Body Image: Effects and Representation
Body image is a person’s subjective mental image of their own body, how they see themselves when looking in the mirror. This includes how you feel about your height, shape, and weight and how you sense and control your body as you move.
Body image is impacted by your memories from your own life and assumptions and generalizations about what bodies should like and what it means when they deviate from that standard. It is impacted by other reference points, seeing other people’s bodies and comparing them to your own.
How body image can affect your mental health
It is no secret that one’s body image plays a role in their mental health – how you view your own body affects how you view yourself overall and how you process the world around you.
A negative body image contributes to low self-esteem, which can take a toll on your mental health. People with negative body images are more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed, making them less likely to prioritize their mental and physical health. They become self-defeating, believing the lie that they are worth less than people with “ideal” bodies.
Poor body image can cause people to constantly feel overly self-conscious, talk negatively about themselves, and withdraw from activities, and can be a barrier for intimacy with a partner. It can even lead to diagnosed mental health issues, such as depression and eating disorders, which negatively impact mental and physical health further.
The importance of representation
The prevalence of negative body image is strongly tied to body representation in the entertainment industry. For both women and men, TV, movies, and advertising have all held up a gold standard of what people should look like. The message is subliminal: we’re not widely being told to look a certain way, but we are primarily seeing people in media who do match certain body types.
“Even our toys tell us what we should strive to look like from an early age,” says Amanda McGeshick, Healthy Youth Program Manager at Centerstone. “We grow up believing that if we don’t look like Barbie or G. I. Joe, we are ‘different’ and unhealthy.”
This is why body representation is important. When we see people who look like us playing the lead role in movies, we feel seen and important. We believe that we don’t have to look a certain way before we can accomplish great things or make a strong impact in the world.
Media has already made improvements in body representation over the years, but there is still a long way to go. The more represented people of varying shapes and sizes are, the better people’s body images will become.
What you can do
Beyond representation in media, there are ways you can practice body positivity in your own life to help with your body image.
- Accept your genetic blueprint. Even at your “healthiest” you will still have your own unique body type and size. Try to accept yourself and love your body at every stage.
- Speak positivity into your life. Try this practice: write down things about yourself that you love and post them on a mirror. List things outside of your physical appearance – just anything that you love about yourself such as a skill, talent, or personality trait. This can build your self-esteem and appreciation for your body. Reject diet mentality. Culture has become far more focused on dieting and slimming down than actually being healthy, but diet culture creates a standard that is impossible for most to maintain. Instead of being worried about dieting correctly, focus on being balanced and healthy; eat well (throw in some fruits and veggies) and get out and move your body in a way that feels good to you. It won’t always look like sizing down your clothes.
- Fight against shame. It is always important to be kind to yourself. “Shame is a common aspect of body image that runs into adulthood,” says Amanda McGeshick. “When you don’t hit this perceived ideal, you become your own critic attaching self-worth into food choices (i.e. I was “bad” because I had cake.) Be kind to yourself and remember food choices don’t determine whether or not you are a good person.