Understanding body image problems

What is 'body image'?

Psychologists use the term 'body image' to describe our internalized sense of what we look like. This can be thought of as a mental representation or map of our body, against which we judge our external appearance. For most of us, there is a relatively good match between what we think we look like (subjective appearance) and how we appear to other people (objective appearance). To some extent our body image is idealized (based on how we would like to look). It is also based on a mirror image of our actual appearance. Other people see animated or moving images, whereas we view our own image mainly through photographs or mirrors where our expression is still. Body image also changes as we get older. We recognise our image as our 'self' when we are children and as we grow into adults. However, when our appearance changes suddenly, perhaps after an accident of as a result of disease it can be very disconcerting, and it take quite a long time before we 'see ourselves' once more when looking in the mirror.

Body image can also be studied in terms of what we look like in the eyes of an observer. What other people see and what we think they can see - the outside and inside view of body image - are like two sides of a coin, as they both contribute to how we feel about our looks. For example, we might receive positive or negative feedback about our appearance that might influence the way we think and feel. Equally, the way we act and feel about our appearance will have an impact on others. For example, if you keep your head down, don't make eye contact and say very little then others will think you are not interested in them. They could be critical and reject you, not because of your appeararance but because of your actions.

Body image can therefore be positive or negative and can vary over time. It is just one aspect of the way you feel about yourself. For example, you might have a negative body image and a high sense of worth about other aspects of yourself or vice versa. Ideas about body image overlap with feelings of high or low self-esteem.

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