Negative Body Image: 9 tips to overcome along with Causes, Triggers, Impact

Jul 9, 202413 min
Author's Profile picture
Prachi Gangwani
Therapist | Yoga Teacher | Author of Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India
girl having negative feelings about her body

What is Negative Body Image?

How we view our body forms a significant part of our relationship with ourself. Body perception is a part of self-perception. Just as the thoughts, feelings and beliefs we have about the psychological and emotional aspects of our self, how we view the body also contributes to how we show up in the world.

To put it simply, our body image reflects the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction we experience toward the body. A positive body image suggests higher overall satisfaction with one’s body, while a negative body image suggests lower body satisfaction or higher dissatisfaction with one’s body. 

Positive vs. Negative Body Image: Exploring the Two Sides of the Coin 

While we may feel more body-positive or negative on most days, our body image is seldom static. Body image rests on a spectrum. On the one end of this spectrum, we may experience satisfaction and acceptance of the body, and a healthy relationship with food.

On the other end of this spectrum, we may experience extreme dissatisfaction with can lead to the development of eating disorders. Along the spectrum, one may experience disordered eating without it being a fully fleshed-out diagnosis. For example, one may completely eliminate sugars from their diet, without restricting calories.

Also along this spectrum, one may feel self-conscious about the body without it hindering one’s social, personal or professional lives. For example, one may feel self-conscious about arm flab but still manage to wear sleeveless when going out. 

The impact of negative body image may be felt in different aspects of one’s life, including our self-esteem, mental health and overall well-being. Studies have found that the relationship between self-esteem and body image is also often bidirectional.

While low self-esteem can contribute to body dissatisfaction, body dissatisfaction, too takes a toll on one’s self-esteem. Similarly, the relationship between negative body image and mental health is also bi-directional.

While eating disorders are the most commonly seen effect of negative body image, anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety and social anxiety also tend to co-occur with negative body image. 

Negative body image is seen to impact one’s overall well-being. It can increase the likelihood of unhealthy lifestyle habits such as disordered eating and over-exercising. It may also contribute to psychological distress, which can interfere with one’s personal and professional relationships. 

Causes of Negative Body Image

Causes of negative body image are often found in one’s life experiences such as social pressures and ideals one is faced with, internalized messages about the ‘ideal’ body, comparisons with others, unrealistic beauty standards and other childhood experiences. Let’s look at these in a bit more detail: 

1.Societal Pressures & Cultural Beauty Standards:

Every culture has an unspoken definition of what is considered beautiful. In the Indian culture, for example, great emphasis is placed on fair skin. Images in media like films, TV shows, and social media, also promote a thin body, inadvertently making it an ideal to strive for.

The workout videos we see being celebrated online add to the barrage of celebrities promoting negative body image, promoting unrealistic beauty standards, for those of us who don’t have a perfectly chiseled, thin body or puckered lips. Such social pressures are maintained by families and peers, contributing to body dissatisfaction among individuals. 

2.Internalized Criticism:

A common presentation of individuals with negative body image is negative self-talk. Body dissatisfaction is often companied by thoughts like, ‘I hate the way I look’, ‘Nothing fits right’, and ‘No matter what I do, I look ugly/fat/unattractive’. Such negative self-talk is usually an internalization of voices or messages one hears from external forces such as family, peers, partners or even media. Needless to say, this contributes to negative body image. 

3.Social Comparison Trap:

In the Indian diaspora, comparison with others often begins early on. ‘Sharma Ji ke beta/beti’s’ exam results, performance in extracurricular and relationship status are often used by parents as misinformed motivators. But, this tendency to compare one’s child with others sometimes becomes internalized in adulthood.

Social media has created another world for us where we may find many opportunities to pit ourselves against others and let the social comparison trap continue. On social media, however, the images we see are not only unrealistic but also literally unreal.

With the proliferation of filters, photoshop, makeup and procedures that alter one’s features, we are presented with beauty ideals that fuel insecurity and contribute significantly to negative body image. 

4.Childhood Experiences:

Our self-image, including body image development, is deeply impacted by our childhood experiences. The messages we receive about our body from our caregivers as well as peers during the foundational years of childhood and adolescence can leave an imprint on us.

Negative childhood experiences such as criticism, teasing, or bullying about one’s physical appearance can contribute to body dissatisfaction or a negative body image. 

