“Body image” can be considered synonymous with such terms as “body concept” and “body scheme.” Broadly speaking, the term pertains to how the individual perceives his own body. It does not imply that the individual’s concept of his body is represented by a conscious image; rather, it embraces his collective attitudes, feelings, and fantasies about his body without regard to level of awareness.
Basic to most definitions of body image is the view that it represents the manner in which a person has learned to organize and integrate his body experiences. Body image concepts are important for an understanding of such diverse phenomena as adjustment to body disablement, maintenance of posture and spatial orientation, personality development, and cultural differences.
At a common-sense level, the pervasive significance of the body image is evident in widespread preoccupation with myths and stories that concern body transformation (such as the change from human to werewolf form). It is evident, too, in the vast expenditure of time and energy that goes into clothing and reshaping the body (for example, plastic surgery) for the purpose of conforming to idealized standards of appearance.
Historical background. Interest in the body image appeared first in the work of neurologists who observed that brain damage could produce bizarre alterations in a person’s perception of his body. Patients suffering from brain damage manifested such extreme symptoms as the inability to recognize parts of their own bodies and the assignment of entirely different identities to the right and left sides of their bodies. Interest in body image phenomena was further reinforced by observations that neurotic and schizophrenic patients frequently had unusual body feelings. Paul Schilder (1935), neurologist, psychiatrist, and early influential theorist, reported the following kinds of distortions in the schizophrenic patient: a sense of alienation from his own body (depersonalization), inability to distinguish the boundaries of his body, and feelings of transformation in the sex of his body. Surgeons recorded unusual body experiences in patients with amputations and noted that amputees typically hallucinated the absent member as if it were still present. The hallucinated body member was designated a “phantom limb.”
The neurologist Henry Head, another early influential theorist, took the view that a body schema was essential to the functioning of the individual (Head et al. 1920). He theorized that each person constructs a picture or model of his body that constitutes a standard against which all body movements and postures are judged. He applied the term “schema” to this standard. His description of the body schema underscored its influence upon body orientation, but he noted also that it served to integrate other kinds of experiences.
Equally prominent in early body image formulations was the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud. Freud considered the body concept basic to the development of identity and ego structure. He conceived of the child’s earliest sense of identity as first taking the form of learning to discriminate between his own body and the outer world. Thus, when the child is able to perceive his own body as something apart from its environs, he presumably acquires a basis for distinguishing self from nonself.
Freud’s theory of libidinal development was saturated with key references to body attitudes. He conceptualized the individual’s psychosexual development in terms of the successive localization of energy and sensitivity at oral, anal, and genital body sites. It was assumed that as each of these sites successively acquired increased prominence and sensitivity, corresponding needs were aroused to seek out agents capable of providing stimulation. Presumably, too, when a person failed to mature and was fixated at one of the earlier erogenous zones (oral or anal), he was left to deal with adult experiences in terms of a body context more appropriate to the way of life of a child.
Many of Freud’s concepts of personality development assign importance to changes in the perceptual and erogenous dominance of body sectors. Psychoanalytic theorists continue to focus upon body attitudes as significant in understanding many forms of behavior deviance (for example, schizophrenia and fetishism). Indeed, psychoanalytical concepts have had a major influence upon body image theory and research.
Schilder drew attention to other body image phenomena in his book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (1935), where he formulated a variety of theoretical concepts that were phrased largely in psychoanalytic terms. He suggested that the body image is molded by one’s interactions with others, and to the extent that these interactions are faulty, the body image will be inadequately developed. Schilder’s book contained rich descriptions of how the individual perceives his own body in diverse situations. He analyzed body experiences that characterize awakening, falling asleep, assuming unusual body positions, ingesting certain drugs, and undergoing schizophrenic disorganization. One idea he particularly emphasized was that sensations of body disintegration are likely to typify those who masochistically direct anger against themselves.
Schilder concerned himself with determining whether specific brain areas are linked with the body image. He was one of a group of neurologists who made persistent attempts to relate body image distortions observed in brain-damaged patients to the sites of the brain lesions. Considerable evidence has accumulated that damage to the parietal lobes selectively disrupts the individual’s ability to perceive his body realistically.
Phantom limb. Historically, the phantom limb phenomenon has played a significant role in calling attention to the problems of organizing body perceptions. Such observers as Head and his colleagues (1920), Lhermitte (1939), and Schilder (1935) were puzzled by the fact that normal persons typically hallucinated the presence of body members lost through injury or amputation. Such hallucinations implied that the individual had a “picture” of his body which persisted even when it was no longer realistically accurate. Controversy still exists about whether the phantom experience is primarily a result of a compensatory process occurring in the central nervous system or of persisting peripheral sensations evoked by injured tissue in the stump. Evidence indicates that while stump sensations play a part in the phantom experience, central factors are of greater importance. Interesting questions have been stimulated by observations of the phantom limb: for example, why does the duration of phantom experiences vary markedly between individuals? And why does the phantom not appear when body parts are gradually absorbed (as in leprosy) rather than suddenly removed?
Research. Well-controlled experiments in the area of body image are relatively new, most scientific studies having been carried out since 1945.
Human figure drawing. One of the oldest and most frequently used techniques for the study of the body image makes use of human figure drawing. It has been suggested that when an individual is asked to draw a picture of a person, he projects into his drawing indications of how he experiences his body. Some investigators have proposed that such indicators as the size of the figure drawn and difficulty in depicting specific body areas provide information about the individual’s body concept. There have been claims that the figure drawing can be used to measure such variables as feelings of body inferiority and anxiety about sexual adequacy. However, despite a profusion of studies, there is no evidence that figure drawing is an effective method of tapping body image attitudes. It is true that in some instances it has proved sensitive to the existence of actual body defects. For example, individuals with crippling defects have been shown to introduce analogous defects in their figure drawings. Moreover, there have been some demonstrations that figure-drawing indicators of body disturbance are higher in schizophrenic than in normal subjects. However, no consistently successful indices of body attitudes have been derived. Indeed, the problem of using the figure drawing to evaluate body image has been enormously complicated by evidence that artistic skill may so strongly influence the characteristics of drawings as to minimize the importance of most other factors.
Attitudes toward the body. Another approach to evaluating the body image has revolved about measuring the subject’s dissatisfaction with regions of his body. Procedures have been devised that pose for him the task of indicating how positively or negatively he views his body. These procedures vary from direct ratings of dissatisfaction with parts of one’s body to judgments regarding the comparability of one’s body to pictured bodies. It has been found that men are most likely to be dissatisfied with areas of their bodies that seem “too small”; whereas women focus their self-criticism upon body sectors that appear to be “too large.” Also, evidence has emerged that dissatisfaction with one’s body is accompanied by generalized feelings of insecurity and diminished self-confidence.
Perceived body size. One of the most promising lines of body image research has dealt with perceived body size. This work concerns the significance to be attached to the size an individual ascribes to parts of his body. The individual’s concept of his body size is often inaccurate and exaggerated in the direction of largeness or smallness as a function of either situational influences or specific body attitudes. It has been demonstrated that estimates of body size vary in relation to the total spatial context of the individual, the degree of sensory input to his skin, the nature of his on-going activities, and many other variables (Wapner et al. 1958). For example, subjects judge their heads to be smaller when heat or touch emphasizes the skin boundary than when such stimulation is absent. It has further been shown that subjects perceive their arms as longer when pointed at an open, unobstructed vista than when pointed at a limiting wall. The subject’s mood, his attitudes toward himself, his degree of psychiatric disturbance, and a number of other psychological factors have been found to play a part in his evaluation of his own body size. For example, persons exposed to an experience of failure see themselves as shorter than they do under conditions of nonfailure. Schizophrenic, as compared to normal, subjects unrealistically exaggerate the size of their bodies. Normal subjects who ingest psychotomimetic drugs, which produce psychoticlike disturbance, likewise overestimate the sizes of their body parts. At another level, it has been noted that the relative sizes an individual ascribes to regions of his body (for example, right side versus left side, back versus front) may reflect aspects of his personality organization.
