Body Image Concerns: 9 Ways to Manage Along with Causes, Triggers & Impact

Jul 13, 20248 min
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Mave
Clinical Psychologist
A female friends spending happy time together at a restaurant without any body image concern

Understanding Body Image Concerns

Imagine this scenario

As a young child, your parent informs you that you are going to go to your cousin's wedding. You are brimming with joy about what you want to wear, and excited to meet your cousins, play and gorge on good food. 

On the day of the event, as you enter the wedding, a random aunty pulls your cheeks exclaims how cute you are and in the next instant tells your parent, you need to stop giving this child food as they are already so round and will grow up to be fat. 

How many of us have experienced an older adult expressing displeasure about certain aspects of our bodies growing up?

In the Indian context, many of us may have been on the receiving end of these comments or comparisons from a cultural standpoint we as a society have normalized commenting on weight change, the choice of clothing, skin colour, and many other aspects of bodies as a way to initiate small talk. 

As a result of such experiences, many people struggle with a negative perception of their bodies. Body image concerns refer to experiencing overwhelming thoughts, emotions, and a general dislike towards parts of bodies or the entirety of physical appearance. These concerns can range from mild dissatisfaction to severe anxiety and can significantly impact a person's mental health and well-being. 

Key aspects of body image concerns include & it’s impact include:

  • Cognitive Component: Overwhelming thoughts and beliefs about one's body size, shape, or appearance. This can include overvaluation of certain physical attributes and unrealistic standards of beauty.
  • Emotional Component: Feelings of anxiety, shame, or distress related to one's appearance. These emotions can fluctuate based on various factors like media exposure, social comparisons, and personal experiences.
  • Behavioural Component: Actions taken to alter or hide one's appearance, such as excessive dieting, exercising, cosmetic procedures, or avoiding social situations. This can also involve frequent checking of one's appearance or avoiding mirrors completely, seeking constant reassurance from others about their body.
  • Perceptual Component: Distorted perceptions of one's body size or shape. An example of the same being viewing oneself as larger or smaller than one actually is.

We've covered Body Positivity vs Body Neutrality

Causes & Triggers of Body Image Concerns:

Studies conducted to understand the development of body image concerns, speak about how most people begin their struggles with body in their early childhood. 

1.Societal Factors

Every society determines its own definition of beauty. India, as a country at large, is preoccupied with fairness creams, owing to the standard that fair skin tone is supposedly the beauty standard.

These beauty standards are often skewed. Indians are known to have a variety of skin shades and many Indians beautifully own their darker skin tone. Having a darker skin tone is primarily due to higher levels of melanin in their skin.

Melanin is a pigment produced by cells, and it serves several crucial functions, particularly in protecting against the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Due to unrealistic beauty standards set by society, many people fall into the trap of buying fairness creams and expensive skin treatments to no resolution.

The pressures of the same are depicted in the TV show ‘Made in Heaven’ where brides are often forced into wearing attires on their big day that suit their skin tone, rather than the colours that they prefer. These standards, often unrealistic, contribute to making one question their own body. 

2.Social Media 

Numerous academic articles as well as popular press have speculated that social media, and Pinterest in particular, may contribute to body dysmorphia, other phenomena associated with eating disorders.

In particular, scholars have recognized social media as sites of identity exploration and expression, as well as loci for creativity. In today’s day and age, all of us are glued to our screens, and while that most certainly has brought the world together, it has also contributed to body image concerns. 

Popular ways of reaching multiple people include the usage of hashtags (#). Research also tells us how particular hashtags were contributing to body image concerns.

Such as

  • #fitspiration
  • #thinsipration 

As you are reading this, you may have the urge to search for these hashtags yourself, however, be mindful, as these hashtags depict images of highly sculpted, photoshopped bodies to supposedly inspire one to be healthy but instead have a higher chance of making us feel insecure because real bodies are not ‘perfect’. Real bodies have flabby stomachs, stretch marks, acne scars, and body hairs which these photos hide.

To the extent, that now if you search for these hashtags on popular social media websites like Instagram you would be directed to mental health helplines. Social media often invite comparisons between how someone else is looking in the reel vs. real life, often making us forget that people display their best lives and features there. 

3.Movies

The visual media or cinema, is quite popular in India. To a degree, where trends are influenced by famous actors. Many companies have actors as the face of their advertisement campaigns because they have the power to influence the masses. Consequently, the beauty standards set by actors across genders become the norm of the standard for society. If fair skin, extreme diets, and having a certain body type are endorsed by actors the larger society is bound to see that as a standard and follow through contributing to dislike toward bodies. This is because the ideal is more or less similar across various actors and the movie industry in itself doesn’t promote body diversity. 

4.Internalized Messages

Downward comparisons and insensitive comments about the body play a huge role in determining the body image of a person. Many times, growing up a children are compared to their siblings, cousins, and friends. ‘Sharma ji ke beta ke marks tumse better aye’ (Translation: Our neighbours child scored more than you) - is a common statement every child grows up hearing, this comparison is not limited to academics, it often translates to comparing how two children may have different skin tones, body size and comparing one with the other. This may be said in the moment of jest but can impact the self-esteem of the child. Every child should be celebrated for their bodies rather than being compared or commented on. These remarks over a period of time may become internalized thoughts and that way the child begins viewing themselves. 

Gender & Body Image 

How does Body Image differ between Men and Women?

Cisgender differences in body image concerns are influenced by societal standards, with many women often focusing on weight, body fat, and overall thinness influenced by societal ideals of beauty, often leading to higher rates of dieting and eating disorders.

