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 affect?

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.
  • Just over one in five adults (22%) and 40% of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image.
  • Majority of Britons (89%) say physical appearance matters in today’s society.
  • 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

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. This can impact quality and standard of life.

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, linking increased financial spend to negative body image.

As a negative body image often arises at a young age, it is thought that younger children and young adults require more education on body image, especially in educational establishments. Public health approaches should also be more varied and not stigmatising, for example, a healthy body should be portrayed in various forms to reflect reality and not a specific shape or size.

Potential influences

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:

Trauma or abuse

There are links between childhood experiences of trauma and abuse and the mental health condition Body Dysphoric Disorder and emotional and physical abuse and trauma at any age can impact confidence and self-esteem, effecting how we feel about ourselves.

Limited or false media representation

The usage of editing and altering images on social media platforms and the media can portray an unrealistic and unachievable image to the public. We might feel we need to alter our own images to be in keeping with the edited ‘norms’ we see or aspire to look like.

Lack of diversity in education

Education from both the public sector services and in school settings can portray the healthy or ideal body as a specific set of guidelines or single image, not reflective of the broad reality of variation of what healthy means or looks like for all people.

Those around us

Hearing how friends and family refer to the way they look can influence how we feel about our own selves. Younger people in particular might feel pressure from their peer-group to look a certain way or join in with trends that damage their self-esteem.

Cultural differences

Different cultures around the world have varied ideas of the ‘ideal’ body or weight and research shows people may experience greater pressures to conform to the ‘ideal body’ in more affluent places due to having greater access to altered images and the media.

Living with long-term health conditions

Having a physical or mental long-term health condition might immediately exclude us from ever looking or behaving in a certain way that might contrast with desired ideals or normalities, impacting confidence and self-esteem.

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.

Related support

Support with anxiety

Experiencing negative feelings about our body or image can induce feelings of anxiety, and many people who experience social anxiety, also have problems with their body image. Find out more about anxiety disorders and the support available.

Advice for parents

If you’re worried about a young person, our resource library contains tools to help you confidently engage in conversations about mental health with young people. You can connect with other parents and carers on Clic too.

Learn about health & wellbeing

Whether it’s work or juggling the balance of relationships and childcare, there are many lifestyle factors that contribute to stress and negative feelings towards ourselves. Find out how you can support your wellbeing and feel your best.

Your Stories

Everyone’s experience with body image problems will be unique, as we all have different bodies and none of us look the same. We’ve been talking to you about your experiences, what influenced your negative feelings, how this impacted your mental health and what you’ve been doing to feel better about your body confidence and improve your wellbeing.

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