Body Image Effects on Mental Health


Layla Team

October 5, 2021

Ever gotten up on the wrong side of bed? You don’t like what you see in the mirror? You wish you could change something about your body and how you look? Then all the insecurities and dark thoughts creep up on you and you have a bad mood throughout the day? You start comparing your body to Instagram models and other peers until frustration and anxiety take over you? For some of us it’s not a one day thing and it’s not just a bad mood. Body dissatisfaction can affect our lives and interfere with our relationships, our work and our daily activities.

What is body image?

Body image is defined as one’s thoughts, perceptions and attitudes about their physical appearance. It is the mental picture that you have of your body, the perception of how your body looks to you and to others, and the way you feel about your body when you look in the mirror based on culturally driven beliefs about what bodies should look like.


Positive body image is a clear, true perception of your shape. It means that you accept and like the way you look right now. You aren’t trying to change your body to fit the way you think you should look. Body positivity involves feeling comfortable and confident in your body. It involves recognizing the individual qualities and strengths that make you feel good about yourself beyond weight, shape or colour, and resisting the unrealistic pressure to strive for the “perfect” body that society and the media is constantly promoting. 


On the other hand, negative body image or body dissatisfaction involves feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness. It involves being overly focused on comparing your size, shape, or appearance to unrealistic ideals which may lead to several physically or emotionally unhealthy habits. And while multiple studies have found that many of us are unhappy about our body image at some point, recently the focus has shifted from a general and temporary dissatisfaction with how we look to more serious aspects of how our body image can influence our ongoing mental health. 


Negative body image does not develop in isolation 

Many people have concerns about their body image which often focus on weight, skin, hair, or the shape/size of a certain body part. While these concerns are not a mental health condition in themselves, they can be a risk factor for mental health problems such as poor quality of life, psychological distress, and unhealthy behavior, including eating disorders. However, body image does not develop in isolation, one’s body image can be influenced by many socio-cultural factors including parents, peers, culture/media, or one’s own experiences. Understanding the influence these various factors can have on body image can help unfold what may be the root cause of one’s negative body image and how to improve it.

Parents & Peers

A recent study published by NCBI on parental and peer factors associated with body image discrepancy showed that caregivers have a lasting effect on their children’s body image. The expectation, language and actions of parents can greatly influence their children’s body image. Parents who criticize appearance, make comments about weight often, and have strict rules surrounding food, are more likely to have kids with poor body image. Keep in mind that body image comments don’t have to be focused on the child to have an impact. Research published by BMC Psychology suggested that parents may increase the risk of, or protect against, the development of body image and eating concerns as children learn to reflect their parents own body image. 

The same goes for the friends you surround yourself with. Research has shown that friend groups tend to have similar body image concerns, and folks who often discuss dieting, weight, or appearance tend to have negative body image and negative influences on other peers. A Research study published by Griffith University - Australia - on the role of friends and peers in adolescent body dissatisfaction, showed that spending time with friends who focus heavily on weight and appearance and often criticize their bodies or other’s bodies had greater potential to negatively impact your own body image. 


Personal experiences:

Body image is often negatively affected by past experiences of physical or sexual abuse, bullying or being harassed and shamed based on body size, gender, skin colour, or physical abilities. Reflecting on one’s past experiences related to body image can help in understanding experiences that may be impacting one’s current body image. Processing through these experiences through self-reflection, talking with a friend, or seeking out a therapist can help to stop these experiences from continuing to negatively influence one’s body image and improve one’s body image.

Media & Culture  

Cultural ideals of beauty can have a huge impact on one’s perception of body image and the media often reflects these ideals. Studies show that exposure to images of idealized beauty leads to an increase in body dissatisfaction, social anxiety and developing unhealthy self-talk. 

We are constantly bombarded with images of idealized bodies; ultra-thin, fair skin models in magazines, beauty product ads, fashion ads and across social media. For women, the emphasis is on slimness, youthfulness, and flawlessness. For men, the ideal is characterized by a muscular, V-shaped body, flat stomach, and narrow hips. And these idealized standards of beauty have become the norm to which many of us compare ourselves, though they remain unattainable for the vast majority. Although most media imagery and content is digitally edited, it still influences us and  we still feel worse about our own body in comparison. Many of us compare ourselves to these ads which can lead to low self-esteem and poor body image. These messages can change how we dress, look, eat, and act with others, leaving us feeling uncomfortable in our own skin, frustrated and anxious. 

