Body image is the term used to describe how we feel about how our body looks. It is the way we see our own bodies from an internal perspective. What we see of ourselves may be quite different from the objective perspectives of how others view us. The thoughts and feelings we have about our bodies can significantly impact how we function on a daily basis. If we view our appearance in a positive light, it can enhance our self-esteem, our ability to assert opinions and lead to greater life satisfaction.

A negative view of our bodies can create a general dissatisfaction with life. Poor body image can diminish self-esteem and leave us feeling inadequate, weak and worthless. Research is showing that a negative perception of the body is one of the first signs that may result in the development of an eating disorder, even if it does not present until years later.

Over 30 years ago, research was showing that appearance dissatisfaction among the general public was considered to be “normal,” meaning that it was common for the average person to not like how his/her body looked. Twenty years ago, researchers documented that “the pressure to conform to high appearance standards was unremitting.” Large scale studies in the early 2000’s estimated that 61-82% of adult men and women had significant body image concerns — and that number is believed to be even higher now.

It is nearly impossible to talk to someone about their negative body image without the issue of “what others think” arising. When people express feeling self-conscious about anything, it is usually related to the concern about how their appearance will be evaluated by others. Some of these “others” are real people in our lies – – friends, colleagues, parents, partners. However, just as often, these “others” whose evaluations we fear are complete strangers. Because we don’t like our appearance and are hypersensitive about it, we assume each person we come into contact with is making judgments about our body.

Research findings indicate that there is a high level of agreement among people in evaluating the physical attractiveness of others. Children as young as three show agreement with adults when the attractiveness of their peers is rated. If children agree on who is and is not attractive, it is likely that they, just like adults, may act differently towards peers based on how they look.

In addition to this are those who are rated as attractive people by others even though they do not see themselves as such. Thus, the combination of how others see us and how we see ourselves determines the development of negative body image and why unhealthy, often dangerous, attempts to improve appearance are undertaken with no regard for health risks.

More attention is being paid to how partners may influence negative body image. Several ideas are being investigated to try and explain why a partner might support their loved one’s body dissatisfaction. One idea is that reinforcing negative body image might help one person feel in control. The woman may feel more secure and in control in the relationship if the man feels badly about his appearance. In this case, there is less risk to the woman that the man will feel good enough about his appearance to seek or receive attention from other women.

Another idea is that reinforcing negative body image may help remove fears that a partner will stop taking care of his or her appearance. For example, if a woman feels unattractive, she may actively keep trying to improve herself, so her partner has some investment in seeing that she continues to feel unattractive. Then, the partner doesn’t have to worry that she’ll “let herself go” and instead will keep trying to look better.

A third idea is that reinforcing negative body image may make a partner feel needed. If the man feels poorly about his body, he may require reassurance and acceptance from his partner. This gives the partner an important role to play in terms of boosting the man’s self-esteem and feelings of being accepted.

Not surprisingly, body image is a very complicated and multifaceted issue whether a person has an eating disorder or not. We all have an opinion about our bodies. It would benefit us all to find as much right with our bodies, take good care of them and stop ruminating about what we or others “think” is wrong with them. Encouraging those important in our lives to do the same could go a long way toward creating a new normal – and a healthier perspective!



Harris, D.L., & Carr, A.T. (2001). Prevalence of concern about physical appearance in the general population. Br J Plast Surg 54(3): 223–6.

Liossi, C. (2003). Appearance related concerns across the general and clinical populations. Unpublished thesis, City University, London.

Rodin, J., Silberstein, L., Striegel-Moore, R., (1984). Women and weight: a normative discontent. Nebr Symp Motiv 32: 267–307.

Thompson, J.K., Heinberg, L.J., Altabe, M, Tantleff-Dunn, S. (1999). Exacting Beauty: Theory, Assessment and Treatment of Body Image Disturbance. American Psychological Association, Washington: DC.