Examining How Body Image and Eating Disorders Are Connected

By Carrie Hunnicutt 

Adolescence is a hard time for everyone. You’ve got to navigate hormones, changing bodies, the pressures of academics, juggling social events and a plethora of other issues. During the teen years, most people tend to become more acutely aware of their bodies as they grow and change. This awareness means that self-perception – that is, how people feel about themselves – becomes more prominent, too.

If an adolescent’s self-perception veers to the negative or becomes distorted, the consequences can be severe— including the development of common eating disorders. Parents who worry that their son or daughter is developing a negative body image may feel some trepidation about broaching the subject – it’s a difficult discussion to have, to be sure – should be aware of how body image issues can become something much more dangerous.  

What Is Body Image?

Body image is how a person thinks about and perceives their body. Often a person’s actual body doesn’t match their idealized concept of what their body should be – and that disconnection might trigger feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. A negative body image means that an individual is generally unhappy with how they look. They may feel like they need to change their body size or shape.

On the other hand, a positive body image in a person usually makes them comfortable and accepting of the way that they look.

Body image is also closely connected to self-esteem and how a person socializes. When people feel good about their bodies, they are much more likely to feel comfortable around others and content with themselves. A person with high self-esteem is less likely to take drastic steps to change their body, which often manifests as a restrictive or purging form of eating disorder. 

A positive body image fostered during adolescence can help to lay a solid base for mental and behavioral health in later life. On the other hand, a negative body image at that time can be accompanied by long-term psychological and physical health consequences.

How Does a Negative Body Image Influence Eating Disorders?

Although eating disorder onset is usually associated with the late teenage years in most cases, body image concerns often begin to show much earlier. Research shows a negative body image is statistically significant, with 40 to 60 percent of girls aged 6-12 reporting that they were dissatisfied with their weight or body shape. There is no single cause or factor determining the development of eating disorders. However, negative or distorted body image is inextricably linked to cases of depression, isolation, and disordered food relationships that can become a full-blown case of an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa.

What to Look for If You Suspect Negative Body Image Is Becoming a Problem

As we mentioned earlier, increase in awareness and changing feelings about their body is common in adolescents. But when this awareness becomes overly or entirely critical, it can become a more serious problem. If parents believe that their teens are experiencing any of the following warning signs, they should begin to prepare for both the difficult conversation to come and for securing treatment.

Signs of negative body image in teens:

  • Constant comparisons of their boy to others’
  • Frequent self-criticism
  • Isolation and avoiding social situations
  • Avoiding activities or trying new things because of the way they feel about their body
  • Obsessive thoughts concerning food, weight, calories, dieting or exercise
  • Perceiving flaws or excess weight where there is none
  • Constant looking in mirrors and complaints of how “ugly” or “fat” they are
  • Creating a link between eating and feelings of shame, guilt or self-disgust

When to Seek Treatment

While it’s not an absolute, unaddressed body image issues and negativity can result in the development of an eating disorder. If parents have concerns about their child’s health after speaking with them about changes surrounding body image in adolescence, seeking a professional diagnosis is an essential next step.  Eating disorders can be overcome; it just takes the courage to reach out for help.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: CARRIE HUNNICUTT

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment  – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.

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