Distorted Body Image

Written by Dr. RJ

  |  Reviewed by Jen Bell

We first begin to develop views of our body’s health, beauty, functioning, and acceptability when we are babies. As we grow up, our body image continues to develop and is influenced by comments and opinions from our family members, classmates, teachers, and coaches.

A negative or distorted body image is when someone’s perception of their body is warped or different to how they actually look to others. As with eating disorders, it is more prevalent in those who identify as female, although many who identify as male may also suffer from this.

Perfectionism & Body Image

Perfectionism and self-criticism are other personality characteristics that can contribute to a negative body image.

Many people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia also have distortions of their body image, and they often have neurological abnormalities in their parietal cortex, the region of the brain that assists people in sensing their body proportions. In other words, these people may see their bodies as bigger than they really are, because the information provided by their brains is incorrect.

Most people who lose weight are able to adjust their mental body image to reflect what they see in the mirror. But people who become malnourished as a result of anorexia or bulimia may have difficulty updating their mental picture. They may continue to perceive a larger version of their body, instead of their present physical state. Additionally, people who suffer from body image distortion often concentrate on perceived faults rather than their overall look.

It can be a challenge for people to admit that they are suffering from a distorted body image. People experiencing this might ignore the worries of friends and family members, because what friends and family say does not match with what they themselves see when they look in the mirror. For anyone trying to address an eating disorder in therapy, it is essential to address body image distortion. When a distorted or negative body image is not addressed, this can increase a person’s risk of recurrent and ongoing disordered eating.

Unhealthy Behaviors

Sometimes people participate in unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to change their body image. This can include using chemicals, disordered eating, diets, alterations of the body, hair and skin (tanning, bleaching), and surgery.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are associated with compulsive eating habits that have a negative impact on body health, feelings, and the capacity to perform in critical aspects of life.

Typically, eating disorders are associated with an excessive emphasis on weight, body shape, and food, which results in dangerous eating habits. Eating disorders may lead to severe malnourishment and can even be life-threatening. Every 62 minutes someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder (Source: Eating Disorder Statistics. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).

One of the main reasons that people seek cosmetic surgery is to improve their self-esteem and psychosocial functioning (von Soest et al., 2009). We would expect when someone undergoes cosmetic surgery with a successful outcome, this would increase their self-esteem and mental wellness, but unfortunately this is not always the case. A person’s negative perception of themselves can be distorted and remain deeply rooted beyond simply changing their physical appearance.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.

 

Effects of Discrimination

Discrimination is often defined as the unjust and prejudicial treatment of people based on a particular category they belong to. This includes marginalized groups of people based on race, mental and physical disabilities, LGBTQIA+ status, religion, and other identities. When we think about what self-esteem is — the way we feel about ourselves and how we think about our own worth and value — it can be easy to see how discrimination impacts our self-esteem. When people treat someone unfairly because of things they identify with or that are inherently part of who they are, it can lead to all sorts of unfavorable impacts like chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. This in turn can impact negatively on an individual’s self-esteem, especially if that individual lets other people’s opinions weigh heavily on them.

Discrimination can cause people to begin to believe that they are not worth much. Often youth might wonder “Why me?” This is because they don’t understand why someone might treat them in a different manner. Discrimination serves to make people believe they don’t deserve certain things that are a basic right for everyone. For example, when some people don’t have opportunities to participate in certain clubs or activities, it can be because of discrimination. In some schools, certain students get to be in advanced classes more than other students, and typically it is Black students and people of color that are kept out of those classes. People with physical disabilities may be passed up for a job; or perhaps a person is not promoted solely because of what they look like or that they identify as a woman, instead of basing that promotion on the work they have performed.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.

Effects of Racism

Racism is a belief system that treats one person better than another based on their race, ethnicity, or the color of their skin. In fact, racism is the practice of believing that one race is superior to another one. When people mistreat other people because of their skin color, race, or ethnicity, it has the same kind of effect as when people are discriminated against. However, with racism, it sets people up to believe that they have the right to treat other people as less than themselves or feel like they are better than someone else simply because of their skin color, or racial background.

