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Body Image

The 4 Components of Body Image

Your body image creates the relationship you have with your body.

Key points

  • Your body image encompasses your perceptions, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions that relate to your physical appearance.
  • Behaviors that result from a negative body image include avoidance and belittling.
  • The four aspects of body image include: perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral.
  • If you change your mind about your body, you can remove the limits on what your current body and self can experience.

Your body image encompasses your perceptions, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions that pertain to your physical appearance. In essence, it’s your personal relationship with your body. This definition is helpful because it implies that you have a lot of control over your body image if you’re using the right coping strategies.

Hopefully, we spend most of our time in a body-positive or body-neutral state. However, we know that there is enormous societal pressure to look a certain way, so even the best of us will have insecurities that crop up from time to time.

Examples of negative body image

When people have a negative body image, there are many ways that can manifest. We can be avoidant, avoiding buying new clothes or looking into mirrors. How many of you refuse to wear crop tops? Or hide your legs under long pants because you have thicker thighs? All this does is communicate the message that your body is bad. The first time I wore a two-piece swimsuit, I was close to 400 pounds. I was inspired by Gabifresh, who had dropped on the scene as a fashion blogger and eventually started her own swimsuit line. It was liberating to let it all hang out. We are four-dimensional beings and it’s okay if our curves reflect that.

Photo Volcano/Shutterstocki
Source: Photo Volcano/Shutterstocki

Another negative body image style is conflictual. Are you constantly battling with your body and telling it that it needs to be something that it’s not? Do you think if you were a little taller or stronger, that woman you’re crushing on would notice you? Do you have curly hair and wish it was straight? Are you more on the slender slide and want to be thicker?

Embrace yourself instead of trying to replace everything that makes you a unique human being. A fun fact: I was born with seven birthmarks, one of which covers almost a third of my torso. I remember being in junior high and wishing that I had unmarked skin like every other girl I saw. Those birthmarks are still there, but my perception changed over time, which is a key aspect of body image.

Another type of negative body image is abusive. Do you have an abusive relationship with your body? Do you call yourself names, or starve yourself, or exercise to the point of exhaustion? These are all examples of the ways we can be abusive to ourselves. I would never condone anyone being abusive, including self-abusive.

Let’s talk about the four aspects of body image:

1. Perceptual

Perceptual body image is how you see yourself. The way that you visualize your body is not always a correct representation of what you actually look like—it's a perception, not the objective truth. For example, a person may perceive themselves to be overweight and bulky when in reality they are extremely thin. You could have a small mole on your nose and perceive yourself as ugly while it’s completely unnoticeable to anyone else.

Perception is a tricky beast. If you want your perception to match reality, mindfulness is your friend. The judgmental statements that we make about ourselves keep our perceptual lens distorted. If I sit down and I have rolls in my belly and I take that as meaning “I’m fat,” then I will see myself as fat. However, if I acknowledge their presence and the fact that it’s totally normal—everyone has rolls!—I can change my experience over time.

2. Affective

Your feelings about your body, especially the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you experience in relation to your looks (e.g., weight, body shape, height, skin tone, aging, etc.) is your affective body image. These are all the things that you like or dislike about your appearance.

Obviously, these feelings are influenced by our societal consumptions: who we see on TV, in movies, in magazines, and, more recently, on social media. It’s important to make a conscious decision about the media you consume and the effect it has on you, both positive and negative. Introduce body image diversity into your life.

Sometimes, we come from cultures that influence these ideas. For instance, I’m Black, and the idealization of large backsides is a part of my culture. Guess who doesn’t have a large butt? Me. But this doesn’t make me any less Black or my body image any less positive. I welcome the Bulgarian Squats that my trainer recommends, hoping I’ll get slightly more rotund glutes, but I know I’ll never be on the same level as Megan Thee Stallion. And this does not change my value as a person.

Hating yourself is not a requirement for change. You can be dissatisfied with something and still accept it. If you’re going to compare your body to other peoples', at least find comparisons that make you feel included and not ones that make you feel ostracized. This will help to improve your body image over time.

3. Cognitive

These are the thoughts and beliefs that you hold about your body.

You might be a guy who thinks, "if I build muscle in my chest and arms, I’ll feel better about myself." Or maybe you're a woman in her 30s who is upset about face and body wrinkles and thinks, "If I can just maintain how I look now, I’ll be happy." If/then contingencies like this often add up to maybe/never results. If you inherently dislike yourself, you’ll move the goal post. You’ll gain 20 pounds of muscle and then say, "I just need to gain 10 more."

I’ve seen many people change their bodies and never be mentally satisfied with the progress. There is always a little more weight to lose, a few more wrinkles to smooth, and a stomach roll that shows up that wasn’t there before. Set positive, health-focused goals, rather than ones based on unrealistic standards.

Be realistic with yourself about your goals and your potential. Instead of trying to avoid aging altogether, perhaps you should define for yourself what aging gracefully looks like. Instead of trying to become the next Jason Mamoa, focus on putting on mass and increasing your musculature healthily, instead.

4. Behavioral

The last aspect of body image is behavioral. This is what actions you take in relation to your body image. When a person doesn’t like how they look, they may display destructive behaviors. This can be anything from excessive exercise habits to disordered eating in an attempt to change their appearance. Others might isolate themselves or not engage in social events.

One of my favorite tips is to focus on the function of your body. If you want to go on more bike rides but you’re out of shape right now, choose easier routes and work your way up to more difficult ones. That’s focusing on function.

Our bodies allow us to be connected to this world. If our bodies take damage from weather and the sun, let us taste foods from every culture and country, race marathons, dance and play, and make love. All of these things can be done by any body type at any age—with a few modifications, of course.

If you change your mind about your body, you remove the limits on what your current body and self can experience. In that way, you can craft an existence of self-acceptance and start living the way you desire.

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