Aside from the formal research efforts that have highlighted the importance of perceived body size as a body image variable, there is a long history of anecdotal and clinical observation supporting a similar view. Vivid experiences of change in body size have been described in schizophrenic and brain-damaged patients, in patients with migraine attacks, and in various other persons exposed to severe stress demands. Clearly, there is a tendency for experiences to be translated into changes in perceived body size.
Projective techniques. Responses to ambiguous stimuli, such as ink blots, briefly exposed pictures, and incomplete representations of the human form, have been widely utilized to measure body attitudes. It is assumed that when a person is asked to interpret or give meaning to something as vague as an ink blot, he projects self feelings and self representations into his interpretations. In this vein, it has been found that persons with localized body defects focus their attention upon corresponding body areas when studying pictures containing vague representations of the human figure. The frequency of references to body sensations (such as pain, hunger, fatigue) in stories composed in response to pictures has been shown by D. J. van Lennep (1957) to vary developmentally and to differ between the sexes. Females were found to show a moderate increase in body references beyond the age of 15, whereas males were typified by a pattern of decline in such references. It has been suggested by van Lennep that in Western culture men are supposed to transcend their bodies and to turn their energies toward the world. Women, on the other hand, are given approval for continuing and even increasing their investments in their bodies.
Fisher and Cleveland (1958) have developed a method for scoring responses to ink blots which measures how clearly the individual is able to experience his body as possessing boundaries that differentiate it from its environs. This boundary measure has been able to predict several noteworthy aspects of behavior, including the desire for high achievement, behavior in small groups, the locus of psychosomatic symptomatology, and adequacy of adjustment to body disablement.
Perspectives and problems. The investigation of body image phenomena has become a vigorous enterprise. One dominant fact that has emerged is that the individual’s body is a unique perceptual object. The individual responds to his own body with an intensity of ego involvement that can rarely be evoked by other objects. The body is, after all, in a unique position as the only object that is simultaneously perceived and a part of the perceiver. In studying an individual’s manner of experiencing and conceptualizing his body, one obtains rich data about him that is not readily available from other sources.
It is difficult to know what priorities to assign to the body image issues that still need to be clarified. Speaking broadly, one may say there is an emphatic need to ascertain the principal axes underlying the organization of the body image. It remains to be established whether the body image is built around the spatial dimensions of the body, the specialized functions of different body regions, or perhaps the private and symbolic meanings assigned to body areas by the culture. There is also a need to examine the relationships between body attitudes and socialization modes in different cultures. There is evidence in the anthropological literature that body attitudes may differ radically in relation to cultural context. Another important problem for research is the assessment of the role that body image plays in the development and definition of the individual’s sense of identity.
[Directly related are the entriesIdentity, psychosocial; Self concept. Other relevant material may be found inFantasy; Schizophrenia.]
Critchley, Macdonald 1953 The Parietal Lobes. London: Arnold.
Fisher, Seymour; and Cleveland, Sidney E. 1958 Body Image and Personality. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.
Freud, Sigmund (1888–1938) 1959 Collected Papers. 5 vols. Authorized translation under the supervision of Joan Riviere. Volume 5 edited by James Strachey. International Psycho-analytic Library, No. 7–10, 34. New York: Basic Books; London: Hogarth. → Translation of Sammlung kleiner Schriften zur Neurosenlehre and additional papers. A ten-volume paperback edition was published in 1963 by Collier Books.
Head, Henry et al. 1920 Studies in Neurology. 2 vols. London: Hodder & Stoughton. → These papers consist mainly of a republication of papers published in Brain between 1905 and 1918.
Lennep, D. J., van 1957 Projection and Personality. Pages 259–277 in Henry P. David and Helmut von Bracken (editors), Perspectives in Personality Theory. New York: Basic Books.
Lhermitte, Jacques J. 1939 L’image de notre corps. Paris: Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Critique.
Schilder, Paul (1935) 1950 The Image and Appearance of the Human Body: Studies of the Constructive Energies in the Psyche. New York: International Universities Press.
Wapner, Seymour; Werner, H.; and Comalli, P. E. 1958 Effect of Enhancement of Head Boundary on Head Size and Shape. Perceptual and Motor Skills 8:319–325.
Wapner, Seymour; and Werner, Heinz (editors) 1965 The Body Percept. New York: Random House.
Body image is a person’s mental opinion or description of his or her own physical appearance. It also involves the reactions of others toward that person’s physical body based on what is perceived by that person. The concept of body image slowly develops
Steps to help your child develop a positive body image
- Make sure your child understands that weight gain is a normal part of development, especially during puberty
- Avoid negative statements about food, weight, and body size and shape
- Allow your child to make decisions about food, while making sure that plenty of healthy and nutritious meals and snacks are available
- Compliment your child on her or his efforts, talents, accomplishments, and personal values
- Restrict television viewing, and watch television with your child and discuss the media images you see
- Encourage your school to enact policies against size and sexual discrimination, harassment, teasing, and name-calling; and support the elimination of public weigh-ins and fat measurements
- Keep the communication lines with your child open
source: National Women’s Health Information Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)
over time, generally beginning in infancy. Perception of body image among people can widely range from very negative to very positive. Depending on age and other factors, the degree of concern with body image can also widely vary among an individual.
A person who has a poor body image perceives their body as unattractive to others, while someone with a good body image views their body as being attractive to others. Body image is studied within the area of psychoanalysis, which is a psychological theory that involves mental functions of humans both consciously and unconsciously.
Generally, within psychoanalytic study, body image is not related to any objective measure (based on facts) but is subjective (based on opinions and feelings) in nature. Consequently, one’s opinion of their own body image may or may not parallel how others judge that person’s body image. For instance, people judging a person may view that person as attractive, however, that person may judge themselves as having an unattractive body image. On the other hand, a person may perceive their body image as attractive but be judged unattractive by most people who come in contact with the person.
Body image, especially with young people going through puberty (a stage of physical and mental development that begins sexual reproduction), can become a problem especially when parents are overly concerned with their children’s weights and appearances; parents, especially mothers, are very self aware with their own weights and appearance; other children use excess pressure on their peers (fellow children) to look or act a particular way; and mass media advertisements and other such means that try to actively imply a certain body look (such as, thin is an ideal
Anorexia nervosa— A mental eating disorder that features an extreme fear and obsession of becoming overweight, which leads to extreme forms of dieting even with incidences that result in sickness and sometimes even death.
Binge eating disorder— A mental eating disorder that features the consumption of large amounts of food in short periods of time.
Body dysmorphic disorder— A mental disorder that features a distorted or disturbed body image by the subject who is very critical of their physical body and body image even though no defect is easily visible.
Bulimia— A mental eating disorder that is characterized by periods of overeating followed with periods of undereating.
Narcissism— Excessive admiration of one’s self.
Objective— Based on facts.