Recognizing Negative Body Image

7 Triggers of Negative Body Image

If one is prone to body image insecurity, there are many seemingly “small” things that can become triggers. A few of these common activating or triggering events include: 

  • Seeing photoshopped or otherwise altered images on social media or on TV
  • Trying on or holding on to clothes that don’t fit 
  • Comments made by others on one’s body, weight or appearance 
  • Focusing on body parts that one feels insecure about 
  • Peer pressure to look a certain way 
  • References to ideal beauty standards 
  • Being around people one considers more attractive or beautiful than oneself 

10 Warning Signs and Symptoms of Negative Body Image in 2024

Negative body image signs can show up in one’s behaviour as well as emotional state or well-being. Some common signs or symptoms of negative body image are: 

  • Excessive concern about one’s diet 
  • Over-exercising for the fear of becoming out of shape 
  • Criticism of one’s body 
  • Social withdrawal or behaviours that feel like ‘hiding’
  • Checking one’s body repeatedly
  • Being self-conscious about one’s body or certain body parts 
  • Comparing oneself with others, online or offline 
  • Difficulty accepting compliments 
  • Moodiness or irritability 
  • Fear of gaining weight or becoming out of shape 

The Impact of Negative Body Image

How Negative Body Image Affects Mental Health:

Negative body image and mental health are closely linked. Below are some ways the two are related: 

  1. Negative body image can contribute to the development of eating disorders. Eating disorders are a mental health concern since they are fueled by psychosocial factors. 
  2. Negative body image has been seen to co-occur with anxiety disorders, including social anxiety and panic disorders. 
  3. Negative body image can also co-occur with depression. Depression and negative body image seem to have a bidirectional relationship, with each fuelling the other in many cases. 

How Negative Body Image Leads to Eating Disorders: 

Perhaps the most well-researched impact of negative body image is its contribution to the development of eating disorders. Since a negative body image is fuelled by one’s insecurity about not having the (mythical) “ideal” body, it naturally follows that if this insecurity is consuming, one would take measures to try to achieve the “ideal” body. More often than not, this includes making changes in one’s diet in order to lose weight. 

It is important to note here that not every incident of trying to lose weight by making dietary changes is a case of an eating disorder.

For example, in cases of obesity, it may be beneficial for one’s health to make these changes. The second thing to keep in mind about eating disorders is that they are a result of a complex interaction between biological and environmental factors, and negative body image is just one contributing factor, among many. 

With this in mind, negative body image can contribute to the development of the following eating disorders:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa - Anorexia Nervosa has three characteristic features - one, abnormally low weight; two, a fear of gaining weight; and three, a distorted perception of weight. In order to not gain weight, individuals with anorexia nervosa severely restrict their food intake. 
  2. Bulimia Nervosa - In bulimia nervosa, one consumes large amounts of food, often in secret due to the shame associated with it. In order to keep their weight in check, one finds a way to purge the food. Purging may happen via vomiting, or with the use of laxatives. 
  3. Binge Eating Disorder - Everyone binges once in a while, but it becomes concerning when the binging occurs frequently and for a sustained period of time. A binge eating disorder is given when one eats large amounts while feeling that one lacks control, at least once a week for three months. 

Effect of Negative Body Image Beyond Mental Health

A negative body image doesn’t always amount to a mental health disorder. However, it can still impact one’s quality of life and sense of self. It may make one feel self-conscious and low on confidence. Low confidence can lead one to be more reserved in personal and professional settings. In romantic relationships, in particular, negative body image may also interfere with establishing both physical and emotional intimacy.  

Social Media and Body Image

That social media has deeply impacted our relationship with ourselves in many different ways is no secret. The visual nature of much of social media has also spotlighted our own visual appearance. In one online survey in Britain, four in ten teenagers reported feeling worried about their own body image because of social media images. In another survey of 1000 adult men and women, it was seen that 87% women and 63% men compare their bodies with images they see online, and among these, 50% and 37% evaluated their own bodies negatively. 

As one can see from the statistics above, it is not merely the presence of social media that contributes to body image issues, but our instinctive nature to compare ourselves to it. It’s important to bear in mind that most of what we see on social media is heavily altered either by photoshop, filters and other tools, or simply the fact that we showcase only the good parts of our selves and lives online. 

Negative Body Image and the Fitness Industry

Another contributor to negative body image is the fitness industry. Most of the fitness industry rests on aesthetics rather than health. Being “fit” is often associated with a flat stomach or six pack abs and strong musculature. While muscle strength and optimum weight is important for good health, the fitness industry doesn’t seem to care much about it as long as you keep your body fat percentage to zero and can lift double your body weight! 

Negative Body Image and Intimacy and Relationships

Negative body image can make it challenging to be open to intimacy in relationships. Fear of being judged or criticized can make one anxious around their partner. In particular, this anxiety shows up in the context of physical intimacy. If one doesn’t feel good about their body, they may feel extremely uncomfortable with physical or sexual intimacy for the fear that their partner will not find them attractive. 

Media's Role - Negative Body Image and Media/Advertising and Body Image:

Many of us look up to media portrayals as aspirational. We want the lifestyle and the looks we see on TV, in movies and in advertisements. However, traditional media and advertising, too, are guilty of promoting unrealistic body ideals. We seldom see different body types, skin colours or hair textures (notice how all celebrities have started looking the same?).

Dove picked up on this limited representation of beauty and for the last few years, have been launching excellent campaigns that promote body diversity. But, Dove advertising is an exception, and is testament to the absence of body diverse narratives. 

