Body image is the range of emotional, psychological, and visual (whether true or not) perceptions about the body. Specifically, it is the way we think about, feel about and perceive our bodies, based on a wide variety of both internal and external factors. In general, how we see ourselves does not have that much to do with how our body appears to anyone else. Instead, body image is the way we view our own bodies, which is frequently not the same perception other people would hold. In particular, women may have greater body image distortion than men, which in part explains the significant occurrence of eating disorders.
The way we view our bodies often has direct connections with self esteem, and is in part influenced by our exposure to most forms of visual media, which preferences very slender, young bodies over any other type. That few people actually fit into this category may not make much difference. Body image is frequently not logical or realistic, and a person’s body is compared to the ideal, rather than the real that surrounds them on a daily basis. Even a person who is slim and fit may find areas of their body they consider “problem areas.” The thighs may be too big, the rear too small, a birthmark or mole may be considered too large, or the breasts may not be the right shape. Science has shown over and again that body image is frequently distorted. What we see when we look in the mirror may have no bearing on the truth.
In a smaller context, shows like How to Look Good Naked on the Lifetime Channel, have shown how common distortion of body image truly is. With the host, Carson Kressley (of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame), women undergo an experiment where they judge a problem area by looking at other women of similar size. They are asked to place themselves in a lineup of these women, and frequently, they place themselves wrong. They overestimate the size of their problem area by several inches, at least, and often believe their problem area to be much larger in size than it actually is.
Close scrutiny of the body, especially when a person is comparing him or herself to the media ideal, may act like an unseen magnifying glass. Hips that seem too big really are much smaller than a person perceives. Alternately, some women and men may distort their image downward. If a person has gained weight he or she may still hold onto a body image of the past, and not realize a little weight loss would be beneficial. More often though, a problem is distorted upward, and in the most severe cases, eating disorders are provoked by a body image that is severely distorted. For most, how we perceive ourselves, especially those areas we don’t like, may simply lead to unhappiness about how we look.
In building a healthy body image, it may be wise to realize that you may not be able to trust your own eyes. It’s hard not to make comparisons to ideal forms and figures, which surround us continually. Instead of stressing over what you hate about your body, learning to accept the body you have and finding things you do like can be very helpful. It doesn’t hurt to eat healthily and get regular enjoyable exercise, but it is important to realize that there can be many reasons for the way you are shaped. Genetics, age, and health can all play a factor in the type of body you have, and these things are not within your control.
When your view of your body begins to result in severe depression or anxiety, or results in you depriving yourself of food or throwing up after meals, you do have an eating disorder. Seek help early for these conditions to restore you to sound mental health and in general, stronger self-appreciation and a more realistic view of how you actually appear.