What is body image?
Body image is the way you see your body, and your thoughts, attitudes and feelings about your physical self. It’s not about what you actually look like.
We can feel good about our body when we like our appearance or appreciate what our bodies can do... or we can dislike our bodies and feel unhappy about how we look...or our body image can be somewhere in between…and this can change. Most people will have times when they’re not feeling so good about how they look (body dissatisfaction), and times when they feel better.
It can be tough when you’re not feeling great about your body, but there are lots of things you can do and ways to get support. You don’t have to go through this alone.
There are many things that can influence how we feel about our bodies:
Our own brains and how we think
Some personality traits, such as perfectionism can have an impact on how we feel about our bodies. Also, the way we talk to ourselves and the messages we repeat to ourselves really matter. Putting ourselves down can contribute to feeling dissatisfied with our appearance.
Images from the media and social media are never far away and we often see bodies that have been photoshopped and altered with editing tools. The way influencers and others present themselves is often unrealistic, filtered or digitally altered. This can contribute to unrealistic goals for our own appearance.
Comparing ourselves to others often doesn’t end well. If you’re measuring yourself against someone who’s very tall, thin, muscular or glamorous you may feel more dissatisfied with your own body.
Society and our environment
The environment around us makes a difference. Sometimes messages are subtle, like when we only see people of a certain appearance on the television, and at other times they are obvious, like when someone is teased or criticised for looking a certain way.
Family can play an important role. How did they feel about their bodies? What did they say about yours? Did they have a balanced relationship with food and staying active? Was appearance important to them? Their attitudes and behaviour can shape our own.
Friends and others around us
Our friends are important to us, and we often value and ‘absorb’ some of the messages we get from them. Are your friends talking a lot about weight or body shape? Do you play a competitive sport where there is emphasis on the athlete’s body? Have you experienced being teased or bullied?
For some young people the changes that happen to their bodies, like acne or changing shape may lead to difficult feelings too.
How we feel about our bodies can be a big deal.
When we embrace our bodies and feel proud or accepting of them, we might feel free to dress and move as we please, take up opportunities, or just feel generally good about ourselves.
But when we’re dissatisfied with our appearance, we can have a really tough time. You might notice yourself:
- spending a lot of time thinking about your physical appearance or weight
- feeling distressed when looking at yourself or thinking about your body
- avoiding things like participating in activities, going out or being photographed
- doing things to alter your appearance, such as dieting, avoiding certain foods, or excessive physical activity
- having trouble focusing on other parts of your life like studies, work or relationships
- feeling guilt or shame about your body.
Experiencing body dissatisfaction can be stressful, but there are things we can do:
- remind yourself that bodies come in all shapes and sizes
- focus on what your body can do
- talk to people you trust about what’s going on for you – sharing your experiences can help you feel less alone
- remind yourself you’re more than your looks. You have skills, qualities, quirks and achievements that make you special
- What are your values, talents, attributes and hobbies?
- notice if you’re engaging in unhelpful comparisons with others
- get media savvy -
- Get educated on the tactics that are used to alter images. Can you spot when something has been digitally altered or when a filter is used?
- Does your social media feed need a clear out? Who are you following? Does it help you to feel good about yourself?
- Did you know that algorithms are used to send you content suggestions like what you already follow? Is it time to follow something different? Use the power of the unfollow button!
- practise self-compassion – be kind to yourself. If you’re unsure where to start, you could think about what you’d say to a friend who’s experiencing similar things
- think about who you’re spending time with. Can you spend time with people who’re supportive and encouraging?
- try using affirmations – make a list of things you like about yourself. Replace the unhelpful self-talk with new messages
- spend time and energy on things that are important to you like goals, friends, helping others…the things that feel good for you
- check out the body positivity and body neutrality movements
- focus on taking care of your body. Fuel it well and move it for health. Show it kindness for all it can do!
- check out our tips for a healthy headspace for other ideas on how to take care of your mind and body.
Sometimes complete body positivity feels unrealistic. Starting with adopting a ‘body neutral’ stance is a good place to start. It’s OK not to love everything about your body all the time. But you can work on taking the mental spotlight off your body.
Changing our behaviour and thinking isn’t easy though. It can take time and effort. Try starting with a small change that’s easier to help you build your confidence. Where could you make a start?
Sharing how you're feeling with someone else is a good idea. For example, you could talk to a trusted family member, friend, Elders, or a teacher. It can help you to get a different perspective and to feel understood and supported.
If how you feel about your body is causing you distress, is becoming preoccupying, is stopping you from enjoying the things you usually do or has resulted in some changes to your eating or other behaviours, you could do with some extra support.
You could contact:
- Butterfly Foundation for information and support (phone, chat online or email) for body image issues and disordered eating/eating disorders
- InsideOut Institute for information and support services guide for body image issues and disordered eating/eating disorders
- a headspace centre
- eheadspace our phone and online service
- Your General Practitioner
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 13 September 2022