Body Image: What It Is and How to Improve It

Teen girl looking in the mirror

Getty Images / NickyLloyd

In recent years, body image has been thrown into the spotlight. From advertising campaigns to discussions amongst friends, body image is not just mentioned, it's analyzed. The concept may seem simple, but it actually requires a great deal of nuance. Body image represents how we think or feel about our bodies. It can affect nearly every aspect of our lives and dictate how we choose to live.

What is Body Image?

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), body image is defined as how a person sees themselves, either when they see their reflection in the mirror or how they picture themselves mentally. It extends to how a person remembers, assumes, or generalizes their appearance, as well as their personal feelings towards their own weight, height, and figure. 

Body image may or may not relate to how a person actually appears, but rather their emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body, notes Holly Schiff, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist with the Jewish Family Services of Greenwich. She explains that body image can range between positive and negative and may cause a person to feel different depending on the scenario or period of time in their life—either entirely positive, entirely negative, or a combination of both. 

Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics further clarifies that we garner our own body image from a myriad of sources—the media, our peers, our parents, and our healthcare providers.

“Cultural and social networks are powerful in how we develop body image ideals—many of which are thin standards of beauty that are unrealistic for people to attain who are genetically larger,” Laing explains. “Body size and shape can change predictably and normally with age, yet the societal pressure that many individuals face changing their bodies is fairly high.”

Research suggests that dissatisfaction with one’s body is starting at an earlier age than ever before, even prior to adolescence, which highlights the very real necessity to highlight the need for body-positive discussions and interventions from a young age. 

What is Negative Body Image?

If you have a negative body image, it means that the majority of your thoughts and perceptions about your own physical appearance are negative. This is often seen in the form of a young teenager or a middle-aged adult catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror or shop window and wishing that they look different from their reflection, notes Laing.

“Negative body image can result from brief and unpredictable moments like these, heightened anxiousness in social situations, or from a constant negative internal dialogue about your body that stays with you for most of the day,” Laing points out. “A distorted body image can also lead to negative feelings about your body because you do not have a realistic view of your appearance.”

What is Positive Body Image?

Positive body image, on the other hand, is when a person thinks highly of their physical appearance with self-confidence, self-pride, and body positivity. 

“People who accept their bodies as they are tend to have a strong sense of worthiness, attractiveness, and strengths that are not tied to their outward appearance,” notes Laing. “The term body acceptance is often preferred, as this promotes respecting your body and treating it with kindness even when you might not feel all that positive about it.”

Being body-positive, or having body acceptance, fosters far more than just personal approval of one’s body, but also extends to other areas of a person’s life including their behaviors and mental health, romantic relationships, work performance, and socioeconomic status.

“When you have a positive body image, you are more likely to have confidence and be willing to try new things and take risks because the thought of your body standing in the way of your dreams is much less of a concern,” explains Lisa N. Folden, North Carolina-licensed physical therapist, NASM-certified behavior change specialist and the owner of Healthy Phit Physical Therapy & Wellness Consultants in Charlotte, North Carolina. “You can see beyond your physical body and appreciate the value in yourself as a human and are more likely to treat others with respect, love, care, and kindness.” 

7 Expert Tips for Cultivating Positive Body Image

Here, experts in the field share their best tips for how you can improve your body image little by little each day.

Curate Your Social Media to Include Diverse Bodies

While social media has its benefits, it also has its drawbacks—one of those is an increase in negative body image. In fact, some studies have found a correlation between the time a person spends scrolling on social media, be it Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, and how negatively they feel about their own body image.

“When you are constantly looking at imagery online that fits the ideals (models in ads, actors on TV, friends or influencers with filtered photos), it can create the illusion that everyone except you fits into the narrow ideal,” says Cara Bohon, PhD, clinical psychologist and VP of Clinical Programs at Equip.

Bohon recommends diversifying your exposure on social media to include real, unfiltered human bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors to ensure that your worldview of body image is accurate. This, she explains, can prevent unhelpful comparisons that perpetuate a negative body image. 

Challenge Fatphobia

In addition to social media, much of our exposure to concepts of negative body image come from those around us—our peers, family, friends, and colleagues. 

