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Body Image

The subjective conception of one's own body, based largely on evaluative judgments about how one is perceived by others.

Humans have the unique ability to form abstract conceptions about themselves and to gaze at themselves as both the seer and the object seen. Conflict occurs when the seer places unrealistic demands on him or herself and the body. Body image considers physical appearance and may include body functions or other features. Body image is linked to internal sensations, emotional experiences, fantasies, feedback from others, and plays a key role in a person's self-concept. Self-perceptions of physical inferiority can strongly affect all areas of one's life and may lead to avoidance of social or sexual activities or result in eating disorders.

How one's physical characteristics correspond to cultural standards plays a crucial role in the formation of body image. In the South Pacific island of Tonga, for example, corpulence is considered a sign of wealth and elevated social status, but would be termed obesity in Western societies, particularly in the United States where the slim and firm athletic form is idealized. Deference to cultural standards and concepts can be very damaging, as few people attain an "ideal body," no matter how it is defined, and those who depart drastically from the ideal can suffer a sharply reduced sense of self-worth.

Psychologists are interested in body image primarily to determine whether the image held reasonably agrees with reality. A seriously distorted or inappropriate body image characterizes a number of mental disorders. For anorexia nervosa, a seriously distorted body image is a classic symptom and major diagnostic criterion. The anorexic, most likely an adolescent female, perceives herself as "fat" even when she is emaciated. A distorted sense of body image may comprise a disorder in itself, known as body dysmorphic disorder. People affected by this condition generally become preoccupied with a specific body part or physical feature and exhibit signs of anxiety or depression. Commonly, the victim mentally magnifies a slight flaw into a major defect, sometimes erroneously believing it the sign of a serious disease, such as cancer, and may resort to plastic surgery to relieve distress due to the person's perceived appearance.

A healthy body image, according to some in the mental health field, is one that does not diverge too widely from prevailing cultural standards but leaves room for a person's individuality and uniqueness.

Humans start to recognize themselves in mirrors in meaningful ways at about 18 months and begin perceiving themselves as physical beings in toddlerhood. By school-age, children often face prejudices based on their appearances. Children spend much of their early lives in schools, an environment that is highly social and competitive with notoriously rigid hierarchies often based on physical appearances. Studies have found that teachers are also drawn to the most attractive children, which can further compound a child's poor body image. In a

Constant exposure to very thin models in the media can lead to unrealistic body images. (Photo by David Karp. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced with permission.)

school-age child, a poor body image may result in social withdrawal and poor self-esteem.

As puberty nears, children become increasingly focused on the appearance of their bodies. An adolescent may mature too quickly, too slowly, in a way that is unattractive, or in a way that makes the adolescent stand out in the crowd. Any deviation from the ideal can result in a negative body image, and adolescents may diet or use steroids to counter a negative self-concept. As people age, most revise their views of the ideal body so that they can continue to feel reasonably attractive at each stage of their lives.

See also Anorexia; Bulimia

Further Reading

Cash, Thomas F. What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?: Helping Yourself to a Positive Body Image. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

Costin, Carolyn. Your Dieting Daughter: Is She Dying for Attention? New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1997.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage