About body image
Your body image is how you perceive, think and feel about your body. This can include your body’s size, shape and weight, or individual body parts. Your body image may not be directly related to your actual appearance. 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. Recent research suggests that 80% of Australian women are dissatisfied with their bodies to some degree. A negative body image can lead to dieting and disordered eating behaviours.
Body image and health behaviours
A negative body image increases the risk of engaging in unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, such as dieting or restrictive eating, overexercising and other disordered eating or weight control behaviours.
Dieting is a strong risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Research shows that even ‘moderate’ dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder in teenage girls. While dieting is normalised in society, it can lead to serious physical health complications and, for most people who lose weight through dieting, the weight lost is gained back over time. Dieting is not sustainable. Instead, focus on eating a wide variety of foods for nourishment and enjoyment, and try to be flexible with your eating.
Body image can also affect a woman’s relationship with physical activity. Feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable with appearance or body size or shape can lead to women avoiding physical activity. This could be because they feel that being active or engaging in particular activities exposes their body to the public eye. Alternatively, a woman may overexercise or engage in an excessive amount of physical activity to lose weight or change their body shape. A healthy relationship with physical activity means engaging in regular physical activity that is focused on maintaining or improving physical fitness, and is an activity that is fun and enjoyable. Try to focus on the benefits of physical activity for physical, mental and social health, rather than for weight control or changing body size or shape.
Contributors of negative body image
Some of the factors that contribute to a negative body image include:
- being teased about appearance in childhood
- growing up in a household where emphasis is placed on appearance of a particular ideal body size or shape
- parents and other family members experiencing body dissatisfaction and engaging in dieting or weight control behaviours
- a cultural tendency to judge people by their appearance
- peer pressure among teenage girls and women to be slim, go on diets, exercise and compare themselves with others
- media and advertising images that promote particular appearance ideals
- a tendency in women’s media to push fad diets and weight loss programs
- well-meaning public health campaigns that urge people to lose weight.
Improving your body image
Your body image develops over the course of your life, so changing a negative body image can take time and effort. Suggestions for improving your body image include:
- Reflect on your experiences and try to unravel the development of your body image over the course of your life.
- Talk about feelings and experiences with other women who have similar concerns.
- Make a pact with yourself to treat your body with respect, which includes giving it enough food and rest.
- Avoid negative body talk – about your own body and that of others. Instead, focus on what you appreciate about your body – what your body can do rather than how it looks.
- Celebrate those positive qualities, skills, interests that you have as a person, rather than focusing on appearance-related qualities.
- Give yourself a break from women’s magazines and the mass media (including social media). Filter your social media feed so you can avoid interacting with messages that are appearance-focused.
- Try some form of physical activity purely for the fun of it or for enjoyment, not as a means of weight loss.
- Stop weighing yourself.
- Change your eating and physical activity goals from weight loss to improving your health.
- Get informed by reading up on body image issues.
- Get help for improving your body image
If you feel dissatisfied or unhappy with your body, feel like your body image gets in the way of being able to live your life or do the things you would like to, or you are engaging in restrictive eating or other unhealthy eating or exercise behaviours, then seeking professional help is important. Psychologists, dietitians and other health professionals trained in body image and eating disorders can assist you to improve your body image and relationship with food and physical activity.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV)
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