Guide to Cultivating a Healthy 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.

Healthy 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.

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.

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.

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.

Person with bulimia and substance use disorder

The Relationship Between Body Image and Eating Disorders

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.

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.

10 Tips for Fostering a Positive Body Image

Happily, developing 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 image to present only their most positive qualities, and use further filters and editing techniques to make even these curated moments seem especially attractive.

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.

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.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

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

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 eating disorders 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.


  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 | 01 - 12 - 2023

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