There are many systems in the world where you can find racism embedded in their policies and practices, this is called systemic racism. Some of these systems include housing, schooling, healthcare, neighborhoods, and policing. For example, when people of color use these systems — want to buy a house in a particular neighborhood, go to a certain school, get medical care, or call the police for help — racism can stop them from getting the fair treatment they deserve. These kinds of practices can chip away at someone’s self-confidence and over time can cause anxiety, distress, anger, lower self-worth, and depression. This all negatively impacts an individual’s self-esteem.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.

Eating Disorders

People who are unhappy with their bodies are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and eating disorders. Eating disorders may have many causes, but research shows that the most common factor leading to the development of an eating disorder is a person’s disappointment with their physical appearance (Stice, 2002).

Eating disorders are complicated and affect people of different ages. All eating disorders have a variety of biological, psychological, and social risk factors. These variables can result in very different views, experiences, and symptoms among individuals with the same eating problem.

Body image issues often begin in childhood and continue throughout adulthood. The beginning age varies by person; some people experience body image issues at a younger age, while other people never experience body issues at all.

By age six, kids (particularly those that identify as girls) begin to show worries about their weight and form. Almost half of preteen and teen girls, and nearly a third of boys in the same age group engage in harmful weight-control practices such as skipping meals.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel. To learn more about Eating Disorders, click here.

Anxiety & Self-Esteem

While most people experience temporary feelings of guilt when they make a mistake, they often bounce back. For people who suffer from low self-esteem, how they feel in a certain situation may influence how they feel about themselves in general. Every mistake they make may send them sliding into despair.

People with healthy self-esteem are able to properly assess their strengths and shortcomings while still believing that they are valuable individuals. People who suffer from social anxiety disorder or SAD, often have negative beliefs about themselves, like: “I am not able to control my anxiety around others” and/or “I don’t have the ability to deal with social or school situations.” These beliefs are sometimes based on a poor sense of self-worth, and they can contribute to higher levels of anxiety.

If your young person suffers from a social anxiety disorder, they are likely to have high standards for themselves and find it difficult to set achievable goals. They might feel like they need everyone to like them, and that they must never say or do anything wrong. When young people with SAD find themselves in a difficult situation with friends or school work, they are more likely to focus on their nervousness, to have a negative view of themselves, and to exaggerate the negative effects of making a mistake.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.

Stress, Depression, Trauma and Self-Esteem

Some stressful situations can affect our self-esteem, which then affects how we respond to and deal with stress. According to a study conducted by Galanakis et al. (2016), toxic stress can worsen the symptoms of almost all physical and emotional disorders.

“Trauma is a reaction to an experience that results in the victim/survivor to feel helpless and vulnerable, with a loss of control and safety.” – Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative

“People of color can also experience racial trauma from forms of discrimination and systemic inequities. Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments.” – Dr. Ebony McGee Vanderbilt University.

In addition, people who experience abuse, neglect, or life-events that leave them feeling unsafe, including those who are discriminated against based on their neurodivergence, learning and physical differences, or gender and sexuality are also more vulnerable to trauma reactions.

If your young person suffers from depression, mood disorders, trauma, or other illnesses associated with poor self-esteem, they may experience more stress and find it more difficult to handle the daily pressures of life. Here are some factors to consider.

  • The size and strength of our social support network — friends, family, etc., has a big effect on how we experience and deal with stress. Youth who have a strong social support network experience less stress than their more isolated friends.
  • Young people with low self-esteem and low self-acceptance sometimes lack social support from friends, family, teachers etc. and this has been linked with higher levels of stress.
  • Physical and emotional fitness can also affect how we deal with stress. If your young person is physically and emotionally fit, dealing with stress becomes a lot simpler.
  • Often, poor self-esteem means that preteens and teens are emotionally unprepared to deal with the inevitable difficulties of everyday life, and this increases their feeling of being under stress.
  • The frequency and intensity of stress will also impact our reaction to it. If our preteens and teens have well-dosed time and space to recover and feel safe, they are better able to manage the stress in their life.
  • People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) often battle with poor self-esteem. They may lack self-esteem or believe they are worthless. This can have long-term consequences.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.

