Body Image

What Is Body Image?

Body image is the way you see yourself and how you imagine you look. It can also be how you believe other people see you. Body image is something that many people struggle with, especially during adolescence.

What does it mean to have a positive body image?

When a person has a positive body image it means that person generally accepts and feels good about his/her body. It means that positive outlook is there even if that person’s body does not match the ideals that are put out there by the media or even in their own communities. A positive body image is not just about how you look, but also about what you feel your body is capable of doing. When you complete a strenuous hike, get through that tough lacrosse practice, or learn a new swim stroke it can help feed into a positive body image because you feel a sense of accomplishment of what your body can do.

What does it mean to have a negative body image?

A person with a negative body image basically feels that his/her body does not measure up to the ideals put forth by family, friends, or the media. People with a negative body image can often have a distorted view of themselves. They may see body parts as larger, or smaller, or different in some way than they really are. A person with a negative body image may feel very self-conscious and might go to lengths to hide things about their body (like wearing a baggy shirt over a bathing suit).

What shapes our body image?

The people around us and the culture we live in play a strong role in shaping our body image.

  • Parents and caregivers. The adults who raise you can definitely influence body image in a positive or negative way. Parents who criticize their child’s appearance can contribute to a negative body image. Parents who encourage (in a healthy way) their kids to be physically active can influence a positive body image.
  • Media. Television, magazines, movies – there is so much media out there that is filled with models and celebrities portraying images of how men and women should look. The problem is that they often create unrealistic expectations. For example, models generally weigh 23% less than women who are not models and often use unhealthy means of maintaining low weights. This can then put pressure on people to try and maintain weights that are not healthy for them (and to also use unhealthy means of achieving unhealthy weights).
  • Friends and peers. Many people like the idea of fitting in with their social circle, and fitting in can be of particular importance to teenagers. So a question for teens to ask themselves is what is being conveyed by the other teens around you when it comes to what is seen as acceptable or desirable regarding physical appearance and how does this affect how you feel about yourself?
  • Our emotional state. When people are stressed or depressed, for example, it can affect how they see themselves.
  • Phases of life. Our bodies go through different changes at different phases of life, and this can affect body image. For example, teens going through puberty may find their body image is impacted by the changes occurring in the body – this impact may be positive or negative depending on the types of changes going on.  
  • Illness and disabilities. Teens living with various illnesses or disabilities that impact their physical appearance may find additional struggles when it comes to body image.

What is the impact of having a negative body image?

People who have a negative body image over a long period of time are more likely to

  • have anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, shame and trouble concentrating.
  • take risks with their sexual health.
  • isolate themselves from others.
  • stop doing activities that require them to show their bodies, such as exercising, going to the doctor, or swimming.
  • suffer serious mental health problems, such as anorexia, bulimia, over-exercising, or overeating.

How can you build and maintain a positive body image?

  • It is important to keep realistic expectations for your appearance.
  • Speak to a trusted adult and/or trained mental health professional if you have a negative body image (particularly if that negative body image is leading to the mental health issues, such as an eating disorder)
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices. When you exercise regularly and eat healthy foods, it can affect how you look and feel in a very positive way.
  • Remind yourself of the positive qualities you possess that have nothing to do with your appearance.
  • Surround yourself with friends who are supportive and make you feel good about yourself.
  • Treat your body with respect and kindness. When you do drugs, smoke cigarettes, cut yourself or do anything else to harm your body, you are not treating your body as valuable. If you don’t treat it as valuable, how can you see it that way?
  • Find some physical activity that makes you feel good – running, hiking, biking, yoga, or swimming. Anything that allows you to feel proud of what your body can do.