What Influences Body Image?

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Those with eating disorders often struggle with body image. What exactly is body image? What influences ones body image to be negative or positive?

by: Kristin Burmeister

Body image is comprised of how you feel about your body (including height, shape, weight, skin color, ect.) and how you physically experience your own body [1]. Many research studies have shown that negative body image is strongly linked to eating disorders, eating disorder behaviors, depression, and low self-esteem [1]. One’s body image can be influenced many factors, including one’s parents, peers, culture/media, or one’s past experiences. Understanding the influences these various factors can have on body image can help shed a light on what may be at the root of one’s negative body image and how to improve one’s body image.

Parents

One’s body image begins to form early in life. Our parents influence our own thoughts and opinions in a variety of ways. The expectation, language, and actions of parents can greatly influence their children’s body image. Children with parents who criticize their appearance, make comments about their weight often, have strict rules surrounding food, or are often critical of them are more likely to have poor body image [2]. However, body image comments do not have to be focused on the child to have an impact. A child’s body image is also greatly influenced by the comments their parents make about their own bodies as children learn to reflect their parents own body image [2]. Therefore, parents and other caregivers should try to be cognizant of body related comments they make around children. Furthermore, reflecting on how your own parents may have influenced your body image either by yourself or with a friend or therapist may be a helpful way to improve your body image.

Peers

How your friends talk about body image topics greatly influences your own body image. Research has show that friend groups tend to have similar body image concerns and members of friend groups who often discuss dieting, weight, or appearance tend to have negative body image [3]. Spending time with friends who focus heavily on weight and appearance and often talk negatively about their own bodies or other’s bodies has a great potential to negatively impact your own body image. On the other hand, spending time with friends who speak positively about all body types and do not engage in a lot of ‘diet talk’ can help increase positive body image. Therefore, to improve body image cultivating friendships that encourage one to feel good about their body and asking friends to talk less about topics that harm one’s body image, such as dieting or fat shaming, can be helpful.  

Past experiences

Past experiences commonly influence one’s body image. Body image is often negatively affected by past experiences of physical or sexual abuse or by experiences of being teased, bullied, or harassed based on body size, gender, skin color or physical abilities [4]. Furthermore, past or current participation in activities like dance, gymnastics, wrestling, and modeling may cause negative body image because these activities focus on greatly body size. Reflecting on one’s past experiences related to body image can help in understanding experiences that may be impacting one’s current body image. Processing through these experiences through self reflection, talking with a friend, or seeking out a therapist can help to stop these experiences from continuing to negatively influence one’s body image and therefore improve one’s body image.

Culture and Media

Cultural ideals of bodies can heavily influence body image and media often reflects these body ideals. Studies show that exposure to images of idealized beauty leads to an increase in body dissatisfaction, increase in depression, and lowers self-esteem [5]. Images of ultra-thin, mostly white, models in magazines, TV, advertisements, or social media can cause one to have negative feelings about their body or reinforce existing negative feelings about one’s body. These images can make individuals feel have negative feelings about their size, the color of their skin, or other physical features that are often not seen in media There are a variety of ways to combat the negative impact media can have on body image. First, being educated about media and understanding the high prevalence of editing photos to be ‘perfect’ can be helpful. Furthermore, lessening one’s media consumption or increasing body positive media consumption can be helpful. Following body positive accounts on social media and staying away from fat shaming media sources can help improve one’s body image. Overall, increasing media literacy and being mindful of the kind of media one engages with can be helpful ways to improve body image.

References:

[1] National Eating Disorder Association. (2018, February 22). Body Image. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-0

[2] Glatter, M. R. (2014, February 24). National Eating Disorders Week: How Parental Behavior May Impact A Child's Body Image. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2014/02/22/national-eating-disorders-week-how-parental-behavior-may-impact-a-childs-body-image/#d34035044e5b

[3] Paxton, S. J., Schutz, H. K., Wertheim, E. H., & Muir, S. L. (1999). Friendship clique and peer influences on body image concerns, dietary restraint, extreme weight-loss behaviors, and binge eating in adolescent girls. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 108(2), 255-266. doi:10.1037//0021-843x.108.2.255

[4] Eating Disorder Hope. (2017). Bullying and Body Image - Bullied Because of Weight. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/eating-disorder/bullying-and-body-image

[5] Vitelli, R. (2013). Media Exposure and the "Perfect" Body. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201311/media-exposure-and-the-perfect-body



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This post was written by BALANCE blog intern Kristin Burmeister.

Kristin is a graduate student studying social work at Case Western Reserve Universtiy. Her own recovery journey inspired her to want to help others who struggle with eating disorders. In the future, she hopes to work as a clinical social worker with a focus on eating disorder treatment.