Obsessive compulsive disorder— A mental disorder that is characterized by obsessive thoughts and related compulsive activities that in the subject’s mind are attempts to counter and remove the unusual thoughts.
Psychoanalysis— A psychological theory that concerns the mental functions of humans both on the conscious and unconscious levels.
Puberty— A stage of physiological maturity that marks the start of being capable of sexual reproduction.
Subjective— Based on feelings and opinions.
body image). Body image is also closely associated with self-esteem, which is defined as the amount of value and worthiness a person inwardly feels.
Older children and young adults are more concerned about how other people view them than other age groups, so are much more sensitive with body image and vulnerable to external pressures. This can affect their self-esteem as their body goes through dramatic changes from adolescence to adulthood (puberty). Boys may be overly concerned with height when seeing girls of their same age growing upward faster. Girls may feel sensitive about their height, weight, or other noticeable changes happening within their body.
Statistically, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 91% of young college women report having been on at least one diet. Seventy percent of young college men report being unhappy with their body image—with 32% of all college men stating that they have been on one or more diets. Other studies show similar percentages in older children and young adults, which help to support the contention that young people are very concerned with body image— a body image where the ideal is to be very slim.
Scientists have found that body image is first formed as an infant during contact, or lack of contact, with people such as parents and family members. Personal contacts in the form of hugs, kisses, and other forms of affection can help develop an early positive body image. Lack of such contact, can have the opposite effect, forming an early negative body image.
The purpose of body image is generally used as a way for individuals to compare themselves against a model (ideal) image and for people to compare others through physical traits and characteristics. It is usually measured against an ideal body shape with respect to various physical characterizations such as facial features and overall body weight of the human body including fatness and muscle mass.
Within the field of psychoanalysis, a person’s body image is often measured by asking a person to rate parts of his/her current body (such as face, stomach, and buttocks) with respect to a series of pictures representing an ideal body image. The difference in rating between a person’s current body image and a perceived idea body image is generally considered the amount a person is dissatisfied with their body.
Concern with body image is generally more important with women than it is with men. Women usually are more critical of their overall body and individual parts of their body than are men. However, the gap between the two genders has been narrowing over recent years as men become more concerned with their body image.
A perception of a poor body image often relates with a feeling of being overweight, especially with women. Men, on the other hand, desire more muscle mass when considering their body image. Their feeling to be more masculine parallels this desire to add additional muscle mass and to produce more definition in their current muscles.
Generally, apoor body image can lead to constant and fad dieting, obesity, and eating disorders, along with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and overall emotional distress. However, for the most part, people with good exercise habits, positive personal and sexual experiences, and excellent emotional and mental states have better and more accurate perceptions of their body image than people without those characteristics and experiences. These people also have fewer problems associated with a poor body image.
Exaggerated and distorted concerns with body image have been linked in medical studies with decreases in self esteem and increases in dieting and eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia. People with body image problems can also have a condition called body dysmorphic disorder, which involves a distorted body image without any eating disorders. Excessive preoccupation with body image and an exaggerated obsession on positive body image has, in the past, been associated with the personality disorder called narcissism (self-admiration, or an overestimation about one’s appearance).
Body image can be affected by outside influences. Media sources, such as television, the Internet, and magazines, often portray people closer to the commonly accepted ideal body type than the average body image in order to sell their products and services. Consequently, people, especially older children and young adults, are overly influenced and swayed by such depictions of body image. For instance, according to Association Body Image for Disordered Eating (ABIDE), the average U.S. citizen was exposed to about 5,000 advertising messages each and every day in 2003. Studies of network television commercials have shown that attractiveness is a desirable trait that advertisers regularly use to convince viewers to purchase their products.
Family life can also affect a person’s perception of their body image. Parents that criticize their children, such as in the way they look, talk, or act, often may have a negative effect on the development of self-esteem in their offspring.
Young people may also be affected by the comments of classmates and peers when it comes to their body image. Teasing is often a method used by young people to convey negative comments and hurtful words. Teasing can come in a form of being too small or too large; too smart or too dumb; too popular or not very popular; and any of a number of other characterizations. Racial, sexual, and other types of teasing are mores serious and can have a negative impact on body image and self-esteem. Children often try to pressure their peers to conform to what is currently popular in clothing styles, language, and other characteristics—all that can potentially hurt one’s perception of their body image.
Without a healthy regard for one’s self, people can often become very self-conscious of their body image. Sometimes feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation occur. With low self-esteem and body image problems, some people use alcohol or drugs to offset those negative feelings. Others turn away from their regular activities and their usual friends—becoming withdrawn and showing lack of interest in themselves and the world around them.
Sometimes, a person can recover from such feelings by re-focusing their life on good qualities, accepting things that cannot be changed, and realistically working on things can could be improved. In some cases, outside help is needed in the form of a guidance counselor, parent, coach, religious leader, or someone else that is trusted and accepting of personal feelings. Crisis hotlines are also available to help with such problems.
Parents should be concerned if their children have excessive concerns about their appearance and looks. All children will be concerned with some aspect of their body. This concern is normal and is not a medical problem. However, an obsession with one’s physical body and appearance is not normal. In fact, an obsession with one’s body image is called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD )
The mental disorder called BDD usually appears in adolescence, already a period in one’s life that causes sensitivities in one’s appearance and body image. In BDD, the person is very critical of their body image even though nothing out of the ordinary is seen by anyone looking at the person. The major criteria for BDD involve a preoccupation with an imagined defect in one’s appearance or an excessive concern with a minor physical blemish or flaw; a reaction that produces excessive distress in one’s social and personal life and/or impairs one’s professional life; and a medical diagnosis that eliminates the cause from being other mental disorders.
Symptoms of BDD include compulsive use of mirrors and other reflective objects, social withdrawal, abnormal grooming behaviors, compulsive touching of one’s skin and body, obsession with plastic surgery, lowered self-esteem, and compulsive attraction toward one or more celebrity figures (often with features that the subject feels they are lacking). The body parts most often the topic of a BDD person’s attention are skin and hair, general face (especially nose, chin, teeth, and lips), stomach, breasts/chest/nipples, eyes and eyebrows, general legs (especially thighs), and buttocks. The person is often concerned with their weight, body build, and bone structure
BDD can often leads to depression, anxiety (especially when in social situations), obsessive compulsive disorder, and suicide. Parents should be aware of any BDD symptoms in their children and consult with their family doctor about their concerns for the health and well-being of their children.
Knoblich, Gunther, et al. eds. Human Body Perception from the Inside Out Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Preester, Helena, and Veroniek Knockaert, eds. Body Image and Body Schema: Interdisciplinary Perspectives Philadelphia, PA: J. Benjamins, 2005.
Wilhelm, Sabine. Feeling Good About the Way You Look: A Program for Overcoming Body Image Problems New York: Guilford Press, 2006.
Wykes, Maggie. The Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005.
What is body image and why does it matter? UGA Campaign for Every Body, University Health Center, University of Georgia at Athens. [cited April 13, 2007]. <http://nccam.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/sjwataglance.htm>.
National Eating Disorders Association. Home page of NEDA [cited April 16, 2007] <http://www.edap.org/>.
William Arthur Atkins
Body image is a familiar phrase in contemporary American culture. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (2000) defines it as “the subjective concept of one’s physical appearance based on self-observation and the reactions of others.” In the scientific literature, body image is considered a multidimensional construct encompassing self-perceptions and attitudes regarding one’s physical appearance across cognitive, affective, perceptual, and behavioral domains.
