How accurate is our mental image of ourselves?

Evaluating Body Image

Body image pressure begins early in life, especially for females.
Body image pressure begins early in life, especially for females.
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

For people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), whenever they look in the mirror, they see something terribly wrong. It could be any sort of perceived flaw, such as a large nose or hips. This skewed body image causes them to obsess over their imperfections and often accompanies depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other psychological problems. Researchers suspect that chemical imbalances in the brain, combined with psychological and cultural influences, are at the root of BDD.

­Although study samples indicate that BDD affects only a small portion of the population, research shows that many people are dissatisfied with their bodies. Fretting over weight is a common psychological issue for females, beginning at a young age. In fact, the term normative discontent was coined in the 1980s by researchers who found widespread negative body image, particularly among women in the United States. Studies have shown that as many as 46 percent of girls worry about their size [source: Presnell, Bearman and Madeley]. Males, on the other hand, strive toward a muscular ideal physique that celebrates bulky over bony. Reflecting that cultural trend, underweight boys exhibit the lowest satisfaction with their bodies, compared to average-sized and overweight male peers [source: Presnell, Bearman and Madeley].

The messages we receive from media, friends and family all play different roles in shaping our body images. Age-wise, adolescents and teens are the most susceptible to negative body images [source: Columbia University]. Young people who are unhappy with their bodies are more prone to eating disorders and depression as well [source: Presnell, Bearman and Madeley].

More than a third of Americans are obese or overweight, and as the Body Mass Index (BMI) climbs, so does body dissatisfaction. Although Caucasians statistically report higher levels of body dissatisfaction, people with steep BMIs from many ethnic groups harbor poor body images as well. A study conducted by the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University found that obese and overweight youth from multiple ethnicities were all unhappy with their physical appearance [source: Temple University].

But body dissatisfaction doesn't split evenly between the sexes. Studies have consistently found that women are more likely than men to have a negative body image. Ninety-one percent of cosmetic surgery patients in 2007 were women [source: American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery]. Women are also more likely than men to want to alter their bodies later in life [source: Ferraro et al].

This isn't to say that men are immune to body dissatisfaction. As with women, evidence suggests that men in Western countries are held to higher physical standards of attractiveness than Eastern countries. In comparison to Taiwanese men, for example, American men feel they must become 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) more muscular to attract females [source: The Atlantic Monthly].

Positive body image, on the other hand, has been shown to have more upbeat connotations. For instance, women with healthier body images and self-images report more sexual satisfaction and confidence with their partners [source: Ackard, Kearney-Cooke and Peterson]. In addition, for male and female college students, positive body image correlated to heightened optimism, self-esteem and strong relationships.  

The facts are clear: What's going on inside of us can influence our perception on the outside. So what type of external forces can shake the accuracy of our self-image? Perhaps more importantly, how can we protect and enhance a positive mental image of ourselves?