How we see or perceive ourselves affects how we feel about ourselves. In regard to our physical self this perception is the body image. A poor body image often leads to depression and anxiety. The sad part of this is that society continually shows us idealized images with which we are constantly comparing ourselves. The comparisons are typically unrealistic but the result is still that we feel bad about ourselves, inferior, and depressed. Body image and mental health can become inextricably intertwined.
What is Body Image?
There are four parts of body image. The first is individual perception of their own body. A problem in this regard is that people do not necessarily see in themselves what others see. For example, someone who is obsessed by their weight may see themselves as fat when they are actually slender. No matter what we see in ourselves we may or may not feel good about it. Sometimes a person feels good about their stature or physique but not one part like their nose, ears, breasts, or buttocks.
A part of body image that can be particularly troublesome is what a person thinks about their body. This is the cognitive part of body image. It is also the part that advertisers keep pounding on when they try to sell you things. If you were only thinner you would have more boyfriends or girlfriends. If you had a smaller nose you would be more popular. Maybe you would have more success at work if you had a more winning smile. All of this often ends up affecting how a person acts, the behavioral aspect of body image. People who think they are fat even when they are not will diet obsessively. People who think they do not have an attractive, muscular physique will work out to excess. People who think that an attractive face, chest, or buttocks will make all of the difference in their lives will have plastic surgery.
Body Acceptance Versus Body Dissatisfaction
Some of us readily accept the hand that was dealt us in terms of personal appearance and others spend their lives being unhappy. This is the issue of acceptance or dissatisfaction. Being satisfied with one’s body falls into three levels. You can be unconditionally happy with how you look, neutral to the point that how you look does not make a difference, or you can accept that everyone may look different and that is totally OK.
On the body dissatisfaction side of things, a person assails themselves with negative thoughts and experiences continual negative feelings about their body. All too often the person’s negative views about themselves are distorted, inaccurate. With women this usually has to do with how attractive or unattractive they see themselves as. With men it typically has to do with strength and perceived masculinity. These matter because they are the societal norms constantly reinforced by advertising.
When Do Body Image Concerns Begin?
Kids start to have bad feelings about their bodies in elementary school. Bullying in school reinforces these negative feelings and heighten the amount of anxiety and depression that a child feels. These perceptions and feelings often follow a person into adulthood. We know that childhood bullying which may revolve around body image issues is even a risk factor for suicide for military veterans years after it occurs in school age kids.
How Body Image Affects Mental Health
Being skinny or plump do not make a person anxious or depressed. Having a prominent nose, non-muscular physique, flat chest, etc. does not bring on mental illness. But, how a person sees their body and how that makes them feel can be contributors to depression or chronic anxiety. A sad fact of life is that when a person thinks that something about their body or appearance does not measure up they equate how they think they look with their self-worth. Mental health issues are often tied to just this issue of low perceived self-worth.
Mental health issues that arise from body image problems include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, guilt, negative self-talk, feelings of shame, poor self-esteem, and even financial worries.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
When a person’s body self-image problem is excessive they are so preoccupied that they isolate socially, obsess over their looks, and compulsively try fix issues. This can lead to compulsive application of makeup, binge dieting, and self-injury from obsessive workouts. These people often end up with depression and disabling anxiety with need professional treatment.