The systematic study of body image began in the 1960s when psychiatrist Hilde Bruch (1904-1984) posited that negative body image was a causal mechanism in the development of anorexia nervosa. Since that time, numerous studies have linked body-image disturbance to the development of eating disorders and the onset of dieting. Although studies of non-treatment-seeking obese individuals indicate that there is no difference in the prevalence of psychopathology among obese and normal weight individuals, obese people consistently report higher dissatisfaction with body image and physical appearance than normal weight individuals (Rosen 2002). Furthermore, negative body image in treatment-seeking obese individuals is associated with psychological distress (Friedman et al. 2002).
A renewed interest in body image arose in the 1980s. Judith Rodin and colleagues (1984) described the widespread concerns about body image among women as a “normative discontent.” This early research found a greater risk for body dissatisfaction among Caucasian women than men and women of color. Among females body-image dissatisfaction tends to be associated with the desire to lose weight, whereas among males body-image dissatisfaction is often associated with the desire to increase muscularity (McCreary and Sasse 2000). Recent evidence suggests that ethnic differences in body-image dissatisfaction may be decreasing, although more research is needed (Shaw et al. 2004). Sexual orientation is another factor that is associated with body-image concerns: homosexual males are more likely to report body dissatisfaction than heterosexual males and homosexual women (Siever 1994).
Body-image concerns typically surface with the onset of puberty. Adolescence may be an especially challenging time for girls because the thin-body ideal is inconsistent with normal pubertal changes such as increased body fat (Bearman et al., 2006) In contrast, muscle development associated with puberty in boys is more consistent with the athletic male body ideal. Normal growth and gender-specific social ideals may help explain the discrepancy in the prevalence of body dissatisfaction between females and males.
Interpersonal relationships during adolescence also appear to be related to negative body image. In particular, being teased about one’s body by peers and family is associated with body-image disturbance (Keery et al. 2005; Eisenberg et al. 2003). Perceived pressure about weight from friends and parents also may play a strong role in promoting body dissatisfaction (McCabe and Ricciardelli 2005). Sociocultural theories suggest that the cultural emphasis on female appearance, especially weight, contributes to the development of body-image dissatisfaction. The impact of the mass media on body image seems to depend on the extent to which individuals internalize messages about beauty (Stice and Whitenton 2002).
SEE ALSO Body Mass Index; Obesity
Bearman, Sarah Kate, Katherine Presnell, Erin Martinez, and Eric Stice. 2006. The Skinny on Body Dissatisfaction: A Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Girls and Boys. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 35 (2): 217–229.
Bruch, Hilde. 1962. Perceptual and Conceptual Disturbances in Anorexia Nervosa. Psychosomatic Medicine 24: 187–194.
Eisenberg, Marla E., Dianne Neumark-Sztainter, and Mary Story. 2003. Associations of Weight-Based Teasing and Emotional Well-being Among Adolescents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 157: 733–738.
Friedman, Kelli E., Simona K. Reichmann, Philip R. Costanzo, and Gerard J. Musante. 2002. Body Image Partially Mediates the Relationship Between Obesity and Psychological Distress. Obesity Research 10: 33–41.
Keery, Helene, Kerri Boutelle, Patricia van den Berg, and J. Kevin Thompson. 2005. The Impact of Appearance-related Teasing by Family Members. Journal of Adolescent Health 37: 120–127.
McCabe, Marita P., and Lina A. Ricciardelli. 2005. A Prospective Study of Pressures from Parents, Peers, and the Media on Extreme Weight Change Behaviors Among Adolescent Boys and Girls. Behavior Research and Therapy 43: 653–668.
McCreary, Donald R., and Doris K. Sasse. 2000. An Exploration of the Drive for Muscularity in Adolescent Boys and Girls. Journal of American College Health 48: 297–304.
Rodin, Judith, L. Silberstein, and R. Striegel-Moore. 1985. Women and Weight: A Normative Discontent. In Psychology and Gender: Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, ed. T.B. Sonderegger, 267–307. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Rosen, James C. 2002. Obesity and Body Image. In Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, ed. Christopher Fairburn and Kelly Brownell, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.
Shaw, Heather, Lisa Ramirez, Ariel Trost, et al. 2004. Body Image and Eating Disturbances Across Ethnic Groups: More Similarities than Differences. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 18: 12–18.
Siever, Michael D. 1994. Sexual Orientation and Gender as Factors in Socioculturally Acquired Vulnerability to Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Disorders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 62: 252–260.
Stice, Eric, and Kathryn Whitenton. 2002. Risk Factors for Body Dissatisfaction in Adolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Investigation. Developmental Psychology 38: 669–678.
Thompson, J. Kevin, Leslie J. Heinberg, Madeline Altabe, and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn. 1999. Exacting Beauty: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment of Body Image Disturbance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Erin E. Martinez
Why Is Body Image So Important to Adolescents?
What Leads to Body Image Problems?
When Are Body Image Problems a Sign of Other Problems?
What Leads to a Good Body Image?
Body image is a person’s impressions, thoughts, feelings, and opinions about his or her body.
for searching the Internet and other reference sources
“I’m fat.” “I wish I had curly hair.” “Why haven’t I had a growth spurt yet?” “No one else in my class has diabetes.” “Will I ever be strong enough to play on the football team?”
Most teenagers have similar questions and concerns about their bodies. They think a lot about their appearance, which seems in a constant state of change during adolescence. Everyone has an “image” of their body and appearance and how well it fits in with what they consider normal, acceptable, or attractive. For adolescents, body image is a big part of their total self-image.
What Does Perfect Mean?
Some girls are more influenced than others by the thinness craze. How much value a girl places on thinness may depend on how much value her cultural group gives it. One study of about 300 American eighth and ninth grade girls suggested that certain cultural differences might affect girls’ body image ideals. The study compared the body image of girls of European ancestry with the body image of girls of African ancestry. Ninety percent of the girls of European ancestry in the study felt dissatisfied with their body weight and shape, whereas only thirty percent of the girls of African ancestry felt dissatisfied with their bodies! When asked to describe the “perfect girl,” the descriptions by girls of European ancestry often focused on thinness as the key to popularity and happiness. For example, they described the perfect girl as someone who is 5’7” and 100 to 110 pounds (a trim, healthy body weight for someone 5’7” is about 125 pounds). Girls of African ancestry were more likely to emphasize the importance of personality and downplayed the importance of physical traits and thinness when they described the perfect girl. They described the perfect girl as someone who is smart, fun, easy to talk to, not conceited, and funny. They were more likely to describe beauty as an inner quality; in fact, two-thirds of them described beauty as the “right attitude.” Their descriptions of the body weight and dimensions that they would like to have were more in line with healthy weights. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that there is lower incidence of anorexia and bulimia among girls of African ancestry than among girls of European ancestry.
Why Is Body Image So Important to Adolescents?
Teenagers’ bodies are undergoing so many changes that it is easy to understand why they may be preoccupied with their appearance and their body image. Both boys and girls are experiencing growth spurts and sexual development. Girls’ breasts and hips are enlarging, body hair is growing, and menstruation* is beginning. Boys’ muscles are growing, their voices are getting deeper, and their testicles and penises are getting larger. Their features may be changing, and hormones may cause skin problems. It takes a while to get used to their new “image” or appearance.
