Guide to Cultivating a Healthy Body Image 

The term “body image” can refer to several different ideas, including the way you think about your body, how you feel about the way you look, and how you perceive your body size and shape. [1] And these factors can make a big difference in all manner of situations.

Healthy body image

A healthy body image can lead to higher self-esteem and a more positive self-image, which work to foster stronger, healthier relationships with yourself and others.

On the other hand, a negative body image can lead to low self-esteem and the myriad issues it contributes to, including depression and the potential development of eating disorders.

Still, cultivating and keeping a positive body image can be difficult in our aesthetic-obsessed age. But there are some tips that can help you feel content with yourself and avoid some of the pitfalls that lead to negative body image.

What Leads to a Negative Body Image?

People aren’t born hating their bodies. Ideas about how people “should” look—and the accompanying anxieties over not achieving that appearance—are learned. 

And unfortunately, there are a number of outlets that offer these misguided and unhelpful lessons.

Some contributing factors to developing a negative body image include:

  • Environment: Growing up in an environment where there is a large emphasis on physical appearance or criticism around those with particular body shapes or sizes can increase the likelihood of developing a negative body image.
  • Influencing figures: Parents, family members, and other loved ones or caretakers who have a negative body image or engage in behaviors to control their weight can pass down their ideals, intentionally or not.
  • Social influences: Being teased or bullied about your weight, shape, size, or appearance, particularly in childhood, can put you at risk of developing a negative body image.
  • Social media: Social media often portrays an edited and unrealistic ideal body image that is unattainable, but individuals often compare themselves to these “snapshots” and unsuccessfully attempt to recreate them, leading to body dissatisfaction. [2]
  • Cultural pressures: Many cultures emphasize a particular shape or size. Feelings of not fitting this can lead to body image issues.
  • Gender dysphoria: This can go beyond sex characteristics and also extend to a negative body image.
  • Low self-esteem: Poor body image can lead to low self-esteem, but the reverse is also true. This can contribute to a negative view of self, which can include physical appearance and body image.
  • Depression, anxiety, and mental health conditions: A mental health condition can put a person at a higher risk for experiencing issues related to self-worth and body image.
  • Personality traits: Perfectionism and rigid thinking are two personality traits that leave people more susceptible to absorbing criticism about their body or enforcing “punishment” for not achieving certain physical ideals. 
  • Media: Advertising that focuses on weight loss and particular body image ideals can contribute to people viewing themselves as inadequate.

Effects of Negative Body Image

A negative body image can be damaging to many areas of your life. An unhappy view of yourself can lead to unhealthy relationships with not just the people in your life but the food you eat and the physical activity you perform. 

If you are unhappy with the way you look, you may feel depressed or anxious and have low self-esteem and self-worth. You may also be more likely to use unhealthy measures to try to lose weight or change your body. This can include dieting, excessive exercise, and disordered eating habits. 

These feelings can run deep. Messages about body image often start from a young age, when we start internalizing the things we hear and see and begin to develop more of a self-view. 

Still, even if you’ve developed unfair or unhelpful views of yourself, it’s possible to unlearn these ideas.

10 Tips for Fostering a Positive Body Image

A positive body image can be equally as impactful on your life as a negative one, though this type of perspective can help improve your overall quality of life, leading to more happiness and a higher sense of self-worth. 

Here are 10 tips that can help you see yourself in a healthier light.

Your body is amazing and able to carry you through the world every day. 

To help you fully appreciate all the good your body has to offer, it can be helpful to make a list of things that your body can do, whether it’s tasks that help get you through the day or something that brings you joy.

Physical appearance is only one aspect of who we are as people.

Instead of focusing on this quality alone, take a step back to see the big picture. Use this perspective to look at the qualities you admire about yourself. Write them down. Add to this list as you discover more things about yourself that you like.

Dieting, diet culture, and even aspects of the “wellness” movement can perpetuate harmful ideas of how we “should” eat, exercise, and be.

Instead of dieting, try switching up your mindset. The Health at Every Size movement has plenty of tips, ideas, and information about eating and moving for health and enjoyment rather than to achieve a certain appearance.

Every body is beautiful. And clothes can be used to emphasize the unique beauty of every body’s shape and size. If there’s a part of your body you like, find clothes that show it off or emphasize it. 

It may also be helpful to ignore the size or number on the label. These measurements can be a source of anxiety, but they’re often arbitrary and can change from brand to brand. 

