Body Image

body imageBody image refers to how you view your body and your overall appearance. Body image is your "mental picture" of yourself.

Body image is not objective - it is your subjective opinion of how you see yourself. It's easy to see how body image is not based on "reality" - for example, you may have a friend whom you think looks great, but she is convinced that she has a "big bum". Another friend might tell you that she feels "huge" and won't go to the beach, but all you can see is her great figure. And we've all heard the supermodels moaning about their thighs. Body image definitely isn't "reality" based!

All of us have parts of our bodies that we would like to change, or that we're not entirely happy with. But sometimes, these concerns are magnified, until they can start to take over your life.

Why do we have such a problem with body image?

Social Pressure - the "media" standard of physical attractiveness at the moment is for women to be unnaturally thin. Just look at any "celebrity" magazine. It wasn't always like this - at different times in history, different body shapes have been the standard. Even being large has been considered attractive - Renaissance paintings feature countless full figured women who were considered the ultimate standard of feminine beauty. Movie stars in the 1950's (Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield) were on average a lot larger than the underfed lot we have now. So there is nothing intrinsically "attractive" about being very thin - it's just what society considers the standard at present.

Specific Pressures - These are the pressures that are relevant to your life, in shaping how you feel about your body. You may have grown up in a family that valued being thin or very athletic, for example. Or, you may now work in an environment in which physical appearance is very highly valued (e.g., sales, cosmetics). You may have a partner who subtly (or not so subtly) pressures you to be thinner.

Physical Distinctiveness - Basically, anything about your body that makes you stand out from the crowd may have heightened your sensitivity to how you think and feel about yourself. You may have gone through puberty very early or late. You may be very tall, or very short. You may have a birthmark in an obvious position, such as the face. You may have suffered severe acne in the past, or you may be scarred. All of these characteristics can lead to unwanted attention or teasing from others. This experience tends to have an impact on the development of your body image.

Critical Incidents in the Past - There may be a stand out event from the past which was critical in the development of your body image. You may have been humiliated by a teacher calling you fat, or you may have been dropped from the sports team for not being able to complete an activity.

What keeps a negative body image going once it has started?

There are things that you may be doing to yourself that act to maintain the negative perceptions of your body. These include:

Body Avoidance - Some people are so disgusted in their body that they avoid situations that might present a reminder of their appearance. This might mean: not shopping for clothes, avoiding going to the beach or swimming, not looking at mirrors, avoiding being naked in front of people (this could include avoiding sexual relationships), or not going to social events with more "beautiful people". People may not weigh themselves to avoid thinking about their weight (Cooper et al, 2003).

Although body avoidance works in the short term (i.e., you don't feel uncomfortable at the beach), it really fails in the long term. Avoidance actually maintains a negative image of your body. You never learn that you can be ok in such situations - you don't learn that what you might fear may not happen, or you don't learn that what you fear really doesn't matter.

Think of this analogy: if you are afraid of heights, you might tend to avoid going to high places, because you tell yourself that such an experience would be terrible and that you couldn't handle it. But all the avoidance does is maintain the fear of heights! If you approached such situations, you might learn something different - you might learn that the experience is not as terrible as you are anticipating, or you may learn that you can handle it. Avoidance perpetuates fears; approach destroys it.

Body Checking - The opposite of avoidance, body checking is when people repeatedly check up on their body, scrutinizing themselves for evidence of continuing "disgustingness". A person might study their body in the mirror for hours at a time, frequently pinch their sides to check on the "fat", weigh or measure themselves over and over again.

Many "checkers" believe that by doing the checks they are making sure that they are keeping an eye on their bodies or weight, and therefore feel that they have control. However, in reality, the only thing that checking does is to keep you focusing and thinking about your perceived faults. It's like putting a spotlight on your 'worst bits' and continuously looking at them. All you teach yourself is that you have to be constantly preoccupied with your not-good-enough body. It doesn't help you to have "control", it just reinforces the idea that you are out of control of how it looks.

Misinterpreting Physical Stimuli - People sometimes interpret normal, everyday things as evidence of their "fatness". For example, a lot of women think that if their thighs or tummies wobble, this means they are "fat". In actual fact, wobbliness is a normal female characteristic. We're made to wobble! For other women, the normal fluid retention that happens around pre-menstrual time can be viewed as a "sign" that they are putting on weight.