- * menstruation
- (men-stroo-AY-shun) is the discharge of the blood-enriched lining of the uterus. Menstruation normally occurs in females who are physically mature enough to bear children. Because it usually occurs at about four-week intervals, it is often called the “monthly period.” Most girls have their first period between the age of 9 and 16.
Teenagers are very susceptible to criticism, teasing, or negative comments. Some teenagers lose confidence in their appearance if they receive negative or insulting comments about their looks, racial or ethnic features, physical abilities, or body changes associated with puberty*. With all of the focus on the body’s appearance, teenagers may need to be reminded to give equal value to other important aspects of themselves, such as personality, inner strengths, mental aptitudes, and artistic and musical talents, which, along with body image, contribute to overall self-image.
- * puberty
- (PU-ber-tee) is the period during which sexual maturity is attained.
What Leads to Body Image Problems?
Teenagers’ body images are strongly affected by what they see on television and in the movies. Magazines are filled with pictures of thin and beautiful young women and lean and muscular young men. Teenagers are influenced by these images and may wish to look like their favorite models or stars. However, the degree of physical perfection that media images convey is largely an illusion created by makeup, hours of styling, special lighting, and photography. When people compare themselves to these perfect-looking images, they may become disappointed with their own appearance. Feeling the need to look perfect, or to have a perfect body, can lead to body image problems.
Body image problems affect both boys and girls, but they tend to bother girls more deeply than boys. One reason is that in American culture, girls’ and women’s worth and value traditionally have been linked closely to their physical attractiveness. Boys’ appearance, while important, is not generally seen as their most important feature. Boys, however, often feel pressure to be tall, muscular, and strong.
Some teenagers have illnesses or disabilities that they cannot change. These things may challenge their body image at first. Teenagers who focus on what the body can do, rather than on what it cannot, learn that even with physical limitations, it is possible to develop a strong positive body image. Sometimes, overcoming limitations caused by a disability can create an unexpected boost to body image. For example, Tyrie, who has used a wheelchair since age nine, began to race competitively as an adolescent. The upper body strength and physical endurance he has developed by training for races has given him new confidence in his body’s capabilities. He is proud of his muscular arms and chest, not to mention his medals. Even though he does not walk, his friends see him as one of the strongest guys in the tenth grade.
Am I Too Fat?
Too much focus on physical appearance can create body image problems, especially for females. Even those of normal healthy body weight can feel fat when comparing themselves to super-thin models and stars. Studies have found that 80 percent of adolescent girls feel fat, and up to 70 percent of adolescent girls are on a diet at any given time. Four out of five American women are dissatisfied with their appearance, and half of American women are on a diet. These attitudes and behaviors are showing up at younger ages. One study found that half of the girls in grades three through six want to be thinner, and 33 percent of them have already tried to lose weight. Extreme self-criticism about weight, dissatisfaction with body image, and the quest for perfection can lead to feelings of failure, unhealthy dieting, and serious eating disorders.
When Are Body Image Problems a Sign of Other Problems?
Some teenagers are satisfied with how they look and feel confident about their appearance. Others are more self-critical and always come up lacking when comparing their features with others. Extreme dissatisfaction with body image can lead to depression*, social isolation, or eating disorders*.
- * depression
- (de-PRESH-un) is a mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.
- * eating disorders
- are conditions in which a person’s eating behaviors and food habits are so unbalanced that they cause physical and emotional problems.
Sometimes body image can become distorted, and people may mistakenly believe themselves to be fat or ugly. These distorted or mistaken ideas can cause a person to feel extremely distressed, self-critical, and overly preoccupied with their physical imperfections. Someone who has a constant and distressing preoccupation with minor body “imperfections” may have a condition called body dysmorphic (dis-MORE-fik) disorder.
Some people develop a strong fear of gaining weight. They may begin to diet or exercise excessively, lose weight rapidly, and refuse to eat enough food to maintain a healthy weight. A person with this pattern may have an eating disorder called anorexia (an-o-REK-see-a). People with anorexia develop a distorted body image and see themselves as fat when they are not. Even though they may get dangerously underweight and malnourished, they continue to feel fat and refuse to eat.
Bulimia (bu-LEE-me-a) is another eating disorder that involves body image problems. People with bulimia have a distorted body image that causes them to be self-critical and to feel fat, and they place too much importance on weight and body shape. People with bulimia have episodes of out-of-control overeating, or binges, and then try to make up for them by making themselves vomit, by taking laxatives, or by exercising to excess to avoid gaining weight. People with excessive body image problems may need assistance from several mental health professionals including a physician, a psychotherapist*, and a nutritionist.
- * psychotherapist
- (sy-ko-THER-apist) is a mental health counselor who listens to people and helps them change thoughts, actions, or relationships that play a part in problems they may be experiencing.
What Leads to a Good Body Image?
There are certain things that people cannot change about their appearance or physical capabilities, but having a good body image does not require a perfect body. People develop a healthy body image by taking care of their body, appreciating its capabilities, and accepting its imperfections. Positive body image is linked to positive self-image, self-confidence, and popularity.
Most teenagers can control their appearance to some extent; for example, they may choose haircuts or clothing that reflect how they see themselves. By doing so, they can create an outer image that pleases them. Eating healthy foods and getting plenty of exercise can help teenagers develop strong, fit bodies of which they can be proud. Cutting down on junk foods helps them stay trim, and physical activities help them develop strength, coordination, and new capabilities. Healthy behaviors contribute to attractive appearance on the outside and add to positive inner feelings about body image.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Shandler, Sara. Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write about Their Search for Self. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Walker, Pamela. Everything You Need to Know about Body Dysmorphic Disorder: Dealing with a Distorted Body Image. Brookshire, TX: Rosen Publishing Group, 1999.
Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media, Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803. This organization is dedicated to issues of children’s health and produces the KidsHealth website. Its website has articles about body image and body dysmorphic disorder. http://www.KidsHealth.org
The expanding body of work available on the connection between body image, sexuality, and gender is a direct result of the progress made by the feminist movement and gender studies in twentieth-century European and North American culture. When people discuss sexuality and gender, it is very likely that the dialog will turn to the subject of body image. The links between body image and sexual practice, performance, and preference have increased during the twentieth century, largely due to the widespread consumption and availability of media images. These links can be identified in a body-building culture, or the hard body aesthetic, in the increased visibility of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and overeating, and in the rise of subcultural groups that directly relate their sexual practices to body image. These subcultures include the feeder/feedee culture, sadomasochistic or dominant/submissive culture, and transsexual and transgender cultures. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, reality television programs made the effects of extreme self-improvement more accessible and visible. Viewers witness the physical transformations of regular people (as opposed to celebrities), whether these people have lost several pounds or have undergone plastic surgery in order to drastically alter their appearances.
Although how one develops a body image is debatable, there is no doubt that the individual experience of body image is directly related to the subjective interpretation of other bodies. Body image affects sexual practices, drives, and performance, and there is a relation between body image and sexual preference.
LINKS BETWEEN BODY IMAGE AND SEXUAL PRACTICES
The increasing visibility of different representations of bodies both complicates the process of and opens up greater possibilities for exploring sexual practices. Indeed such visibility is essential in describing any socio-cultural link to body image. In addition a greater number of sexual subcultures is evolving, largely due to the increased availability of media images (i.e., the Internet) and the mainstreaming of pornography. Further the visibility of extreme bodies, whether excessively thin or excessively obese, continues to grow. As subcultures evolve and overlap, the topic of body image and its links to sexual practices continues to evolve.
