Written by Samantha Carter

Body image – the perception and attitude individuals have toward their own bodies – can have a significant impact on a person’s overall mental wellness. However, society doesn’t exactly make it easy for us to hold positive views of our bodies, especially as female-identifying individuals. With constantly evolving and unrealistic beauty standards, many people struggle with negative body image and associated mental health concerns.

In this article, we’re exploring the historical changes in ideal body images and the effects of societal pressures on personal self-esteem. After that, we’ll dive into body image-related mental health disorders and treatment recommendations. Finally, we’ll be sharing strategies for cultivating a positive body image with recommended books that promote self-love and body acceptance.

Ultimately, if you or someone you know is struggling with body image concerns, it’s important to seek professional help. By taking the time to address and overcome these issues, it is possible to live a life where you unconditionally love your body, regardless of what it does or doesn’t look like.

Evolution of Ideal Body Images Over Time

In ancient civilizations, ideal body images varied significantly. For instance, in Ancient Greece, athletic and muscular bodies were admired for both men and women, reflecting the society’s values of strength and heroism. Conversely, in Ancient Egypt, a slender and almost androgynous look was prized, emphasizing grace and beauty.

Renaissance and Baroque Periods

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe, fuller, more voluptuous bodies were celebrated, especially in women. This era’s art, exemplified by painters like Peter Paul Rubens, showcased rounded and curvaceous figures as symbols of fertility and wealth.

19th and Early 20th Century

The Victorian era saw a shift toward a more modest and constrained ideal. Women were expected to have an hourglass figure, often achieved through tight corsets. Men were idealized as strong and robust, reflecting societal expectations of masculinity.

Mid-20th Century

The mid-20th century brought another dramatic shift, especially with the advent of cinema and fashion industries. The 1950s idolized the hourglass figure epitomized by Marilyn Monroe. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the ideal became significantly slimmer, with models like Twiggy representing the “waif” look.

Late 20th Century to Present

From the 1980s onwards, the fitness boom introduced an athletic and toned ideal, often promoted by sports icons and celebrities. The 2000s saw a mixed approach, with extreme thinness co-existing alongside the celebration of curves, popularized by figures like Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. Today, social media perpetuates diverse and often conflicting body standards, contributing to widespread body dissatisfaction.

Impact of Media and Social Media

Media and social media platforms play a crucial role in shaping body image. The constant bombardment of edited and filtered images sets unrealistic standards of beauty. People, especially adolescents, often compare themselves unfavorably to these images, leading to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Cultural and Gender Differences

Cultural norms and gender expectations also influence body image. Women are frequently pressured to conform to narrow beauty standards, while men face expectations to exhibit muscularity and strength. These pressures can lead to disordered eating, excessive exercising, and body dysmorphic disorder.

Personal and Social Consequences

Negative body image can result in numerous personal and social consequences, including social withdrawal, unhealthy relationships with food, and reluctance to participate in activities like swimming or sports. It can also impair academic and work performance due to the preoccupation with appearance.

Body Image-Related Mental Health Issues

Because of constantly changing body ideals and societal pressures to conform, more than 50% of adults experience weight-related stigma. This can result in a variety of body image-related mental health disorders, including those listed below.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight with a distorted body image, leading to restricted food intake and excessive weight loss. Individuals may also engage in excessive exercise, vomiting, or use of laxatives. Treatment typically involves a combination of psychotherapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy), nutritional counseling, and medical monitoring.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa involves episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, fasting, or excessive exercise to prevent weight gain. People with bulimia often feel a loss of control during binges. Treatment includes psychotherapy (especially CBT), nutritional education, and medication such as antidepressants.

Binge-Eating Disorder

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often rapidly and to the point of discomfort, accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt. Unlike bulimia, there are no regular compensatory behaviors. Treatment often involves CBT, interpersonal therapy, and sometimes medications like antidepressants.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) involves an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in physical appearance, which are often minor or not observable to others. Individuals may spend excessive time checking mirrors, grooming, or seeking reassurance. Treatment typically includes CBT, medication (such as SSRIs), and sometimes exposure and response prevention therapy.

