Body Image: What is it and how can we improve it?

Sharon Nguyen

When gazing into our internal mirror, a reflection is conjured that may feel impossible to ignore.

These mirrors, however, can be broken. Images may appear distorted from the pressure of irrational societal ideals.

Cultivating respect, acceptance, and peace towards our bodies relies on our awareness of this truth. 

What is Body Image?

Body image refers to the psychological concept of one’s feelings, beliefs, and likeness towards themself. 

Throughout life, an individual’s body image has the potential to fluctuate drastically or stay rather static. Past experience, parental upbringing, media environment, peer interaction, hormones, and mood are all factors that can influence this. 

Poor body image perception refers to dissatisfaction with one’s own physical makeup.

Unfortunately, these perspectives may act as powerful emotional triggers to persuade unhealthy efforts towards achieving a different body weight, size, and shape.

In extreme cases, such struggles may manifest into unhealthy diet and exercise patterns, in which serious mental health issues such as eating disorders or exercise addiction become a valid concern.  

Systemic Roots

Sadly, the root cause of many of these issues connects back to complex, toxic ideologies deeply embedded in history. 

The manifestation of centuries and centuries of unnatural ideals has created diet culture as we know it today. The oppressive nature of this system limits opportunities for certain bodies and simultaneously compounds abundance for others. 

If one takes a trip through time, specifically within the last few decades of American culture, this reality becomes undeniably apparent.

Women have been objectified consistently throughout history; the ‘ideal female figure’ changes drastically in short bouts of time.  

What was considered the perfect body even ten years ago looks nothing similar to body trends today. This ideal continues to shift, now at an even faster rate due to technological advances such as social media.

Unsustainable Ideals

Due to their insistent nature, keeping up with such unrealistic and ever-changing body ideals is nearly impossible. The utilization of fad diets to maintain long-term weight loss has been proven ineffective and can lead to dangerous yo-yo dieting, and perhaps even an eating disorder.

In the case that one is able to achieve a particular fleeting body trend, is that truly considered an achievement? 

At what cost to one’s mental, emotional, and physical health? 

Bodies were not built to sustain constant, drastic changes in composition, especially when achieved through fast-fix diets or fasting. 

On the contrary, there are innumerable factors (many that are out of an individual’s control) that contribute to the predisposition of an individual’s body size and shape. Genetics, ethnicity, age, and sociocultural environment, to name a few. 

Body Image Dissatisfaction in Men and Transgender Individuals

While women are often the heart of these conversations, unfortunately, men and transgender and nonbinary people are not exempt from the unrealistic body standards American society pushes upon them. 

Interestingly, contrarily to women, the ideal male archetype remains relatively consistent throughout past decades. 

As represented in popular superhero movies or video game characters, large, highly masculine, and muscled physiques are favored and often the protagonists.

The lack of body weight, size, and shape diversity in mainstream media garnered toward boys and men perpetuates the glorification of this unrealistic body type.

Trans individuals suffer from a different, yet not any less difficult experience altogether. Being born in a body that lacks congruency with one’s gender expression often carries with it intense body image issues. 

Biological males and females differ physically in many ways, including body size, curvature, and facial features. Those transitioning manipulate certain factors in order to reach alignment with their true selves.

However, facing challenges to gender conformation leaves this population susceptible to low self-esteem and resulting physical, mental, and emotional damage. 

When you add the society’s low acceptance of these individuals and reports of harm and rejection from family members, this demographic becomes particularly vulnerable to body image distortion.

Additionally, there is arguably less content geared towards these communities to promote socio-cultural awareness or to promote body positivity and self-acceptance. 

Overcoming negative body image perception and its effects thereafter is a universal struggle for all individuals alike. 

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Comparison is the thief of joy

The new age of social media allows for a constant update on everyone’s whereabouts in life. Oftentimes, users curate an online presence made up of only their successes.

These highlight reels are usually not indicative of most people’s true day-to-day life. Digital editing and beauty filter use is rampant. One should also be wary of internet niches that post pro-eating disorder content.

Similar to the likes of social media, popular entertainment also presents a fictitious projection of effortless beauty.

It is important to remember that those featured on our screens are manipulated in innumerable ways before our eyes are allowed to gaze upon them. 

Personal trainers, stylists, makeup artists, professional photographers, photoshop artists, after effects, and post-editing. The average person does not have access to these privileges, so why compare ourselves to those who are wealthy and famous? 

Comparison truly is the thief of joy. 

Costs of Insecurity 

A pernicious truth to also highlight is how brands and businesses greatly benefit from our insecurities. Oftentimes with little ethical concern, efforts are made to create a community of loyal repeat customers. 

The product itself may be average, even a complete sham. The real sweet spot is to manufacture a bestselling idea; to dangle a seemingly perfect solution that keeps those in a desperate place coming back for more. 

Though there are innumerable examples to highlight this concept, perhaps the vilest is that of the weight loss industry. I mean, on its own, it is worth 66 billion to date.

Namely, diet foods are everywhere, marketed with attractive verbiage such as ‘skinny’, ‘guilt-free’, and ‘clean’. These foods often contain questionable ingredients and little nutritional density to justify the steep price markup.  

Commercial programs, waist slimmers, diet pills, cleanses. Though nearly all are scientifically disproven products, high demand continues to increase variability and options continue every day. 

Corporate greediness is disheartening; but as consumers, we can make choices to support the businesses that make genuine efforts to support us.

Tips / sentiments to overcome a bad body-image day

If you or someone you know is experiencing body dissatisfaction, remember that you are not alone in your thoughts or feelings. Each individual is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Consider the following ideas for navigating such difficult times:

  • Remember that life is multifactoral.
    • Current body-image struggles do not automatically negate other dimensions of wellness you may feel abundance in (spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, social, financial, occupational).
  • Honor your emotions, allow them to be felt, and let them come and pass naturally.
  • Journal: shift your focus away from how you are perceived altogether. Instead, practice appreciating your life suit by listing out all the amazing things your body does every day to you to keep you alive.
    • After this list is written down, revisit it from time to time, say weekly, and whenever you’re feeling particularly down on your body shape.
  • Re-evaluate whether or not your social media environment + usage adds positive value to your days and proceed accordingly (perhaps remove “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” content; and instead, spend a bit of time recreating a feed that makes you feel empowered or at peace in your body).
  • Increase awareness / educate yourself on key topics and buzzwords such as diet-culture, fatphobia, weightism, self-objectification, hegemonic masculinity and femininity, and representation in media.
  • Surround yourself with loving, supportive people who do not make harmful comments or voice destructive beliefs about weight.
  • Recognize the many factors that predispose your body size and shape. With this, commit to beginning/maintaining a journey of self-love, self-compassion, and body acceptance.
  • Practice giving good compliments.

About me:

Hello! My name is Sharon Nguyen and I am a Nutrition Science student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I aspire to become a thoroughly experienced and evidence-based registered dietitian nutritionist in order to help people heal their relationship with food. My niche interests at the moment include mental health, intuitive eating, and eating disorder care. As always, I am seeking meaningful opportunities to further develop skills and grow professionally in the field of dietetics!

Instagram: @SharNutrition




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