So, what can we do about it?

It’s important to remember that beauty standards set by the media are not realistic. Companies use tools and digital features like airbrushing, soft focus cameras, digital editing, in addition to makeup application or cosmetic surgery to make models look a certain way. 

Being a critical media consumer and mindful of the kinds of media one engages with can be helpful tools to improve body image. We should always question the messages we see every day about beauty and body shape. When browsing social media ask yourself: 

  • Who is the message trying to reach and why?
  • How is it altered to get my attention?
  • What values, lifestyle, and positive points of views does that message show or not show?

 And when looking at a beauty advertisement, ask yourself:

  • Do real women, men, people, look like models?
  • Will buying this product make me look like this or would it make me feel better?
  • Does this model really use the product to help them get that look?
  • How does this message make me feel?

The effect of poor body image on mental health.

Idealized body representation has been always present across the media, but it’s the quantity of those images and the frequency in which we see them that is undermining our self-confidence and contributing to our poor mental health. Many research studies have shown that negative body image is strongly linked to eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem.

An early research by psychologist Leon Festinger on social comparison – Social Comparison Theory – suggests that we often subconsciously compare ourselves to others and form our identity based on them. It argued that the effect could be positive or negative depending on whether we consider it an upward or downward comparison.

More recently, a survey for the Mental Health Foundation, cited in the guardian found that one in eight adults has thought about taking their lives because they were distressed over their body image. Moreover, the findings suggest that we don’t learn to feel better about our bodies as we age, and people can be adversely affected regardless of gender or age, with many of the same drivers, such as social media and advertising playing a role.


Body dissatisfaction & eating disorder

When individuals feel like they fall short of the “ideal body”, the outcome is often a biased perception about how much they should eat, and a tendency towards unhealthy habits that can cause health problems. Many teenagers diagnosed with eating disorders often report that their symptoms are related to experiences of getting bullied and the unrealistic ideal standards set by the media. And while there is no one single cause of eating disorders, research indicates that negative body image is the best known contributor to the development of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Learn more about risk factors for eating disorders.


 Overcoming negative body image

Here are some steps you can take to limit your exposure to toxic body massaging and create a realistic and positive body image: 

  • Practice mindfulness and positive self-talk.
  • Social media break: taking some time off social media can do wonders.
  • Avoid spending time with people who talk negatively about themselves or criticize your appearance.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others and know that each one of us is unique in their own ways.
  • Be actively critical of media messages and images that make you feel bad about how you look or make you feel as if you should be different. 
  • Develop self-love and self-compassion. 
  • Keep reminding yourself of the qualities that you like about yourself. 
  • Surround yourself with loving, positive people. 

Treatment options 

Sometimes we try every trick and tip, we wait, and we give it time but we remain frustrated and we don’t seem to feel better. The good news is that you don’t have to wait or suffer any longer, effective treatments do exist, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of talk therapy that is effective for helping change your body image by identifying harmful, faulty thinking patterns and restructure your thoughts so they’re kinder and more accurate and realistic. 

  • Psychotherapy: talking with a licensed therapist who provides a safe space can help reveal and change the complicated underlying beliefs you may have about your body. 

Your body is your home, it helped you survive and thrive until this moment. There are so many steps to take and people out there who can help you heal and reconnect with the beauty of your body. This journey can take time and it requires patience and consistency, but always remember that you’re not alone.

References and External Links:

- Facing mental health challenges? Layla is here to help - Individuals, couples, and families use Layla for personalized, convenient therapy. Layla matches you to a suitable therapist and manage the therapy process in a warm, dependable manner, supporting you on your journey to better health. Learn more here

- New to therapy? Here's your beginner guide - Starting therapy can evoke feelings of vulnerability, but knowing what to expect can help. The journey is individualized, with no exact right or wrong way. During the first session, typically administrative matters are discussed, goals are set, and you and your therapist will get to know each other. Fit between you and you therapist is very important for your outcomes, and it's okay to switch if the fit isn't right. Therapy is adjusted to your timeline and constraints, and can range from weekly to monthly sessions. Reflecting on what you wish to accomplish can guide the process.

Disclaimer: The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be considered healthcare or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with a healthcare professional for appropriate support.