Body image and mental health

The term ‘body image’ relates to how we think or feel about our bodies. Many of us will experience a negative feeling towards our body at some point in our lives, and these feelings prolonged can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

What is body image?

We hear terms like body image and body confidence in the news and media frequently, but what exactly do they mean? The term body image refers to how we think or feel about ourselves physically, and how we believe we’re perceived by others. If you experience uncomfortable emotions about your body you may have a negative body image. Experiencing anxiety with your body image is different to living with the mental health condition body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which is a type of anxiety disorder.

Who does it effect and why?

Contrary to the stereotype that body image concerns are unique to teenage girls, the experience of a negative body image can be shared by anyone of any race, religion, gender or age.

  • 1 in 8 adults have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image.
  • 60% of adults have felt a negative emotion about their body image.
  • 1 in 3 adults have felt so stressed by a negative body image that they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.Source – Mental Health Foundation

The reasons why people experience feeling distressing emotions towards their body are complex, and everyone’s experience will be unique. Some things thought to cause negative body image include:

  • Childhood or adulthood trauma or abuse.
  • Religion or religious practices affecting how you dress or present yourself.
  • How we hear family and friends talk about their bodies.
  • Limited representation of what a healthy body should look like in education.
  • Limited representation of different body types in the media.
  • Media presenting the healthy body to look a specific way.
  • Social media presenting unrealistic or edited and false body types.

Research has found that higher body dissatisfaction is linked to a poorer quality of life and psychological distress, and that those with a negative body image are more likely to experience anxiety, depression or eating disorders.

People with body image concerns may find they avoid situations that make them feel particularly uncomfortable in their body including physical activity, social events and being intimate with a partner.

When someone is experiencing a negative body image they are more likely to compare themselves to peers, friends and family and they may be more inclined to spend time trying to amend or enhance their body or appearance.

A group effort

For young adults to grow up with a positive body image, a group effort across education, the media and public health is needed. Many people feel that there is a need for tighter regulations on how bodies are allowed to be portrayed on social media and advertising, to stop editing and falsely representing bodies.

There also needs to be better education for younger children and young adults on body image. Public health approaches need to be varied and not stigmatising, for example, a healthy body should be portrayed in various forms to reflect reality.

Helping yourself

There are still ways individuals can help themselves to feel more positive about their body image:

  • Avoid or delete social media apps that make you feel distressed about how you look.
  • Be mindful of images you see on social media or in the media and how you feel about yourself when you look at them.
  • Model positive self-talk by treating yourself kindly, and speak to children and other adults kindly.
  • Don’t judge other people’s appearances – this will help you to treat yourself with compassion and a non-judgmental outlook too.
  • Be aware of how we use language with friends and peers relating to our bodies and the potential harm it could cause.
  • Reach out to your GP or local mental health service if you feel your experiencing a mental health problem.

Rebecca's story

People can experience anxiety surrounding their body image at any point in the year, but the summer months may be particularly difficult as there is pressure to dress a certain way, and you may feel less able to cover your body due to the weather conditions. 

This summer we spoke to Rebecca, who told us about how she struggled with her body image and the stigma attached to feeling anxious about how she looked. She shares insight into how she managed to change her mindset about her body to deal with her anxiety.

Read more