Clothes that fit comfortably will make you feel better, which will make you look better, no matter what the label says. 

Remember, images on social media and other forms of popular media represent an “ideal” idea of beauty that is literally unrealistic. The images themselves are often filtered, photoshopped, or otherwise cleverly staged for effect. 

Try to filter out posts and media that are heavily appearance-driven. Look instead for more meaningful and fulfilling content.

Treating your body with respect means giving it what it needs or is asking for, to be the best version of itself.

That could come in the form of eating nutritious meals, getting enough sleep, drinking more water, or taking care of your physical and mental health. It could also mean taking the time to love your body, regardless of its shape or size.

The people you’re closest with can leave lasting impressions or have undue influence on the way you feel, including about your body image. 

You will have an easier time keeping a positive body image if you consistently interact with other people with positive outlooks. This could mean people who are supportive, people who like you for you, and people who have healthy body images themselves.

Negative thoughts and perceptions of yourself are natural. But that doesn’t make them the final word. 

If you start slipping into negative self-talk, take the time to pause and refocus. Instead, start thinking about things you like about yourself, or recite some positive affirmations to help shift your mindset. 

There’s nothing wrong with doing nice things for yourself. 

Taking care of your body in this way can include taking a bath, getting your hair or nails done, or giving yourself the grace to nap or find a peaceful place to relax. And aside from helping with physical help, self-care can also have a positive effect on mental health.

Often, one of the best ways to feel good about yourself is to help others feel better about themselves. 

You can make it a goal to give some positive energy back to the world. Volunteer, make donations, or take the time to talk with other people who may be struggling with poor body image or low self-esteem.

Maintaining a Healthy Body Image

A healthy body image doesn’t just need to be cultivated; it needs to be maintained. This part of the process can be difficult for many people, but it often gets easier the longer it’s practiced. 

To help keep on top of your positive outlook, it’s helpful to regularly check in with yourself. Take a moment to feel your feelings, and analyze your beliefs and attitudes toward food, eating, health, exercise, body image, and physical appearance. If you’re coming up against some negative attitudes, look for positive ways to change your thinking and adjust your mindset.

Journaling can be a great way to help keep track of these thoughts and emotions. Many people also find therapy or group sessions helpful, even if only practiced periodically. 

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) also has additional resources for learning about body image, warning signs of potential issues, where to get help and support, and how to achieve and model healthy attitudes. [3]

What to Do if a Negative Body Image Leads to Bulimia

One of the most dangerous negative consequences of an unhealthy body image can be an elevated risk of developing an eating disorder, including bulimia nervosa. 

Disordered eating behaviors often begin as an effort to try to control weight or achieve a specific body shape or size. And people who experience negative body image may be more susceptible to these unhelpful thoughts and practices.

If you’re experiencing negative self-talk that’s leading to disordered eating behaviors, it’s time to seek help.

Specialized professional treatment is optimal to manage the mental and physical aspects of these conditions. A healthcare professional can help you stop episodes of binging and purging and improve your body image, self-esteem, and relationship with food.

Types of Treatment for Bulimia Nervosa

Treatment for bulimia will often include the following components:

  • Behavioral therapies: Therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help to modify negative thought and behavior patterns into healthier ones. The therapy can also teach new coping strategies to use when triggers arise.
  • Nutritional counseling and management: These therapies help to develop a healthy relationship with food and eating. They can also ensure that a healthy weight is reached and maintained.
  • Medical interventions: This involves treatment for any medical issues resulting from bulimia nervosa.
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders: Bulimia often co-occurs with other mental and/or medical health conditions as well such as anxiety disorders or depression. These conditions should be treated at the same time for a more comprehensive recovery.
  • Educational programming: This involves awareness and learning about the disorder and its complications as well as treatment methods that can be beneficial to a lasting recovery.
  • Support groups: Peer support can be very helpful during treatment and recovery. Participants can feel less alone as they hear from others who understand their situation and empathize with their struggles.

Treatment options for bulimia nervosa are specific to each person. Models can vary from highly structured, such as hospitalization for necessary medical treatment, to outpatient programs that offer more flexibility.

The most important thing to remember is that there are many different ways to find help, if you need it.

Resources


  1. Body Image – Women. (2020, July 22). Better Health Channel. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  2. Body Image. (2022). National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC). Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  3. Developing & Modeling Positive Body Image. (2022). National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Retrieved September 22, 2022.

Last Update | 01 - 12 - 2023

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