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A view of the sun gracefully descending behind the iconic Chicago skyline, casting a warm glow over the cityscape. This picturesque scene serves as a poignant metaphor in the blog post, reminding readers that understanding body image encompasses more than just what meets the eye. It invites contemplation on the deeper layers of perception and self-acceptance, mirroring the complexities explored within the post's narrative.

More Than What Meets the Eye: Understanding the Concept of Body Image

So what exactly is body image?

Body image is the subjective picture of one’s own body, irrespective of how one’s body actually looks. It is a concept that involves thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs about one’s body.  It is processed in a complicated interplay of neural networks in the brain, and is influenced by both internal and external factors. 

Internal factors include:

  • individual experiences
  • emotions
  • physical sensations and sensory awareness
  • cognitions
  • affect

External factors include:

  • feedback and reinforcement from others
  • cultural ideals and expectations
  • media and social media intake
  • diet culture

Common Misconceptions

Often, the concept of body image is solely understood as how one sees their own appearance, and usually in relationship to culturally prescribed appearance ideals. In reality, this concept is called body perception, and is just one of many facets of body image. This distinction is important to make, for when body image and body perception are conflated, many individuals conclude that the only way to improve their body image is to change their appearance to better conform to culturally prescribed appearance ideals. By better understanding what body image is, we can more effectively intervene and improve overall body satisfaction.

The shape shifting nature of body image

A growing body of research shows that body image is both static and flexible, meaning that it is unlikely to change organically on its own, yet it is possible to improve or worsen body image across the lifespan. 

Keeping in mind the variety of factors that influence body image, it makes sense that individuals may have the experience of feeling happy with how they look in one moment and dissatisfied in the next, depending on what’s happening in both their interior landscape and the world around them. 

In my experience working with clients struggling with their body image, clients often report the experience of thinking they “look good” in one instance, then a few hours later perceiving themselves as “looking horrible.” While their subjective perception of their body may have changed, often nothing has actually changed about their appearance. 

I support my clients in bringing a great deal of compassionate curiosity to these shifts and what may be happening internally and externally to trigger them. By becoming aware of what is causing distress, we begin to build the opportunity to meaningfully improve people’s experiences of their own bodies and relationships with themselves. 

Conclusion:

Body image is our subjective perception of how we appear, regardless of how we actually look. Many individual and cultural factors influence our body image. Changing your appearance is not a prerequisite to better body image. A first step in improving body image is beginning to notice the different internal and external factors that influence your body image.

Reflection questions:

  • Does the provided definition of body image align with your previous understanding of body image? If not, what are the differences?
  • When you think about the concept of body image, what emotions, sensations, and thoughts arise? 
  • What have you done or attempted in the past or currently to improve your body image? What has worked? Has anything made it worse? 

Additional learning (a few of my favorite body image resources): 

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