Muscle Dysmorphia

A subtype of BDD, muscle dysmorphia involves a preoccupation with not being sufficiently muscular or lean. It often leads to excessive weightlifting, steroid use, and a strict diet. Treatment approaches include CBT, medication, and support groups.

Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction, or compulsive exercise, involves an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise. It can lead to physical injuries and negative social and occupational impacts. Treatment includes psychotherapy, particularly CBT, and sometimes medication to address underlying anxiety or depression.

Cultivating a Positive Body Image–Embracing Diversity and Individuality

Recognizing and appreciating the diversity of body shapes and sizes is a critical step toward positive body image. Understanding that beauty is subjective and multifaceted helps reduce the pressure to conform to a single ideal. Additionally, the following skills can also help aid in developing a more positive body image.

Media Literacy

Developing media literacy skills allows individuals to critically analyze and question the images and messages presented in media. Understanding the extent of photo manipulation and the unrealistic nature of many portrayed images can help reduce the impact of negative comparisons.

Self-Compassion and Mindfulness

Practicing self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding, particularly in moments of perceived inadequacy. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can also help individuals develop a more balanced and accepting view of their bodies.

Positive Affirmations

Using positive affirmations can reinforce self-acceptance and body positivity. Statements like “I am worthy as I am” and “My body deserves respect and care” can gradually reshape one’s internal dialogue.

Surrounding Oneself with Positive Influences

Building a supportive social network that promotes body positivity and self-acceptance is vital. Engaging with communities and individuals who celebrate diverse bodies can foster a healthier body image.

Engaging in Enjoyable Physical Activities

Participating in physical activities that are enjoyable, rather than solely for aesthetic purposes, can improve body image. Exercise can enhance mood and body appreciation, but it should be free from the pressures of altering appearance.

Seeking Professional Help

For many, professional help is essential in addressing deep-seated body image issues. Psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals challenge and change negative thought patterns related to body image. If you or someone you know needs help in addressing body image-related mental health issues, reach out to a therapist today.

Recommended Books on Positive Body Image and Mental Health

In addition to therapy, it can be helpful to read literature that promotes body positivity. Below are five titles that we recommend.

1. “The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya Renee Taylor

This book encourages readers to cultivate radical self-love and challenges societal norms that dictate beauty standards.

2. “Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out—and Never Say Diet Again” by Rebecca Scritchfield

Rebecca Scritchfield offers a compassionate approach to health and wellness, emphasizing self-care and body positivity.

3. “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight” by Linda Bacon

Linda Bacon presents a scientific approach to body acceptance and advocates for health at every size, challenging the weight-centric model of health.

4. “More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament” by Lexie Kite and Lindsay Kite

The Kite sisters provide insights and tools for developing a positive body image and moving beyond appearance-focused self-worth.

5. “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women” by Renee Engeln

Renee Engeln examines the cultural obsession with beauty and its impact on women’s mental health, offering strategies for fostering a healthier body image.

Learning to Love Your Body

Understanding and improving body image is essential for mental health and overall well-being. By recognizing the historical and societal pressures that shape our perceptions of beauty, we can begin to challenge and change these ideals. Embracing diversity, practicing self-compassion, developing media literacy, and seeking professional help are all crucial steps toward cultivating a positive body image.

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image issues, consider reaching out to a Plus by APN therapist for support. Professional help can provide you with the tools and strategies needed to develop a healthier relationship with your body and promote self-acceptance.

Alternatively, if you’ve tried therapy for body image-related issues in the past without success, we offer many alternative mental health therapies for treatment resistant conditions, including deep TMS, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, neurofeedback, stellate ganglion block, ketamine treatment, and more. We’re not your average mental healthcare company and we’re here to support you in exceptional ways. Reach out for a free consultation today or give us a call at 424.644.6486.

You and your body are worth it.


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