Men, on the other hand, may emphasize on muscularity, leanness, and height, driven by cultural norms valuing strength and fitness, which can result in excessive exercise and muscle dysmorphia. Both genders experience significant psychological impacts, but the specific nature and pressures of their concerns differ based on these societal expectations.

Impact of Body Image Concerns 

Body image concerns can significantly impact psychological well-being and contribute to the development of eating disorders. 

1.Psychological Impact of Body Image Concerns

  1. Low Self-Esteem: Persistent dissatisfaction with one’s body can lead to chronic low self-esteem.
  2. Anxiety and Depression: Negative body image is strongly associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression.
  3. Repetitive Thoughts: Individuals may develop repetitive thoughts about their appearance, leading to constant self-monitoring and comparison with others.
  4. Social Withdrawal: Fear of judgment and shame about appearance can result in social withdrawal and isolation.
  5. Perfectionism: The desire to achieve an ideal body can lead to unrealistic standards and perfectionistic behaviors.

2.Connection to Eating Disorders

Body image concerns are a major risk factor for various eating disorders, including:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa:
    • Extreme Restriction: Driven by an intense fear of weight gain and a distorted body image, leading to severe malnutrition and health complications.
  2. Bulimia Nervosa:
    • Binge-Purge Cycle: Cycles of binge eating followed by purging behaviors like vomiting or excessive exercise, resulting in emotional distress and physical health issues.
  3. Binge Eating Disorder:
    • Compulsive Overeating: Consuming large amounts of food without purging, often leading to weight gain, emotional distress, and associated health problems like obesity.

9 Ways to Manage a Healthier Body Image

1.Healthier Role Models

What we see impacts our concept of normal, subconsciously. Therefore, one essential tip is choosing to consume content or follow people who challenge the beliefs manufactured by society as ideal. This includes social media, movies, and TV shows. Examples of the same would be actors like Vidya Balan & Sai Pallavi. These actors don’t conform to the typical beauty standards set by the movie industry. Actress Sai Pallavi owns her acne scars rather than hiding them under makeup, giving women the hope that it is okay to have acne on your face.

2.Limit Exposure to Harmful Media

Educate yourself about the unrealistic standards often portrayed in the media. Understand that many images are altered and do not reflect reality. Follow social media accounts that promote body neutrality and unfollow those that make you feel bad about yourself.

3.Languaging

We all have heard statements like  “She bounced back to her original body so quickly”, and “He should increase muscle mass, you look like a stick”. These statements have a huge negative impact and choosing not to inculcate it in our language and correct others when you might be on the receiving end of these comments is important. 

4.Healthy Goals

Having a negative perception of our bodies, often makes us believe that exercising more or dieting can sync us to the body standards set by society, making us fit in better. However, this very thought process is a paradox and often takes us further away from our own bodies. Hence, focusing on health-oriented goals rather than appearance-oriented goals is important. For example, while exercising aiming at improving your fitness level or energy rather than the goal of sculpting the body to sync with societal standards. 

5.Quote/ Affirmation Diary

Get crafty, and print out quotes or statements that help you feel good about your body. Paste them on a sheet of paper or a diary and read them every time you might feel distressed about your body image.

6.Social Support

Body image concerns are one such category of concerns that have no genetic basis. It solely originates due to societal conditioning. Thus, one of the most potent ways to tackle body image concerns is to have a social group or peer circle who are accepting of differing body types and encourage you to embrace your skin rather than shame you. 

7.Journaling

Comments about our bodies and negative comparisons have the potential to bring up heavy emotions such as anger, frustration, and sadness. Journaling is a simple activity, in which writing down the experiences and emotions can create a place for an active vent. This can help process the emotions experienced in the moment. 

8.Seek Professional Support

Consider talking to a therapist, counselor, or psychologist who specializes in body image issues. We at Mave Health have a range of trained psychologists and psychiatrists who have expertise in dealing with Body Image Concerns.

9.Support Groups

Support groups are gatherings of individuals who share common experiences, challenges, or goals, and come together to provide emotional and moral support to one another. As mentioned earlier, body image concerns begin in the realm of society, and hence having a space where different people struggle with the same reality can promote understanding, helping one feel validated. The primary aim is to foster a sense of community, reduce isolation, and empower members through shared understanding and encouragement.

Many of us live with discontent towards our bodies, wanting them to fit into the unrealistic standards set by society. It is time, to begin questioning what society thinks is beautiful and how flawed that idea can be rather than trying to fit into a standard that takes us away from caring about society. Body Image Concerns can be subconsciously ingrained and hence observing yourself in social situations, becomes important to recognize if you are dealing with dissatisfaction with your body. It is important to observe these signs early and seek help as early as possible. 

References: 

Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2010). Gender and body image. In J. C. Chrisler & D. R. McCreary (Eds.), Handbook of gender research in psychology, Vol. 2. Gender research in social and applied psychology (pp. 153–184). Springer Science + Business Media. 

Gualdi-Russo E, Rinaldo N, Masotti S, Bramanti B, Zaccagni L. Sex Differences in Body Image Perception and Ideals: Analysis of Possible Determinants. Int J Environ Res Public Health.

Lewallen, J., & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2016). Pinterest or Thinterest?: Social Comparison and Body Image on Social Media. Social Media + Society, 2(1). 

Quittkat HL, Hartmann AS, Düsing R, Buhlmann U, Vocks S. Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan. Front Psychiatry. 

Author's Profile picture
Mave
Clinical Psychologist
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