Can the effects of negative body image lead to an eating disorder

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Body image influences a number of things about the way we feel and act, for better or worse. 

But the effects of negative body image—an unfortunately easy thing to develop in this image-conscious world—could sadly lead to even more negativity, including developing or sustaining an eating disorder.

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In this article

What is body image

Generally speaking, body image is the combination of thoughts, perceptions and attitudes a person has about their physical appearance. It’s not just how you see yourself when you look in the mirror, but how you feel about yourself when confronted with that image.

Body image can be made up from a number of factors, including:

  • Your perception of how your body looks, to you and others.
  • Your awareness of your limbs moving through space.
  • What you think your body size is.
  • Your feelings about your body and various body parts.
  • Your general understanding of what your body can do.

Much of what influences body image also comes from outside of ourselves. Specifically, the culture we are brought up in, and its ideas on how certain people “should” look, can have an outsized impact on our personal body images.

These types of outside judgements include factors like:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Physical ability

Finally, the ideas of our peer group, parents, family, and friends, as well as values taught in school, religious communities , or cultural traditions can also influence the way we think about ourselves and our appearance.

Body image and eating disorders

In many ways, body image is at the foundation of how we treat ourselves, thanks to its intimate connection to self-esteem. 

While body image describes how people perceive themselves, self-esteem is how people respect or value themselves. And, in many cases, negative body image will lead to poor self-esteem, which can manifest as a number of unhelpful or self-destructive traits, behaviors, or habits.

The idea linking these conditions is that someone with a low value of themselves will be more likely to treat themselves and their body poorly. This type of behavior can then be “justified” by someone’s negative body image.

People with negative body image are also more likely to experience feelings of depression, anxiety, shame, or self-consciousness. Along with contributing directly to the development of eating disorders, these feelings can also contribute to low self-esteem, which can also work to develop or sustain eating disorders. 

Negative body image can be especially problematic for people who tend to put a high value on their body shape and weight when considering their self-worth. This “over-evaluation” of shape and weight frequently leads individuals with negative body image to exhibit behaviors associated with eating disorders, as an attempt to “correct” their body.

And even in instances where this is not the case, negative body image can work to sustain patterns of disordered eating. People with negative body image are much more likely to compare their bodies to others—and to compare themselves unfavorably.

Indeed, while there are a number of contributing or sustaining factors for every type of eating disorder, research on the subject has suggested that body dissatisfaction is the “best known” influence, particularly for people who struggle with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. (1)

Other effects of negative body image

Unfortunately, negative body image can have a number of other harmful impacts.

In general, people struggling with a negative body image are at a higher risk of developing:

  • Mood disorders
  • Relationship problems
  • Self-harm tendencies

Once again, extreme body dissatisfaction typically manifests in these harmful ways through the effects of negative body image on low self-esteem. 

And sadly, negative body image can start much earlier than many people may imagine.

One 2020 study found that up to 50 percent of first- and second-graders were already dissatisfied with some part of their body. (2) Other research has shown that up to 60 percent of elementary school-aged girls were concerned about their weight or becoming too fat, while more than half of teenaged girls and one-third of teenaged boys had participated in some type of unhealthy weight-controlling behaviors, including skipping meals, vomiting, or misusing laxatives. (1)

Treatment for negative body image

Fortunately, there are a number of therapies and treatments that have been developed to address the effects of negative body image—as well as negative body image itself.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be a particularly powerful way to help people overcome negative body image, thanks to its focus on restructuring unhelpful thinking and behavioral patterns.

And other initiatives have been developed to help address the issue, including social media education, which, among other goals, helps people “unlearn” the idea of an ideal body that’s often pushed in social media. People in these courses are taught, instead, to build a more realistic idea of body diversity , as well as a healthier relationship with their own appearance.

Yet, regardless of the route someone chooses, help with negative body image is always possible. It’s an important step on the road to recovery from many eating disorders, and can reduce the chances of developing an eating disorder in the first place.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Body Image & Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 22). Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-eating-disorders 
  2. Body image distortion - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546582/ 
  3. Stanborough, R. J. (2020, November 25). Negative body image: Definition, causes, symptoms, treatment. Healthline. Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/negative-body-image#related-issues 
  4. Lauren Muhlheim, P. D. (n.d.). Body image and eating disorders. Verywell Mind. Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/body-image-and-eating-disorders-4149424

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