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Pretend for just a moment that we live in a world without mirrors, selfies, and body-snarking.

What would it be like to think of your body not in terms of how it looks, but with the awe and respect it deserves for being a thinking, breathing, heart-pounding, disease-fighting miracle machine?

If we could adopt that perspective daily, maybe we’d be less susceptible to some societal ideals that create a harmful, negative body image.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what a negative body image is, the typical signs and symptoms, and how to overcome it.

Body image is complex. For most people, it isn’t as simple as “I like my body” or “I don’t like my body.” It can include any combination of the following factors:

  • your perception of how your body looks to you and to others
  • your understanding of what your body can do
  • your awareness of how your limbs move through space
  • your evaluation of individual parts of your body
  • your feelings about your body and body parts
  • your estimation of body size
  • your culturally driven beliefs about what bodies should look like
  • the behaviors you believe are necessary to evaluate your body

Negative body image can begin at a surprisingly early age. According to a 2020 research review, 40 to 50 percent of first- and second-graders already don’t like some aspect of their body.

When bodies begin changing during puberty, that dissatisfaction can deepen. And a 2006 study suggests that relationship problems between parents and children can worsen body dissatisfaction even further.

Culture also exerts an enormous influence on your body image. How your society views the following can affect the way you think and feel about your body:

  • gender
  • age
  • size and shape
  • abilities
  • illness
  • skin color
  • modesty
  • hair
  • clothing

The ideas and values of your family, peers, education, and faith tradition can also shape the way you see yourself.

Given the complexity of body image and societal pressure to conform to its ever-changing standards, it’s no wonder body image can be problematic for many people.

A positive note

A 2012 study suggests that Black girls and women generally have a more positive and self-accepting body image than white girls and women.

How you see your body isn’t simply a matter of aesthetic appreciation.

A 2020 research review suggests that dissatisfaction with your body can lead to a number of physically or emotionally unhealthy habits. This can include drastic eating restrictions, especially among teenagers.

A negative body image is also associated with a wide range of health conditions. People who are extremely dissatisfied with the way their bodies look have a greater risk of developing:

Also, people with social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and major depressive disorder may have a distorted, negative body image.

If you’re wondering whether you have a negative body image, the following questions can help you gauge how positive or negative your body image is:

  • Do your feelings about your body interfere with your relationships, work, or activities?
  • Do you take extreme measures to avoid seeing your body?
  • Do you compulsively check and recheck your body — either weighing yourself, measuring your body parts, pinching your skin, or examining yourself in the mirror over and over again?
  • Do you feel the need to apply a heavy layer of makeup when you go out in public?
  • Do you use hats to cover your hair or baggy clothing to hide your body?
  • Do you pluck, shave, wax, or laser away hair excessively?
  • Have you had excessive plastic surgery?
  • Do you use harsh or unkind language to describe your body?
  • Do you intentionally damage your skin?
  • Do you experience powerful negative emotions when you think about your body?

If you answered yes to one or more questions, you may want to consider talking with a counselor about the way you view your body.

Although having a negative body image can be painful and stressful, there is some good news: Effective treatments exist. Let’s look at some of the most effective therapy options for a negative body image.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Multiple studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a form of talk therapy — is effective for helping to change your body image.

A CBT-trained therapist can help you identify harmful, faulty thinking patterns and restructure your thoughts so they’re kinder and more accurate.

Your therapist may work with you to revise your self-critical language and develop relaxation techniques to relieve some of the stress that often goes along with negative body image.

Sometimes, CBT therapy involves guided imagery, a kind of deep relaxation where your therapist helps you envision mental pictures that calm you.

More research is needed to understand which CBT methods are responsible for changing your body image. To date, CBT is the most trusted approach to resolving negative body image.

Psychotherapy

A licensed therapist or counselor can help you talk through the causes, triggers, memories, and associations you may have with your body image.

A 2013 study, for example, suggests that childhood trauma and sexual abuse are linked to a negative body image later in life.

Talking with someone about these early experiences may help reveal and change the complicated underlying beliefs you may have about your body.

Often, a trusted therapist’s office can be a safe place to talk about thoughts and behaviors you might not share with anyone else. A therapist can also educate you about the ways a negative body image can harm your mental and physical health.

Many people work with a therapist one-on-one in psychotherapy, but others prefer a group setting. Group therapy can provide the additional support of peers who understand what you’re experiencing.

Medication

According to a 2020 review, some research has shown that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are often prescribed for anxiety disorders, may be helpful when you’re working to change your body image.

The medication is especially effective when you combine it with CBT techniques.

If you think medication might help, talk with your healthcare provider about the risks involved. SSRIs aren’t suitable for everyone.

Physical fitness therapies

Healthy amounts of physical activity can release endorphins (feel-good chemicals) to counteract the anxiety that sometimes accompanies a negative body image.

Some researchers think that focusing on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like, may help repair a distorted body image.

Other researchers have expressed concern about using exercise as a way to counteract negative body image. They believe there may be a risk of reinforcing the idea that you’re exercising to change the way your body looks.

More research is needed to find out whether exercise has an overall positive or negative impact on body image.

Media and social media education

Advertising, celebrity culture, and social media have established two strict beauty ideals: thin-ideal and athletic-ideal. This messaging implies that adhering to these two standards is the only way to be beautiful and be loved.

If you consume large amounts of media and social media, you may be at risk of internalizing these dangerous and unrealistic standards. And studies have shown that when your peers share these ideals, the effect it has on you is even more powerful.

Creating a healthier body image involves unlearning what you’ve been taught from media sources.

Learning to recognize harmful media messages — whether they’re being sold by advertisers or pushed by unhelpful friends online — is the first step. Learning to see and appreciate a splendid diversity of bodies is also part of the process.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, societal norms and ideals place LGBTQ+ populations at a greater risk of developing a negative body image and disordered eating patterns.

Reversing the damage from a negative body image takes time, patience, and effort. But there are steps you can take to limit your exposure to harmful body messaging and create a more realistic and positive body image.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Creating a positive body image

  1. Detox from social media — several weeks or a month could give you the space and mental clarity to reset your self-image.
  2. Create multiple lists of the top things you like about yourself.
  3. Surround yourself with loving, positive people — in real life and online.
  4. For several days, jot down the negative things you say or think about your body, then rewrite those messages in a more self-respecting way.
  5. Redefine beauty in a less superficial way.
  6. Take your own comfort into consideration when choosing clothes.
  7. Explore activities that allow you to discover how your body works and what it can really do.
  8. Spend time volunteering to help others.
Healthline

If you’d like to learn more about what you can do to improve your body image, you may want to explore some of these resources:

To find a therapist or support group:

To learn more about body image diversity:

  • Check out About-Face, an organization that educates young women about distorted media portrayals.
  • Explore Body Sense, a Canadian program promoting healthy body awareness among athletes.

To share your story, visit Adios, Barbie, a website for sharing body and identity experiences. The Body Image Project is where you can share your body image story anonymously.

A negative body image involves being overly focused on comparing your size, shape, or appearance to unrealistic ideals. Holding yourself to a thin-ideal or an athletic-ideal may cause you to develop unhealthy self-talk, low self-esteem, or disordered eating patterns.

To change a negative body image, you could try CBT or talk therapy, either on your own or in a group setting. You could also talk with your doctor about medications to help with the anxiety you may be feeling. There are also a growing number of resources to help you create a healthier self-image.

Your body has helped you survive every event in your lifetime. Your heart is still beating. And your breath keeps flowing in and out. You can take steps today to heal your body image so that you can walk your own beautiful path in peace.