7 factors influencing your body image

The development of your body image begins from birth. Many unconscious and conscious messages become woven into your psyche, these then influencing your beliefs and perceptions about your body.


1. The culture

In Western culture, there is a definite preference towards a thinner physique, for women. This preference became particularly amplified in the 1960s, with slender models such as Twiggy, celebrated widely. This trend accelerated through the 1980s with women's magazines, the promotion of diets and the increased focus on body shape and manipulating it. It could be argued that it reached its peak (pre-social media) in the 1990s, in the era of waif-like super-models, such as Kate Moss.

Since the 2000s, with many more TV channels and the advent of social media, the access to and daily bombardment of idealised images has taken over to such a degree that you can be overwhelmed 24/7. 

Men are increasingly targeted and impacted too, with the pressure to conform to an athletic and muscular physique.

The latest incarnation of the ideal body has been towards clean eating and chasing a lean physique - #fitspo. On the surface, it might appear to be a healthier version of the old ideal, but the underlying conditionality of the message prevails. 

In the media, we still do not see a true cross-section and representation of human bodies. There is a distinct lack of representation of people of different race, disability, sexuality, and age. This impacts our preference for what is appealing in a body. We have been taught to like the white, young and thin female.

Thankfully, there is some backlash against these old limiting ideals, with people promoting body positivity and health at every size (HAES). There is still a very long way to go, though.

2. Self-esteem

Having a healthy self-esteem is very preventative against negative body image. Healthy self-esteem offers a thicker skin and protection against external messages. You will buy-in less and have more objectivity to the toxic cultural preferences. You will feel less need to conform to the ideal, to boost self-esteem, as worth is rooted internally, rather than chasing external approval and validation.

3. Family values and attitudes

If you had a parent who constantly dieted or was unhappy with their shape, they will have inadvertently passed on many messages to you. Additionally, if your parents often commented about the weight and shape of others or were fatphobic, you will have likely internalised these messages also.

Sibling rivalry can sometimes fuel negative body image. If someone is particularly blessed genetically and overtly praised for this, the self-esteem of the other siblings can suffer.

If your self-esteem is low within the family group, and you have been criticised or judged regularly (not just about appearance but other factors), you will be more vulnerable to being harsh on yourself about weight and shape too.

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4. Abuse or trauma

If you have experienced trauma, assault or abuse then, unsurprisingly, this can have a momentous impact on your body image. Early trauma can be held in the body and can lead to feelings of unworthiness or unacceptability. Focusing on changing your body, can be a way to dissociate or numb from the painful underlying feelings, although this process may be entirely unconscious.

5. Puberty

Particularly in women, puberty can be a trigger for negative body image. If you develop earlier than your peers or received unwanted attention in relation to your appearance, this can create troubling feelings about your body. If you experience a noticeable change in height or weight during puberty, this can heighten feelings of discomfort or self-consciousness.

6. Physical activity

Playing sports and being active is often beneficial for body image. However, if there is pressure to conform to a certain body shape e.g. fitness competitions, ballet or horse-racing as examples, this can increase body preoccupation and dissatisfaction.

7. Acceptance or rejection in relation to your body

If you have been endlessly praised about your appearance, interestingly, this can lead to greater body dissatisfaction and feeling pressured to maintain your looks. It can create objectification or envy from others.

If you have been criticised or rejected for how you look, this also has an understandable profound impact. Bullying of all kinds is incredibly harmful and this can lead to longstanding emotional wounds and self-consciousness, often projected onto the body.

Understanding how your body image has developed can offer valuable reflection and insights. It offers you an opportunity to step back and then to offer yourself understanding and compassion. Body positivity might not be a realistic goal for everyone but, certainly, respect and appreciation for your body can be realistic goals to work towards.

If you are struggling with your body image, you might want to seek out further support through counselling.

This article was written by Harriet Frew.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cambridge, CB1
Written by Harriet Frew, MSc; MBACP Accred
Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor specialising in eating disorders and body image. She has worked in the NHS and private practice since 2003, and is passionate about supporting and educating others through therapy, writing and social media.
Instagram: @the_eating_disorder_therapist; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist

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