Unhealthy Relationships: Conflict, unhealthy feelings, and behavior

An unsupportive family, bullying, an abusive relationship, and negative partnerships and friendships can also greatly influence an adolescent’s self-esteem and confidence. If a young person experiences negative behavior where they are consistently put-down, ridiculed, made to feel like they do not belong or have worth in the partnership, or are treated like they cannot perform tasks adequately compared to others, this will lead to insecurity and a low sense of self-confidence.

Relationships can be difficult at times, especially if your young person or their friend or partner are experiencing low self-esteem. Insecurity can create feelings of jealousy and envy that can greatly affect how someone acts and treats others.

Common feelings and behaviors someone with low self-esteem may exhibit include some of the following:

  • Acts of jealousy that may present with aggression, frustration, or conflict
  • Acts of manipulation to coerce their friends or partners not to spend time with others
  • Feelings of insecurity in their relationships (partners and friendships)/thoughts that their friends do not want to spend time with them or frequently feel left out
  • Acts of infidelity or searching for attention to justify self-worth
  • Feeling that their partner is attracted to someone else or not attracted to them
  • Frequently feeling criticized, hurt, or attacked
  • Not wanting to admit or own up when a mistake is made
  • Perceiving that others do not believe in their abilities
  • Feeling isolated and/or unsuccessful at school
  • Struggling with schoolwork, due to pressure caused by negative stereotypes (stereotype threat)
  • May try to put others down, talk about others, or bully others to make themselves feel better about themselves or more worthy
  • Lashing out or being violent to others, as a way of trying to protect themselves/if we believe we will be attacked or criticized, we may feel that we need to attack the person or people who are judging us (or who we imagine to be judging us)
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or loneliness that arise when worried about rejection in friendships or other relationships
  • Feelings of insecurity, shame, or embarrassment if teased or bullied about appearance
  • Feeling anxious or nervous in social situations/worried that others may not like them or they will say the wrong things
  • Remember that in order to achieve a successful, healthy relationship with others, your young person must recognize their own self-worth and self-love first. Loving oneself and keeping true to the things that you love to do will develop a healthy path to successful relationships.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.

Body Dysmorphia

Body dysmorphia, or BDD, is a severe type of distortion of one’s body image. It affects 2% of the population and is strongly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People suffering from BDD often get obsessed with small or nonexistent physical abnormalities. For instance, someone may be concerned about their eyes being uneven or their hands being too large. They are often far more aware of their perceived faults than others around them.

People suffering from BDD often think their claimed defects make them seem ugly or even deformed. They often spend a great deal of time engaging in compulsions to compensate for this defect, including excessive grooming. People often experience significant discomfort as a result of their body dysmorphia. Some may avoid being in public, out of embarrassment about their looks. Still, people often delay getting treatment for their problems out of fear of seeming vain.

In contrast to eating disorders, body dysmorphia is often not associated with worries about one’s weight. Rather than that, BDD is often focused on a single body region, such as the nose or ears. An exception to this is muscle dysmorphia, a kind of BDD in which individuals are concerned about their muscularity.

According to the International Society of Aesthetic Cosmetic Surgery in 2012, between 8% and 15% of people who suffer from BDD seek plastic surgery. Unfortunately, 90% of individuals with BDD who have cosmetic surgery are unsatisfied with the outcome, and many report that their symptoms worsen. Suicide is 45 times more common among individuals with BDD than in the general population. This is why mental health therapy is essential for anyone suffering from bodily dysmorphia.

Remember, there are many ways to counter the external challenges your young person will face in their journey to develop a healthy body image and self-esteem. Since day one, they’ve had everything they need within themselves — don’t let the world convince them that they do not. Know that they are inherently worthy and have the power to love themselves in the way they desire by making small choices and commitments to themselves everyday. Remind them of this truth daily. With practice it will get easier and they will likely start to notice a difference in the way they feel.