Whereas body image evokes the interface between the inner and outer representation of any gender, it is also potentially connected to an individual's notion of identity. For example an anorectic individual does not usually say, "I feel fat," but rather, "I am fat." An anorectic person sees a fat body in the mirror, whereas to other people, that same body appears to be skeletal. A characteristic of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa is that the inner image depends on the outer reflection in the mirror as well as how the individual is seen by others. The anorectic's perspective is affected by a collection of images, or bodily ideals, that are dictated by the dominant media: film, television, and advertisements in magazines. In addition widespread research shows that young women in European and North American cultures are particularly influenced by these images because they have been exposed from childhood to the popular notion that the thin female body is a signifier of desire. According to Leslie Heywood, anorexia, "mental or physical, is central to the self-definition of most women, particularly educated women attempting to gain access to the white male power that requires them to cancel out their bodies" (Heywood 1996, p. 33). The goal of the anorectic adolescent girl (usually white) is, arguably, to be a woman who is not yet a woman, which suggests sexual timidity or fear. At the very least confusion is often experienced by one whom has an eating disorder because the degree to which one is desired seems to directly correspond to the degree to which one has conformed to the contemporary bodily ideal. Childhood sexual abuse may also account for many cases of eating disorders in women (and increasingly in men).
Body Image and Sexual Practice
If anorexia nervosa is a means by which people attempt to deny desire, both for others and as directed toward themselves, then feeder/feedee culture, which is the exact opposite of anorexia nervosa, is concerned with concrete connections between food and eroticism. In the context of fat fetishism, the feedee is the submissive counterpart to the feeder. As part of the relationship, the feedee is fed, either for the purpose of gaining weight, or for the sheer pleasure of the act. According to Octavio Paz, "[t]he erotic industry is the younger sister of the food industry. Private business expropriates utopia. During its ascendancy capitalism exploited the body; now it has turned it into an object of advertising. We have gone from prohibition to humiliation" (Paz 1972, p. 81).
As the numbers of obese people increases in the early twenty-first century, especially in North America, the emergence of a fat acceptance, or fat admiration culture has become more visible. The feeding subculture is often denounced by the mainstream fat acceptance community as misogynistic, because the submissive partners are almost exclusively women. The fat acceptance community also sometimes regards feeder relationships as pathological.
The growth of feederism paralleled the development of feeder pornography, with the increase of Internet websites not unlike those devoted to the celebration of the skeletal beauty of anorexic bodies. On these focused websites, the fed or starved chart their progress, whether losing or gaining weight, and have admirers that contact them. The dominant/submissive relationship lies at the heart of feeder/feedee culture, whereas the sadist and the masochist both reside in the anorectic's sense of body image. While the anorectic may deny food as a metaphor for denying sex, or the desire for sex, the feeder/feedee relationship to food functions as a metaphor for the unchecked immersion into unbridled desire.
Force feeding has had frightening connotations for women throughout history, particularly during the suffrage movement in the United States during the early twentieth century. In the Victorian era, such extreme outward displays, especially by women, of bodily expression such as that which occurred during the suffragettes' public protests, were subdued by police, who arrested the women, and doctors, who force fed them. Many women engaged in hunger strikes because it was the most powerfully visible way to attract attention to the immediacy of the suffrage movement. According to Barbara Green, "no image has been more provocative than the image of the forcibly fed woman…. The gesture of making public the private experience of the female body, exposing its secrets, describing its invasion, takes place in the realm of the spectacular, produces a speaking subject who is embodied, and who speaks from the female body in pain" (Green 1993, p. 71-72). This condition is at the heart of the dominant/submissive tension, where it involves body image and sexual practice. The act of bringing to the outside what has formerly been inside evokes fear, wonder, fascination, horror, and desire. The depiction of a hunger striker forcibly fed—that is, choking, spitting, and vomiting as food is forced down her throat—creates a body image that, due to its spectacular availability, can be considered pornographic.
LINKS BETWEEN BODY IMAGE, SEXUAL PERFORMANCE, AND PREFERENCE
The widespread availability of pornography, or its mainstreaming, has reinforced a hard body aesthetic in terms of body image. Since the late twentieth century, the increased use of plastic surgery, as well as demand for enhancements, such as anal bleaching, which were previously unheard of outside the pornographic film industry, have demonstrated society's growing interest in perfect bodily symmetry. Obviously, the term perfect is problematic due to its subjective and illusory meaning, but it is the term people of every gender often use to describe the kind of bodies they desire and/or want to attain.
According to Tom Venuto, a body builder, body symmetry "refers to the qualities of balance, proportion, shape and classical aesthetics. It was first described by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who explained it in terms of mathematical relationships" (Venuto 2004, p. 1). Venuto lists several male body builders who have historically fit this shape. The key physical qualities include low body fat; a tiny waist; broad shoulders; a wide, tapering back; slab-like pectoral muscles, developed top to bottom with a sharply defined, lower pectoral line; small hips and glutes; and the appearance of long legs. Some theorize that the quality of symmetry is what makes an individual sexually desirable, regardless of gender or sexual preference. Further a healthy, toned, clean body is often considered a signifier of virility and strength.
Whether addressing sexual drive, performance, or practice, and regardless of sexual orientation and gender, the discussion of body image will eventually turn to the issue of visibility and invisibility. Body image is based on a visual representation (inner and/or outer) of an individual. Philosopher Michel Foucault described the body as constantly "in the grip" of cultural practices (Foucault 1988, p. 55). Bodies, no less than anything else human, are influences by culture.
Stereotyping about sexual preference, performance, and gender is especially influenced by the practices of the dominant culture. However, the subject of sexual orientation, performance, and body image is complicated by culturally coded stereotypes that exist beyond the normal pressures imposed by the dominant culture on ideal body types.
see also Eating Disorders.
Bordo, Susan. 1988. "Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as the Crystallization of Culture." In Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance, eds. Irene Diamond and Lee Quimby. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable Weight. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Green, Barbara. 1993. "Spectacular Confessions: 'How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed.'" Review of Contemporary Fiction 13: 3.
Foucault, Michel. 1988. An Introduction. Vol 1 of Histoire de la sexualité [History of sexuality], trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.
Heywood, Leslie. 1996. Dedication to Hunger. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jeffords, Susan. 1994. Hard Bodies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Orbach, Susie. 1986. Hunger Strike. New York: Norton.
Paz, Octavio. 1972. "Eroticism and Gastrosophy." Daedalus 101(4): 81.
Venuto, Tom. "How to Develop a Classical Body Shape." Bodybuilding and Fitness Portal. Available from http://www.bodybuilding-fitness.net.
‘I have a prospect of getting on in life and elevating myself by my own independent exertions,’ says Wegg, feelingly, ‘and I shouldn't like I tell you openly I should not like — under such circumstances, to be what I call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person.’As he makes clear, Wegg is worried that his body may be deficient or vulnerable to attack in its divided state: it is not, he fears, the body of a ‘genteel person’. What is at stake in this speech is Wegg's sense of his body: his imaging how his body is and how it appears to others. In fact Wegg has a complicated and multiple sense of how his body exists in the world. First, he knows what it is actually like; it's missing a limb, obviously. Secondly, he has the image of how it might appear to others; ugly, misshapen, perhaps. He is worried about this. Thirdly, he has a sense of how his body could look or perhaps how it should be. This anxious fantasy lies behind his otherwise ponderous sense of his potential gentility. If he can buy back his leg, he reasons, he can begin to restore his belief in his own body image.
