The Impact of Eating Disorders on Body Image

Negative body image and eating disorders are closely related, with negative body image being one of the most well-understood precursors to the development of an eating disorder.

Body image

Body image concerns can lead to struggles with body weight, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and a number of other factors that can help maintain disordered eating habits. But with help and focus, it is possible to overcome poor body image and learn to love all the different facets of yourself.

Eating disorders and body image often interact through a cyclical relationship.

Many eating disorders develop as a reaction to someone’s deeply negative body image. Then, as the condition continues to develop, it can cause them to become even more obsessed with their body and view it even more negatively, which will encourage them to engage in ever-more disordered eating behaviors. 

Someone may carefully track their weight and regularly inspect their body for “flaws,” giving them more metrics to judge themselves by through the lens of body dysmorphia. This means the person will invariably continue to feel bad or increasingly worse about the way they look, even as their physical health also declines due to their disordered eating.

The combination can also play into a number of other mental health conditions that often uphold disordered eating behavior, including depression and anxiety.

While breaking this unhealthy cycle is possible, it generally requires addressing all of these mental health concerns, as well as someone’s physical health difficulties. Otherwise, the same factors that were driving someone’s poor body image may remain in place, and keep the cycle going, regardless of other physical treatments.

What Is Body Image?

Body image is the mental representation someone develops of their own body. [1] Put another way, it is how someone perceives their physical appearance, regardless of how it actually looks. 

Many people attach significant value to their body’s appearance and function. They may experience positive body image when they perceive their body to be attractive in accordance with their society’s or culture’s beauty standards and feel worse about themselves if they perceive they’re not meeting those outside—yet, internalized—expectations.

Someone’s body image can vary significantly over the course of someone’s life, and it is often influenced by a variety of factors.

A person’s body image can be distorted by their experiences and personal feelings. Body image is also very closely linked to culture, with people’s views of the “ideal” body varying quite significantly across different time periods and regions.

How Body Image Impacts Eating Disorders

A fixation on body shape, weight, and size is a cardinal factor in many eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), and binge eating disorder (BED).

Extremely common among people with these conditions is body dysmorphia. This affliction describes a near-obsessive state over perceived flaws with one’s body, whether those “flaws” are minor or even real. In the case of eating disorders, body dysmorphia often manifests as an obsession with weight, and the often-exaggerated perception that one is “fat.” 

Specifically, significant body dissatisfaction is considered the best-known contributor to the development of AN and BN, with these body image issues often starting at a young age. [2]

For many people struggling with this type of body dysmorphia, actually losing weight will not alleviate this fixation. Oftentimes, someone struggling with an eating disorder will perceive themselves in the same type of negative light, even as they reach a point of being dangerously underweight. This disconnect between reality and self-perception points to the deeper cognitive issues that drive most eating disorders.

An obsession with weight and body and a strong belief that one needs to radically change that shape can seriously damage a person’s physical and mental health. People who struggle with eating disorders often seek to lose weight indefinitely, and this will make significant health problems inevitable over time.

Common Factors That Impact Body Image

It’s rare that an eating disorder will develop absent earlier issues regarding body image. Yet, when it comes to the development of negative body image, several different factors are known to make an impact, including: [3]

  • Age: While body dissatisfaction can occur at any age, a person’s sense of their body is often most impacted by their late childhood and adolescence.
  • Gender: Cis-gender women often have worse perceptions of their bodies compared to cis-gender men. That being said, men still struggle with body image and eating disorders.
  • Social environment: Growing up around role models who regularly express dissatisfaction with their own bodies and engage in certain behaviors, such as chronic dieting, can impact someone’s own body image.
  • Media: Cultural beauty standards, which are often perpetuated through media coverage, can force comparisons and often impact the way someone feels about how they look.
  • Certain personality types: People with perfectionism traits, which can be genetically passed down, are more likely to have negative body images.
  • Teasing and bullying: Regular taunting about one’s body often significantly impacts a person’s body image, regardless of what their body actually looks like.

While there are, unfortunately, many factors that can work to foster a negative body image, there are equally a number of healthy habits a person can adopt to improve their body image.

Person with bulimia and substance use disorder

Creating a More Positive Body Image

Happily, developing a positive body image is possible with the right kind of attitude and help.

In this digital age, it is important to “tend one’s garden” or to pay attention to the media one regularly consumes. Proactively “weeding out” unhelpful images or content sources can be a great help toward achieving an overall healthier and more accepting perception of oneself.

Learn to identify and then avoid potentially triggering content. This can come from anywhere, including social media influencers or more traditional media sources that emphasize certain beauty standards or the tenets of Diet Culture.

It’s also important to remember that all the media we see and consume, from social media to traditional advertising, is heavily edited, curated, and otherwise managed. People online can tailor their images to present only their most positive qualities and use further filters and editing techniques to make even these curated moments seem especially attractive.

Working Toward Recovery

If you or a loved one are struggling with negative body image or are worried about disordered eating behavior, help is always possible.

Treatment for eating disorders focuses on improving not just body image but overall well-being. In therapy, patients learn to appreciate other aspects of their bodies rather than just their shape and size. They also learn how to identify negative thoughts and begin to transform those into more positive patterns of thinking.

The small changes made in thinking and behavior can add up over time to help someone develop and maintain a more positive body image. The goal is to begin thinking about your body in a more positive light, and this becomes possible with the right support.

And positive body image can go a long way toward keeping you on the road to recovery.


  1. Body Image. Psychology Today. Retrieved December 5, 2022.
  2. Body Image & Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved December 5, 2022.
  3. Body Image. National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Retrieved December 5, 2022.

Last Update | 02 - 28 - 2023

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