- Hayward J, Millar L, Petersen S, et al. 2014, 'When ignorance is bliss: weight perception, body mass index and quality of life in adolescents', International Journal of Obesity, vol. 38, no. 10, pp. 1328–1334.
- The diet cycle, InsideOut.
- Neumark-Sztainer D, Wall M, Larson NI et al. 2011, 'Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: Findings from a 10-year longitudinal study', Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 111, no. 7, pp. 1004–1011.s