The strange case of Wegg's lost leg makes clear what is implicit in all feelings about body image. Our sense of our own bodies emerges from a dialectic between our knowledge of it as a lived experience — its pleasures, its pains; the needs and desires of our physical selves — and a more ambiguous sense of how that body appears to others. In neither case is the knowledge we have, or feel we have, guaranteed to be true. Quite the contrary for most of us; we have no more sense of what we really look like than does Mr Wegg. We might feel we look right or suspect we look wrong; often this will depend on our mood at the time. Despite the potential for misapprehension inherent in our experience of our own body and its appearance, our ‘body image’, or sense of our physical selves, determines our interaction with the physical world and with other people. A confidence in our body image can reassure us at moments of crisis or indecision. This summary of body image accords with the common experiences of daily life. However, it is possible to codify these sensations, worries, and aspirations in a variety of ways; indeed, body image needs to be specified more closely if we are to appreciate its full significance. There are two ways in which body image has been defined: first, as a medical and psychological term for defining self-perception; second, as a social and cultural phenomenon, which enforces normative expectations. Both of these ideas are, in reality, interconnected — however, it makes sense in the present context to examine them separately.
From the perspective of a medical or psychological practitioner, the term ‘body image’ describes those perceptions of the self that are centred on the individual's sense of their own physical existence, both anatomical and physiological. Paul Schilder defined body image in the 1930s as: ‘The picture of our body which we form in our mind, that is to say the way in which our body appears to ourselves’. So defined, body image can be thought from a clinical standpoint to have two main states or modes — the normal and the traumatic. In the first case body image expresses our sense of our body's boundaries and capacities: principally our sense of our height, weight, and physical attractiveness as well as our expectation of the extent of our reach or the length of our stride. It is a normative idea that is held implicitly until we are shocked out of it by some event or remark.
This notion of our physical selves is of course evolving: progressing age, the process of puberty, and the changes of the menopause will cause an individual to update or revise the image of his or her body. However, accidents, surgery, disease, and diet can radically alter body image within a short time. This introduces the problem of a traumatic change in a person's body image. With this crisis in mind, modern nursing requires an understanding of how a patient's response to changes in their bodily reality will necessarily impact upon their recovery and sense of themselves. Someone who has undergone extensive surgery or who has suffered from a debilitating disease will often require care and support as they form a new image of their body, its shape and capacities. Without such assistance the process can be irreparably damaging to the patient's self esteem.
But why should our self esteem be so affected by our body image? In cultural terms this question can be answered by considering the forces and pressures that cause us to present our bodies — to ourselves and others — in a certain variety of ways. All societies have practices and codes that seek to regulate how the body is permitted to appear. Most often these are a combination of ideas of fitness, adornment, fashion, hygiene, size, and diet. These conceptions provide the basis for how a body is judged, defining the standards to which it is expected to conform. Failure to conform may be condemned, even considered obscene. Contemporary social ills such as anorexia and bulimia are connected, at least in part, with the pressure of these standards. The Western desire for slim figures, for bodies lithe and muscular, rather than rounded or corpulent, produces in some a destructive desire for excessive dieting, a form of self-denial which, they hope, will realign bodily reality with desired body image.
Women are perhaps particularly exposed to these pressures and are bombarded by more images that seek to privilege one ideal of female form over all others. However, it is not only women in Western cultures who are the recipients of demands upon how their bodies should appear. In other parts of the world, greater stress and more lavish praise is devoted to long necks, small feet, wide girths, and scarification than is generally consistent with European or North American ideals. Despite this apparent divergence, a similar desire to regulate and to judge, as well as to conform, dominates these conceptions of the body. Significantly, the cultural demands placed upon the body are subject to change and revision over time. Nonetheless these codes remain a huge influence on the individual's self esteem and sense of well-being. Our body image in fact is central, if ambiguously so, to our mental and physical well-being.
Price, B. (1990). Body image: nursing concepts and care. Prentice Hall, New York.
Schilder, P. (1935). The image and appearance of the human body; studies in the constitutative energies of the psyche. Kegan Paul, London.
See also eating disorders; female form; phantom limb.
The term body image refers to the view that a person has of his or her own body size and proportion. Body-image distortion occurs when a person's view of their body is significantly different from reality.
Many factors impact the perception of one's body image, including the mass media, peer groups, ethnic groups, and family values. There is no such thing as an "ideal" or "perfect" body, and different cultures have different standards and norms for appropriate body size and shape. Even within a particular culture, societal standards shift periodically. For example, in the United States, the value of being thin has been the predominant stereotype for women since the model Twiggy arrived on the scene in the 1960s. The average fashion model (at the beginning of the twenty-first century) is almost six feet tall and weighs 130 pounds, whereas the average American woman is five feet, four inches tall and weighs 140 pounds. This disparity in height and weight may lead to problems with self-esteem when a woman finds herself not meeting the cultural ideal of body size and shape. The interesting factor is that women tend to feel overweight , not "under height" when comparing themselves to fashion models.
Another example of body-image distortion can be seen among the contestants in the Miss America Beauty Pageant, the Miss Universe Pageant, and the Miss World Pageant. No winner of these pageants has ever been "overweight," and the winners have gotten progressively thinner over the years. Magazines and other media convey the image that being thin equates to being happy and successful, while cases of weight discrimination have been identified and argued in the courts. Fortunately, more emphasis is now being placed on health at any size, and on women becoming more muscular and fit, rather than simply thin. With increases in obesity statistics, however, some people may feel even more pressure to lose weight due to body-image distortion.
There are normal and predictable periods in life when body-image distortion occurs. One of these is puberty , when rapid changes in body size, body shape, and secondary sex characteristics take place. During this time, females tend to gain fat in the breasts, hips, buttocks, and thighs, developing a more pear-shaped body. Adolescent females may view their bodies as being heavier than they actually are, especially when compared to fashion models or celebrities. Adolescent males tend to gain height and muscle mass during puberty, and they may view their bodies as smaller than they actually are when compared to bodybuilders or professional athletes.
Body-image distortion also occurs when eating disorders develop. Most experts agree that the development of eating disorders is multifactorial and includes sociocultural, psychological , hereditary, and brain chemistry effects. Society plays a role in their development since eating disorders occur only in developed nations where food is prevalent and the incidence of these diseases increases with wealth. People diagnosed with eating disorders often see their body accurately only at the end of treatment—or not at all. No matter what their eventual weight is, the females with anorexia or bulimia may see themselves as overweight or fat, and males with muscle dysmorphia see themselves as underweight and scrawny. In anorexia, even when severe weight loss has occurred, patients may view their emaciated bodies as overweight. The diagnostic criteria for anorexia includes a "disturbance in the way in which one's body weight or shape is experienced; undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of current low body weight" (American Psychiatric Association). The diagnostic criteria for bulimia nervosa includes self-evaluation that is "unduly influenced by body shape and weight" (American Psychiatric Association). Body size or shape dissatisfaction appears to be one of the best predictors of dieting behavior. Another characteristic associated with body-image dissatisfaction, dieting, and binge eating is low self-esteem.
The earlier the treatment or intervention in eating disorders occurs, the better the prognosis is. With early diagnosis and treatment, body-image distortion may be minimal and can return to normal. The goals of body-image treatment are to correct distortions in body image and create a more positive body image. The longer the eating disorder has occurred, the more persistent the body-image distortion tends to be. Some female patients may never view their bodies as anything but overweight, and they may even view normal-weight women as fat. In males, the opposite is true: normal-weight men are viewed as scrawny, and only bodybuilders with significantly higher lean body mass than usual are considered ideal. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is commonly used as a major form of treatment for eating disorders and is often provided with a nondiet approach to improve self-esteem as bingeing or purging behaviors are reduced.
see also Dieting; Eating Disorders; Eating Disturbances; Weight Management.
