Negative Body Image: A Widespread Issue

“I feel fat!” This is not only a comment made by individuals struggling with eating disorders, but one made consistently by countless women throughout America. Dissatisfaction with body shape and size is so prevalent in girls and women that it has been described as “normative discontent” (Tiggeman & Lynch, 2001). Recent studies have revealed that women’s desire to be thinner does not diminish across age spans, nor does the preoccupation with being overweight or dissatisfaction with appearance (Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001). Researchers have also found that people who are considered to be more physically attractive have an easier time getting jobs, have higher pay, are more socially competent, and are less lonely. Is it not surprising that many women suffer trying to fit the image of an attractive person?What exactly is body image? Body image refers to an individual’s evaluations and affective experiences regarding their physical attributes. Body image has three components: a) physiological component, or the brain’s ability to detect weight, shape, size, and form; b) the conceptual component, including formation of a mental picture of one’s body; and c) the emotional element, or perceived feelings about one’s body, shape, and size.

Physiological Component of Body Image

The brain’s processing of female body shapes engages a distributed neural network, parts of which are underactive in women with eating disorders. Results of a divided visual field experiment supported a theory proposed by Smeets & Kosslyn (2001) that the distorted perception of one’s own body in patients with Anorexia Nervosa is mediated by a failure to integrate the general body schema in the left hemisphere with the concrete examples coded in the right hemisphere. For women in particular, all the biological development milestones of puberty, pregnancy, and menopause have the potential to increase body fat.  The physiological changes associated with these milestones create an increase in the number of individuals who develop eating disorders or experience relapses in the recovery from an eating disorder during the aforementioned times.

Conceptual Component of Body Image

Formation of attitudes about body image begins early in life; children show preferences for thinness at increasingly younger ages. A research study showed that five-year-old girls expressed a desire to be thin and preschoolers exhibited aversions to overweight individuals. Hoyt and Kogan reported that women who are underweight were no more satisfied with their body appearance than were normal or overweight women, suggesting that it is one’s perception of body size that is of greatest importance.  Most people are set to maintain weight within what is considered to be a normal range; this “normal” range; however, may not be what an individual considers an ideal or desired range.

Emotional Component of Body Image

The affective component of body image includes feelings of anxiety, distress, and other emotions associated with the body. Research has revealed that women feel more guilty, anxious, and depressed after viewing thin models in the media. Body dissatisfaction is associated with increased depression as well as low self-esteem.

Body Image Disturbances Do Not Discriminate

While body image has been repeatedly identified as an important factor in the development of eating disorders, body image dissatisfaction does not only exist in the population of individuals struggling with eating disorders. Women who perceive themselves as overweight often engage in cyclic binge eating and fasting, characterized by a loss of control and eating in times of stress. The methods used by women who have poor body image are similar to the methods used by those with an eating disorder, only to a lesser extent.

Where do we go from here?

A multiphasic approach can be highly effective in treating body image dissatisfaction; this includes educational, socio-cultural, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and familial components. Cognitive work helps patients accept their own bodies and accentuate the function the body serves rather than its appearance. Because body image dissatisfaction is laden with emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and depression, patients must be assisted in identifying, expressing, and coping with the intense emotions. The behavioral component of therapy strives to help patients express positive attitudes about their bodies by changing the self-defeating behaviors that lead them to disapprove of their bodies in the first place. Walker Wellness Clinic offers a body image and self-esteem group as part of the treatment for formal eating disorders.