“If a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle points out how your body has recently changed, quickly let her know you don’t appreciate talking about appearance—or that your body is the least interesting thing about you, and you’d like to focus on discussing your hobbies, experiences, curiosities, and learnings,” says Bohon. “Or when your friend talks with envy about another friend who recently lost weight, remind them that all bodies are different and we cannot know exactly whether weight loss reflects something unhealthy.” 

By challenging these subtle, but pervasive messages reinforcing body ideals, Bohon explains that we are able to send strong messages to those around us that all bodies are good bodies—not just those that are “skinny,” “fit,” or “socially acceptable.”

Say Positive Things to Yourself Every Day

Research has long supported the concept of positive affirmations, or sayings, that you recite to yourself as a means to improve body image. One great way to take advantage of this is to stand in front of your mirror every morning and say a few positive things that you like about your physical appearance and/or things that you appreciate about your body. Bohon notes that this type of exercise can help strengthen your self-image and improve your body confidence overall.

Do Things You Avoid Doing Because of Your Body Image Concerns 

Many individuals are held back by negative body image. For example, someone may resist taking certain photos on days that they feel heavy or unattractive, or they may avoid going on a certain beach vacation for fear that they don’t look attractive in a bathing suit.

Bohon challenges her patients to go all out and do the things they want to do even if they feel their body image is holding them back. 

Cara Bohon, PhD

Act as if you are confident in your body, and the confidence may very well follow.

— Cara Bohon, PhD

Avoid Labeling Foods as “Good” or “Bad”

When we label foods “good” or “bad,” we create an unhealthy relationship with eating that can contribute to poor body image, because we shame ourselves when we give into the “bad” foods and praise ourselves for sticking with the “good” foods.

“Avoid eliminating entire food groups from your diet unless there is a food allergy or other condition diagnosed by your healthcare provider that warrants this,” Laing suggests. “Aim for an overall nutritious eating pattern that focuses on a variety of foods.”

Move Your Body in Ways You Enjoy

Exercise is beneficial for our health in a multitude of ways, and it can also help foster a positive body image. Laing recommends finding physical exercises, be it walking, running, swimming, or yoga, that you actually enjoy doing. Not only will this help ensure that you actually stick to these activities and incorporate them into your day-to-day life, but you’re not adding something into your routine that you dread, which can help boost your mood overall.

Take Your Focus Off Weight

In order to combat negative body image, Laing recommends taking the focus off weight, which may mean not weighing yourself if that’s a habit you incorporate often. Research finds that young adults, especially females, who weigh themselves frequently may suffer negative emotional consequences.

Emma Laing, PhD, RDN

All body sizes can be healthy, and each one deserves delicious and nutritious foods, regardless of how big or small they are. As you work to promote the above health behaviors within yourself or your family, be reminded that body weight or size is not a behavior.

— Emma Laing, PhD, RDN

Dress for the Body You Have Today

While it can be emotionally challenging for some to accept that their body has changed, whether or not something caused it to change, such as a life event like pregnancy, forcing yourself to “fit back into” clothes is not helpful, notes Folden. Instead, she recommends showing your body the respect it deserves by purchasing and wearing clothes that actually fit and flatter it. 

A Word From Verywell

Cultivating a positive body image is not easy, and might be a life-long challenge. However, taking the very first steps towards leaving bad habits behind and embracing new ways of looking at yourself and your body can go a long way towards improving your life overall. For many, body acceptance is a more achievable goal than body positivity (and extremely worthwhile). If you continue to struggle with body image or your relationship with food, seek advice from a health care professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does body image affect self-esteem?

    Body image and self-esteem go hand in hand. When you have a positive body image, you feel more confident in your actions, the clothes you wear, your behaviors, etc., and your physical appearance takes up less room in your mind, which can open the door for new opportunities. 

  • What factors affect body image?

    Some of the factors that affect body image include social media, friends, family members, peers, colleagues, and societal conversations.  

  • How can you help someone with body image?

    The best way to help someone with body image is to set the right example and be body confident in yourself. Avoid any conversations that perpetuate appearance ideals, weight-loss goals, dieting, or clothing restrictions. If someone you know is really struggling, recommend that they seek out the help of a mental health professional, such as a psychologist who specializes in body image or eating disorders.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. As a wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

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