American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition. Washington, DC: Author.
Eldredge, K.; Wilson, G. T.; and Whaley, A. (1990). "Failure, Self-Evaluation and Feeling Fat in Women." International Journal of Eating Disorders 9:37–50.
Rosen, J. C.; Gross, J.; and Vara, L. (1987). "Psychological Adjustment of Adolescents Attempting to Lose or Gain Weight." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55:742–747.
Rubenstein, S., and Cabellero, B. (2000). "Is Miss America an Undernourished Role Model?" Journal of the American Medical Association 283:1569.
In psychoanalysis, body image is the mental representation one has of oneself, which gradually develops in each individual. The body image encompasses fantasies, especially unconscious fantasies, and also involves the environment. The body is one of the subjects Freud dealt with most frequently. In several of his papers, he referred to the constitution and development of the erogenous zones, their representations and importance in the formation of the body image.
The body image is constantly being created and recreated. Caresses and the first affectionate contacts with the people who surround the child during infancy are responsible for molding the body image, and return to the child the image of his own body through containment and eye contact. This is a dialectic process, in which the environment also plays a role. Piera Aulagnier (1991) says that to transform a sensitive region of the body into an erogenous zone, the physiologically sensitive reaction is not enough: time and subjective interrelation are required for the signs of somatic life to become signs of psychic life. In his work on the mirror phase, Jacques Lacan (1949/2004) describes a mechanism of identification that is established through the transformations that occur in infants when presented with a reflection: The mirror offers a tempting image of comprehensive unity, representing what is felt to be a precarious and fragmented self. It was Esther Bick (1968) who, on the basis of clinical material, studied the development of the concept of the skin and its relationship with introjection and projective identification. Didier Anzieu (1985) calls moi-peau (skin-ego) the image of the ego the infant uses in the course of the early phases of his development to represent himself as an ego, on the basis of experiences connected with the body surface.
Various models or clinical hypotheses, such as the neurotic body image, and the primitive-psychotic body image, may be postulated on the basis of clinical psychoanalytical work. The neurotic body image, closer to the notion of normalcy, is the unconscious mental representation of the skin, complete and whole, which envelops and contains warmly. This skin represents the mother's and father's support and warmth, which are in turn the basis for the containment of the self and the limits of the body image. Conversely, in the model of the primitive-psychotic body image, there is no notion of skin, but instead the notion of fluid as the nucleus of the primitive-psychotic body image. Thus, there is only a vague psychological notion of a wall that contains vital fluids, or blood, and fantasies of bleeding, or "emptying out" of those vital fluids. Sometimes this emptying out is linguistically expressed in a fast, uncontrolled speaking style.
This means that the primitive-psychotic concept of the body breaks through and invades what up to then was a different type of mental functioning. These experiences may be expressed through words or through body language, as in psychosomatic disorders. Some patients may have hypochondriac ideas related to the primitive-psychotic body image, such as alleged blood infections, leukemia or hemophilia.
Some concepts related to body image are: hypochondria, body fragmentation, delusions of denial of parts of the body (known as Cottard's delusion), and somatic delusion. Hypochondria based on the psychotic primitive body image may lead to suicidal accidents.
See also: Anorexia nervosa; Bulimia; Demand; Depersonalization; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Mirror stage; Object a ; Puberty; Schilder, Paul Ferdinand; Self-image; Tube-ego; Want of being/lack of being.
Anzieu, Didier. (1985). The skin ego. New Haven-London: Yale University Press.
Aulagnier, Piera. (1991). Un interprète en quête de sens. Paris: Payot.
Bick, Esther. (1968). The experience of the skin in early object relations. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 49, 558-566.
Lacan, Jacques. (2004). The mirror stage as formative of the I function, as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. In his Écrits (pp. 3-9; Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1949)
Rosenfeld, David. (1992). The psychotic aspects of the personality. London-New York: Karnac Books.
Greenacre, Phyllis. (1953). Certain relationship between fetishism and the faulty development of the body image. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 8, 79-98.
Meissner, William W. (1997). The self and the body: The body self and the body image. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 20, 419-448.
——. (1998). The self and the body: III. The body image in clinical perspective. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 21, 113-146.
The subjective conception of one's own body, based largely on evaluative judgments about how one is perceived by others.
Humans have the unique ability to form abstract conceptions about themselves and to gaze at themselves as both the seer and the object seen. Conflict occurs when the seer places unrealistic demands on him or herself and the body. Body image considers physical appearance and may include body functions or other features. Body image is linked to internal sensations, emotional experiences, fantasies, feedback from others, and plays a key role in a person's self-concept . Self-perceptions of physical inferiority can strongly affect all areas of one's life and may lead to avoidance of social or sexual activities or result in eating disorders .
How one's physical characteristics correspond to cultural standards plays a crucial role in the formation of body image. In the South Pacific island of Tonga, for example, corpulence is considered a sign of wealth and elevated social status, but would be termed obesity in Western societies, particularly in the United States where the slim and firm athletic form is idealized. Deference to cultural standards and concepts can be very damaging, as few people attain an "ideal body," no matter how it is defined, and those who depart drastically from the ideal can suffer a sharply reduced sense of self-worth.
Psychologists are interested in body image primarily to determine whether the image held reasonably agrees with reality. A seriously distorted or inappropriate body image characterizes a number of mental disorders. For anorexia nervosa, a seriously distorted body image is a classic symptom and major diagnostic criterion. The anorexic, most likely an adolescent female, perceives herself as "fat" even when she is emaciated. A distorted sense of body image may comprise a disorder in itself, known as body dysmorphic disorder. People affected by this condition generally become preoccupied with a specific body part or physical feature and exhibit signs of anxiety or depression . Commonly, the victim mentally magnifies a slight flaw into a major defect, sometimes erroneously believing it the sign of a serious disease, such as cancer, and may resort to plastic surgery to relieve distress due to the person's perceived appearance.
A healthy body image, according to some in the mental health field, is one that does not diverge too widely from prevailing cultural standards but leaves room for a person's individuality and uniqueness.
Humans start to recognize themselves in mirrors in meaningful ways at about 18 months and begin perceiving themselves as physical beings in toddlerhood. By school-age, children often face prejudices based on their appearances. Children spend much of their early lives in schools, an environment that is highly social and competitive with notoriously rigid hierarchies often based on physical appearances. Studies have found that teachers are also drawn to the most attractive children, which can further compound a child's poor body image. In a
school-age child, a poor body image may result in social withdrawal and poor self-esteem .
As puberty nears, children become increasingly focused on the appearance of their bodies. An adolescent may mature too quickly, too slowly, in a way that is unattractive, or in a way that makes the adolescent stand out in the crowd. Any deviation from the ideal can result in a negative body image, and adolescents may diet or use steroids to counter a negative self-concept. As people age, most revise their views of the ideal body so that they can continue to feel reasonably attractive at each stage of their lives.
See also Anorexia; Bulimia
Cash, Thomas F. What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?: Helping Yourself to a Positive Body Image. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
Costin, Carolyn. Your Dieting Daughter: Is She Dying for Attention? New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1997.