Negative Thinking - There are a whole range of negative thoughts which reinforce and maintain negative body image. Some of these include:

    • The Critic - This is like living with your worst enemy in your head. The critic is a sarcastic, harsh, derogatory narrative that makes nasty comments about you. For example, "I look disgusting in this outfit", "I can't believe how fat I am", "I'm never going to be able to lose weight because I'm just hopeless". The critic makes you feel awful, because you believe it. This leads you to feel terrible, and then you can get stuck in a negative cycle. Because you feel terrible about yourself, you look for ways to feel better - you may eat something, which gives momentary pleasure or comfort, but minutes later the critic is back to comment on how much of a pig you are for eating. The critic tells you that you'll never be able to control your weight, you feel even worse, and so you decide to eat something..and so it goes.
    • All or Nothing thinking - where it's 100% - or nothing at all. All or nothing thinking is thinking in absolute terms; everything is viewed in black and white categories, with no shades of grey in between. For example "All of my girlfriends are gorgeous, and I look awful". "There's no point looking after my appearance, buying nice clothes or wearing make-up, because I'm fat". All or nothing thinking is a classic example of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater".
    • Selective Attention - this is a bias in thinking, where you pay attention to things that support your negative view of yourself (for example, you focus in on how you can't fit into those size 14 jeans), and "tune out", or discount, evidence that doesn't fit into the negative view (for example, you forget or discount that you have another pair of size 14 trousers that fit you just fine).
    • Discount the Positive - this is a good friend of the critic's. If you get a compliment from someone, you discount it "they don't mean that, they're just saying it because they feel sorry for me".
    • Mind Reading - where somehow, you convince yourself that you know what other people are thinking. "Everyone thinks I look ridiculous in this outfit - they're all just thinking about how massive I look".
    • Negative predictions- people with a negative body image can tend to predict the future in negative ways. For example:
      • I have to hide my stomach so no-one sees how fat I am
      • No-one will want to go out with me because I'm fat
      • I'll never be able to maintain any new kind of exercise regime

Negative Belief Systems - Underpinning recurrent negative thinking patterns are generalized belief systems, or ways of thinking about yourself. Belief systems are the root cause of negative thoughts which occur in everyday life. Most of the time we are not aware of belief systems, they are such deeply held assumptions that we just don't question them - "the world is just round".

      Some examples of belief systems that can cause negative body image may be:
      • Only thin people can be successful in life
      • Being fat is being lazy and a bad person
      • You can't feel good about yourself unless you look perfect

The problem with accepting dysfunctional belief systems is that they just serve to ensure you'll remain unhappy. Such belief systems affect behaviour negatively - if you really believe that you can't feel good about yourself unless you are "perfect", you might become discouraged, as the perfection goal is so hard to why bother trying?

Changing Body Image

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a very effective tool to dramatically improve body image. CBT is evidence based treatment - meaning that there is plenty of research to show that it is highly effective in improving body image. If you choose to come for treatment, you can trust that you are getting the best that modern psychological science can offer.

At Treat Yourself Well Sydney we combine our CBT approach with principles of Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to work with body image. ACT and Mindfulness are evidence based and serve to enhance the changes occuring with CBT.

At Treat Yourself Well Sydney we approach treatment by tackling all of the factors that are operating to maintain a negative body image, including:

      • Avoidance and Checking Behaviours - under the guidance of an experienced psychologist, you will learn simple and effective behavioural strategies to combat body avoidance and checking behaviours. Avoidance and checking are often major culprits in keeping negative thoughts about your body going, so without these behaviours, you'll have a much better chance of getting rid of the thoughts for good.
      • Misinterpretation - as we have seen, sometimes we feel bad about our bodies because of a misguided or unrealistic belief. CBT seeks to correct any misinterpretations by helping you to develop sound knowledge about the human body. In CBT, you act like a scientist, trying to explore whether or not what you are saying to yourself is really true. Your psychologist may send you out on a fact-finding mission, for example, you may be asked to research the "average Australian dress size" (on Google, or from other factual sources), in order to compare your dress size with the average. Then, if you discover that you are actually pretty similar to the "average", this knowledge may help to destroy the belief that you are actually "grotesquely fat". Fact finding missions like this act to destroy your 'hunches' that are making you unhappy.
      • Negative Thinking and Belief Systems -at the heart of CBT for body image is examining and changing how you think about your body. Without fail, if you feel bad about your body, there will be some nasty, recurrent negative thinking patterns which are operating to keep you miserable. CBT teaches you effective strategies to firstly identify the particular set of negative thinking patterns, and then to challenge and change them.

All Treat Yourself Well Sydney psychologists are experts in treating body image. We are passionate about helping people to feel good about their bodies and themselves. Treat Yourself Well Sydney is all about treating yourself well. If you'd like to treat yourself a lot better, make an appointment today! Call us on (02) 9555 4810 or send an email to


Psychology for a Healthy Mind and Body

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