Many people think of body image as a women’s issue or a young person’s issue. In actuality, we all have a perceived body image that affects so many aspects of our lives — including the opportunities we seek.
What exactly is body image, and how can we cultivate a better, more healthy image so that we get the most out of life? To learn more, we talked to Dr. Kristine Luce, psychologist and clinical associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Your body image is defined by your personal perception.
Dr. Luce defines body image as how a person thinks of, feels about and perceives their own body, and how a person imagines others perceive their body.
“Body image is an aspect of identity. Most people tend to self-identify by segmenting their lives into different roles. For example, a person may self-identify according to their profession, relationships, hobbies, etc. Body image is one aspect of a person’s complete identity, and within it a person can hold many perceptions, even contradicting perceptions.”
Although body image is commonly understood as having to do with weight and shape, the term actually encompasses all aspects of a person’s perceived physical appearance — including age, facial attributes and gender.
Body image exists on a continuum.
Dr. Luce views body image along a continuum, with “positive body image” on one end, “negative body image” on the other and the middle composed of varying aspects of both.
Dr. Luce describes a positive body image as a healthy self-image, in which a person has self-compassion and appreciation for their body. They recognize the amazing functions of their body and don’t let how they feel about their appearance limit how they live their life. On the other end of the spectrum, a person with a negative body image tends to be strongly self-critical and less attuned to the beneficial capabilities and functions of their bodies.
Most people, however, do not fall on one extreme or the other. The vast majority of people have varying degrees of appreciation and criticism for their bodies. Terms like “positive” and “negative” tend to be inadequate for fully capturing a person’s felt experience, which is generally more nuanced than binary. For example, when speaking about body image, a person may “fragment” and speak about parts of their bodies they like, and parts that they don’t like. Others might describe feeling positive about their bodies overall, but still want to change certain physical aspects.
A person’s body image is dynamic and ever changing throughout the lifespan. People tend to move along a continuum of how they perceive themselves at various stages of life, such as when they age or gain or lose weight.
Many factors contribute to a person’s body image.
Dr. Luce explains that we are constantly inundated with body image messages from many different sources, including history, economics, religion, family of origin and the media, which is the most prevalent.
Luce describes a series of studies conducted in Fiji before western TV was brought to the island. At that time there were no known cases of eating disorders in Fiji. The studies revealed that the first cases of eating and body image disorders emerged after western TV was brought to their culture, indicating that media presence was at least a contributing factor in how people perceived their bodies.
“Culture has long influenced body image by defining and dictating what is attractive. The media is a strong force that can shape and influence culture, for better or for worse.”
Other societal factors, including economic history and religion, can also contribute to one’s body image. Luce mentions that a higher body weight used to be a sign of fertility and wealth when resources were more scarce, but as resources have become more accessible, thinness or fitness is seen as a symbol of wealth because it indicates more time for self-care. For some religious groups, a thinner appearance could indicate a greater ability for fasting, which is associated with the virtue of self-control and used as a measure of spiritual virtue.
Finally, an individual’s personal history and upbringing can influence the way they perceive themselves and their bodies. For example, if someone is raised in a household or social environment in which a person’s value is very closely tied to their physical appearance, a person may begin to perceive their bodies as a measure of their self-worth.
With the constant onslaught of information we are receiving about how we think we should look, Dr. Luce assures us it is understandable if we feel pressure to look a certain way.
Body image can impact the choices we make in our lives.
Put simply, overconcern about appearance can limit what opportunities a person seeks. Dr. Luce gives several examples of this phenomenon, termed “self-handicapping” in social psychology. Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy in which people avoid an opportunity to protect their self-esteem against the possibility of failure. For example, if a person makes the assumption that they will be discriminated against because of their appearance, they may not go for a promotion.
“Research on this subject shows that a strong enough limiting self-belief can restrict access and experiences throughout the lifespan. This is based on an assumption that may or may not be true.”
Other common examples of self-handicapping due to body image include postponing dating until reaching a particular appearance or avoiding visiting the doctor until reaching a desired weight. According to Luce, these are paradoxical approaches that rarely work, and often bring us further from our desired outcomes.
“When you think about it, most people want to look a certain way for more access in life, whether it be jobs, partners, health or something else. By avoiding promotions, dating and doctor visits due to body image concerns, our access to our desired outcomes becomes more and more limited. On the other hand, people who feel positively in their bodies are more likely to seek out opportunities in all of these areas.”
Negative body image persists throughout different demographic groups.
According to Luce, there used to be evidence that negative body image occurred more for women than for men, and more for white women than for other ethnic groups — but the gap has narrowed over time.
“In the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a proliferation of body image marketing to every ethnic group and gender. Now you can find body image advertising that targets everybody, thus increasing body image concerns and eating disorders across all types of people. I call it, ‘equal opportunity in the direction we were not hoping for.’”
There are many strategies for cultivating a more positive body image.
Dr. Luce encourages her patients to act according to their values rather than their negative self-beliefs. An example of this would be encouraging someone to go to the beach, if that is what they enjoy, even though they might also feel uncomfortable in a bathing suit. This is called a “cognitive dissonance intervention,” based on the theory that increasing the tension (or dissonance) between a person’s thoughts and actions will eventually create a new belief. Dissonance interventions are really about being aware of one’s values, living in alignment with them and not letting one’s beliefs limit opportunities in life.
“Sometimes the discomfort gets better at first, and sometimes it takes a while. But feeling the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the water can make the volume of those negative thoughts turn down, or at least fade them into the background.”
Another intervention, applied on a more macro scale, is counter-attitudinal marketing, which features people of various body sizes, shapes and ethnicities in advertisements.
“I used to have a lot of optimism around counter-advertising and counter-marketing as a strategy for improving body image across culture. I still believe it can work for people who are open to it.”
However, counter-attitudinal ads represent a very small percentage of mass media and social media images. The vast majority of media displays are not representative of the average body type: many are altered by image editing applications like Photoshop and filters, and some even represent an unhealthy body image. By understanding this fact, and being selective of our media exposure, we can begin to combat some of the negative effects of body image marketing.Luce acknowledges this is not an easy feat:
“Negative body image beliefs are deeply entrenched for some people and changing these thoughts, for some, can be very challenging.”
Luce goes on to describe how undoing a belief can be harder than building a new one, especially when we are exposed to so many media images and messages that are constantly reinforcing certain ideas.
Dr. Luce also encourages us to think about the way we speak about bodies and how this might affect body image for ourselves and our communities.
“We can all refuse to engage in conversations about other people’s bodies. By choosing to not engage in appearance-based conversations, we can influence the world by modeling our values.”
A similar strategy is reconsidering our appearance-based decisions as a message to the world. Dr. Luce admits that she doesn’t color her hair because she doesn’t want to give into the pressures around ageism. However, she acknowledges this type of action can be challenging because ageism and appearance-based discrimination exists in many fields.
“I am a psychologist in academia, so looking ‘old and wise’ is still valued. I recognize there are many people who feel they have to look a certain way to keep their jobs.”
Although we may not all be able to take such a strong action, everybody can do something to show the perception of feeling comfortable in the body they have. By choosing an alternative action that goes against societal pressures around body image, we can make changes that influence ourselves and the world around us.
Dr. Luce closes with a note of encouragement. “Body image is not static. Throughout life we move along a continuum of how we perceive ourselves. Regardless of how we feel about it at any given moment, we can have a full and meaningful life in the bodies we have.”
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Stanford Health Image Body Program
The Body Positive Stanford Research Project
Stanford Children’s Health: Boost Your Teen Daughter’s Body Image
National Eating Disorders: The Body Project