Real Talk: Negative Body Image Across Genders:

Gendered Pressures:

Both men and women are faced with the concept of the ideal body and unrealistic beauty standards. While there may be some cultural differences, generally, women are expected to be thin, have long hair, fair skin, puckered lips and the right amount and type of curves. To adhere to these beauty standards, many women may feel the need to use makeup or procedures that enhance these features. 

Men, on the other hand, are expected to be muscular and tall. While we are generally more accepting of “imperfect” male bodies, many men face shaming and feel insecure when they don’t have the physical features that supposedly portray virility. 

Dismantling Stereotypes:

Underneath any form of discrimination are stereotypes and biases that we hold about certain groups or characteristics. When it comes to one’s appearance and gender, there are many such stereotypes.

For example, we associate thinness with health, not recognizing the fact that 16 to 33% body fat percentage is considered healthy for women. A similar stereotype impacts men - we assume that the more muscular one is, the stronger or fitter one is, but many health issues including chronic inflammation and arthritis are common among professional athletes. 

In order to dismantle these stereotypes, we need to look beyond the looks! We need to think about whole bodies and whole beings, and how healthy one truly is, rather than how “healthy” one looks. 

Helping Someone with a Negative Body Image

#9 Strategic Steps on How to Help Someone Overcome Negative Body Image:

  1. Practice body neutrality - The antidote to body negativity is not body positivity, but body neutrality. Body neutrality urges us to stay neutral towards our body, and neither judge nor celebrate the body too excessively. This approach helps us focus more ont he body’s functions rather than appearance. You can read more about it here
  2. Focus on a healthy body rather than an ideal body - Beauty ideals often tend to focus more on appearance and less on health. But, being skinny or muscular doesn’t always mean being healthy. Keep your focus on your health and wellbeing rather than how you look. 
  3. Avoid comparisons - Many of us are naturally prone to comparison. While in some cases, comparison can motivate us, if it fuels negative body image for you, train yourself to stop comparing with others! 
  4. Cut down on social media use - The link between social media use and negative body image is well-established. Cutting down on social media or muting or unfollowing profiles that portray unrealistic beauty standards can help you feel better and cultivate a healthier relationship with your body. 
  5. Embrace the things your body enables you to do and experience - At the end of the day, your body is a tool that enables you to experience life. Shift your focus to all the things your body helps you do and experience. The food you eat, embracing your loved ones, working, reading or watching TV, traveling, cooking, meeting your friends - none of this would be possible without this body, and none of this is really impacted by how you look! 
  6. Critically analyze beauty standards - Cultivate the habit of asking yourself if the beauty ideals you see around you are realistic or necessary. For example, is it realistic for everyone to have puckered lips and high cheek bones? Is it necessary to have Frenchcheekbones tips? Is it realistic to never be bloated? Is it necessary to have long hair? 
  7. French- Sometimes, we are our own biggest enemy. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself when it comes to your appearance and body. Are you being too critical? Are you putting undue pressure on yourself to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards? Challenge negative self-talk and learn to be more compassionate toward yourself. 
  8. Do more with your body - There are many activities that can’t be done if we are dolled up. For example, you can’t play the guitar or do pottery with long nails. Similarly, there are many activities that can’t be done if you’re overweight or underweight and lack stamina. For example, you may struggle to go for a trek or a swim. When you shift your focus on doing things, and do more of what you like, how you look while doing it stops mattering. Instead, what becomes important is how you feel. 
  9. Surround yourself with supportive and compassionate people - Our relationships go a long way in supporting our mental health. If you’re surrounded by people who are focused on appearance rather than who you really are, or your wellbeing, it can be difficult to develop a more balanced relationship with your body. Having friends and family who are invested more in who you are than how you look can help you see and appreciate who you are beyond your appearance. 

Seeking Help

If negative body image interferes with your daily life, makes you critical of yourself, or your daily habits, or makes you feel inadequate, seeking help from a mental health professional can help. But, one doesn’t have to wait to be in extreme distress to seek professional support.

Whether or not your body image impacts your mental well-being or your relationships, seeking therapy can help in developing and maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s body. All of us are exposed to many messages about beauty, and therapy can provide a space to understand how these expectations and pressures impact us. 

Conclusion

Our environment and culture impact how we view ourselves, including the relationships we build with our bodies. A negative body image can be fuelled by unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in traditional and social media, and promoted by cultural expectations. It’s important to critically examine beauty standards and focus on one’s health rather than one’s appearance. 

Additional Resources

Negative Body Image Quotes: 

Body image - what we're supposed to look like - is made so unattainable that all girls are put in this position of feeling inferior. That's a horrible thing. - Amy Heckerling

“Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.” —Henry Miller

"Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good." — Serena Williams

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‌Nupur Amarnath. (2019). The little-known case of male body shaming. The Times of India; Times Of India.

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Author's Profile picture
Prachi Gangwani
Therapist | Yoga Teacher | Author of Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India
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