By Marcia Herrin
Body image is both the mental picture one has of one’s body and the feelings one has about his or her own body. Although body image is based on the body’s actual characteristics, it can be affected by past experiences, moods, or feedback from others. In other words, while a person’s body image to some degree reflects objective truth, there is also a subjective element to it, often revealing how happy the person is with herself in general. The more disordered a person’s eating is, the less objective is her view of her body.
People with good body image usually see themselves accurately, but do not tie their sense of self-esteem to their body weight. Some may be happy with their appearance, others may be accepting, and still others may be resigned to what they feel they cannot change. Whatever their feeling about their own weight or shape, they keep their assessment of their body separate from their sense of self-esteem.
People with poor body image have negative and critical thoughts about their bodies and often are unable to perceive their bodies’ size and shape accurately. Body-image issues, or “body-image disturbances,” as they are known, are a common thread that links the various eating disorders. Classic anorexics nearly always suffer from body-image disturbances, characterized by an exaggerated view of the size and shape of their own bodies. They may feel overweight or event obese, even though they are actually underweight. Or the anorexic may be convinced that certain body parts are too fat or big. Although this gross distortion in the perception of body size, or in the size of specific body parts, can happen among bulimics and binge eaters as well, it is much more common among anorexics.
For those who suffer from body-image disturbance, body image becomes inextricably linked to self-esteem; the eating-disordered person bases her self-esteem almost entirely on her evaluation of her body shape and weight, so that poor body image leads to poor self-esteem. Whereas people without eating disorders have a variety of ways to feel good about themselves, the eating-disordered person has just one: self-evaluation of her own body. And the score she gives herself is always “poor” to “hopeless.”
For anorexics, ironically, losing weight seems to magnify body-image disturbances. Fortunately, the anorexic’s ability to accurately assess her own body size and shape is usually restored with weight gain.
Herrin, Marica. The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders: Supporting Self-Esteem, Healthy Eating & Positive Body Image at Home. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze, 2007