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Body Image & Mental Health: Part 1

Illustration of nine diverse bodies

Body image is an integral part of identity and it impacts how you feel about yourself and how you navigate through the world.  How your body image and mental health intersect and interact with each other can present challenges when it comes to how you feel about yourself and what you deserve.

This piece is the first in a series, and here we will be breaking down some of the fundamentals of the body image-mental health relationship.

What is Body Image?

Simply put, body image is the mental picture you get when you think of what you look like.  This may seem straightforward but for many, it is anything but.  How we think our body looks is something that can change from day to day, and is informed by many factors that we may have little control over.  Your concept of how your body looks at any given time is something that is informed many messages, including but not limited to:

  • Images of bodies in movies, television, advertising, and social media

  • How you perceive the bodies of the people around you in daily life (friends, family, coworkers)

  • Messages you receive (covertly and overtly) about your body over your lifetime, including those messages you receive when your body is developing (such as childhood to adolescence, when the body changes due to health changes, and as we age)

  • The value people ascribe to certain body forms, whether you are absorbing these valuations consciously or subconsciously

To better understand the nuances of body image, it may be helpful to conceive of four types of body imagePerceived body image is the subjective way you view yourself, informed by the messages above.  Affective body image is how you feel about your looks.  Cognitive body image is what you think about your body image - this can start to involve labels, like “I think I am unattractive”.  Behavioural body image is what you do to maintain or change the image you have of your body (including diet, exercise, surgery, shapewear, etc.).  When you start to look at the many lenses that feed into your conception of your body, you start to see what a powerful factor body image is when it comes to how you understand and value your entire self.

Body Image and Mental Health

So why is body image important when it comes to mental health?  How we feel about how we look affects how we feel about our value as a person, how we move through the world, and how we expect others to treat us in life.  Negative body image goes so far beyond aesthetics - body image directly correlates to other areas of value like worthiness, intelligence, and being deserving of love and respect from others.  Research suggests that an accepting, positive, or even neutral body image is associated with improved markers of mental health, whereas negative body image correlates with higher rates of mental health symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, self-harm, and disordered eating.  Your emotional, mental, social, and behavioural well-being are directly connected to your body image, and can be put at risk if your body image is suffering.

When To Talk To Someone

Poor body image can contribute to disordered eating, self harm, social isolation, and relationship issues, just to name a few areas of concern.  If you are experiencing challenges in these areas, it is essential to reach out to a healthcare provider to explore assessment and treatment options (a helpful guide on who to contact can be found here).  Even if you aren’t experiencing significant negative impacts to daily life, your quality of life matters.  Having a positive body image directly relates to an improvement of quality of life across many areas (including work, social life, sex life, self-esteem, and feeling connected to and valued by people around you). If your body image is holding you back from experiencing happiness, satisfaction, and pride in your daily life, it may be time to talk to someone about how to improve how you see yourself (and treat yourself).

This post is the first in a series about how body image and mental health intersect and affect each other.  If this topic resonates with you personally, consider reaching out to a member of our team to schedule a free consultation to explore how therapy can help.  

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