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Body image and mental health

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A woman sketches a self-portrait

“Body image” refers to the way you see, think about, and feel about your physical appearance. We all have different body shapes, sizes, and features that can affect how we view ourselves.

Most people experience a mix of positive and negative thoughts and feelings about their own bodies. For instance, you may like some parts of your body but dislike others.

Your body image is also a fluid perception that can change over time. It’s completely normal to like something about your body one day, then dislike it the next.

What’s a healthy body image?

A healthy body image means feeling satisfied and at ease with the body you have. You accept and even appreciate your body for what it looks like right now—including all your perceived flaws—rather than what you think it could or should look like.

When you have a healthy body image, you focus on what you like about your body, such as the qualities and abilities it gives you. This is also a natural motivator to practice self-care, which can help you appreciate your body even more.

The body positivity movement

For decades, an unrealistic ideal of the “perfect body” has been perpetuated by society and the media. Although this ideal has changed and body standards have evolved over the years, they still often have a damaging effect, leading us to feel negative about our bodies.

Body positivity is a fairly recent social movement that challenges harmful cultural standards of physical appearance, emphasizing the inherent value of bodies of all genders, physical abilities, skin tones, sizes, and shapes. By raising awareness of unrealistic and potentially dangerous ideals promoted in our culture, we can reduce the stigma around certain body types and help people view their bodies in a more balanced, realistic way.

The body positivity movement is about encouraging self-acceptance, celebrating everyone’s unique appearance, and cultivating self-care practices that prioritize physical and mental wellness. By valuing all bodies, we can start to think about our own in a healthier and more positive light.

Factors that influence body image

In early childhood, we start to become aware of our bodies, and many different factors start influencing how we think and feel about our physical appearance—thoughts and feelings that can follow us into adulthood. These influences include:

Family values and attitudes: Some parents criticize children about their size, weight, or appearance. Kids raised by parents who subscribe to diet culture are also more likely to struggle with negative body image.1

Cultural background: Body image ideals can vary widely between cultures. Each culture has its own concepts of what’s “desirable” in terms of weight, size, body shape, skin color, hair, features, and gender expression—and these cultural standards all have the potential to make people feel inadequate by comparison.

Media exposure: Movies, TV shows, social media, video games, and advertisements are filled with idealized images of bodies, which can distort our perceptions of what we think our own bodies should look like. Young people are especially impressionable, with teens at higher risk for body image issues depending on how much they use social media.2

Peer attitudes: Adolescents who feel a strong sense of belonging in their friend groups are more likely to feel good about themselves and their bodies, though kids who are raised to believe thinness is necessary for social acceptance are likelier to feel body dissatisfaction.3

Genetics: Our bodies are biologically predisposed toward certain shapes, sizes, and features, which can be hard to accept if they don’t fit society’s ideals.

Personality: Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or jealousy, can make it more difficult to accept your body.

Puberty: The hormonal, physical, and emotional changes of adolescence often lead to increased sensitivity around body image. People of all genders can struggle with body-related issues during adolescence, but girls tend to evaluate their appearances more harshly than boys, while gender-diverse and transgender teenagers may feel especially distressed about their gender-specific physical characteristics.4, 5

Abuse or trauma: Kids who’ve experienced abuse or trauma are more likely to have low self-esteem, which can contribute to a negative body image.6 Childhood trauma also increases a person’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder.7

How body image impacts mental health

Actively deciding to view yourself more positively and reject noninclusive standards of appearance can help you become less self-conscious and more accepting of your body. By doing so, you’re likely to end up influencing others to be more body positive, which in turn helps encourage more positive social messaging—a holistic process documented in a 2010 study of college women.8

A healthy body image has the potential to positively impact all aspects of your life. Its benefits can include:

  • Less comparing yourself to others
  • Improved self-awareness and self-compassion
  • Increased self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Reduced feelings of shame and embarrassment
  • Greater appreciation of your body’s abilities and strengths
  • Better physical and mental health from self-care practices
  • Healthier eating patterns and behaviors
  • Reduced anxiety, depression, and stress
  • Reduced likelihood of engaging in self-punishing or unhealthy behaviors like restrictive eating, overtraining, or substance misuse
  • Less judgment and more appreciation of others’ unique appearances, personalities, abilities, and achievements
  • Higher-quality and more meaningful relationships

Consequences of negative body image

Feeling inadequate, ashamed, or insecure about how you look can lead to unhealthy coping strategies, including attempts to hide or change your body. Fear of being judged and scrutinized can also put a strain on your relationships, because self-doubt and low self-esteem make it harder to trust others, accept compliments, and build meaningful connections.

Having a negative body image can sometimes lead to more serious mental health issues, including:

Anxiety and depression: Teens with a negative body image are likelier to struggle with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts than peers with healthier self-perception.9

Low self-esteem: There’s a strong link between body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem among adolescents of all ages and backgrounds.10 For girls in particular, being heavier and feeling bad about it is associated with lower self-esteem.11

Eating disorders: Body dissatisfaction is a major contributor to the development of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.12

Substance abuse: People may use drugs or alcohol to cope with overwhelming negative feelings about their body. In particular, research shows that negative body image is associated with increased alcohol and tobacco use among teenagers.13

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD): Also called body dysmorphia, BDD is a mental health condition where you focus intensely on your own perceived physical flaws. People with BDD often fixate on certain body parts and obsessively seek out ways to change them, even when there’s no real cause for concern.

Self-harm: Teenagers with negative body image and low self-esteem are more likely to harm themselves.14 If you’re thinking about hurting yourself, please seek help immediately. Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text HOME to 741741 for free, confidential 24/7 support.

How to build and maintain a healthy body image

It may take time, but it’s possible to build a healthier relationship with your body even if you’re struggling now.

Here are some tips to help you develop a healthier and more positive body image:

Find one physical feature to appreciate daily. A simple way to do this is by focusing on how your body has helped you today: how your arms helped you carry groceries inside, for example, or how your fingers helped you text a friend.

Focus on how your body feels when you’re doing something you enjoy, even if it doesn’t involve much movement. Sitting silently while enjoying a cup of coffee counts.

Be mindful of your language and how you talk about yourself. Avoid making negative comments about your body and try to say compassionate, positive things instead.

Avoid the comparison game by reminding yourself that everyone has unique physical features. It’s also important to remember that what you see in the media, especially social media, may be heavily filtered or edited to look more conventionally attractive than in real life.

Be mindful of how social media affects you. Unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, and take breaks from social media to engage in activities you enjoy.

Look beyond appearances. Celebrate successes, talents, and attributes that have nothing to do with what you or anyone else looks like.

Practice self-care. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthfully, and be kind to yourself—especially when you’re feeling down.

Be active for the sake of feeling good, taking care of yourself, and living longer.15 Try not to use exercise just to get to a certain clothing size or number on the scale.

Remind yourself of your worth. Acknowledge that you’re more than just your appearance. Your skills, talents, and qualities are loved and appreciated.

Surround yourself with positive people. Focus on relationships with people who support and uplift you, not the ones who criticize you or make you feel insecure.

Talk to a mental health professional if your body image is impacting your quality of life and you’re struggling to cope. Visit our directory to connect with a therapist who can offer the support and guidance you need to feel more comfortable with your body.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.