The Connection Between Body Image and Eating Disorders

Body image distress is commonly considered one of the signs of an eating disorder. However, not all individuals with eating disorders have issues with their body image, and many people without eating disorders may have negative views about their bodies.

So, how are body image and eating disorders related to each other? This article delves into the connection between body image and eating disorders and also provides information about some treatments that can be helpful.

What is Body Image?

Body image refers to the way we perceive our bodies, regardless of how they actually look. This construct is complex and consists of various factors such as beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors. Our body image has a significant impact on our overall health, mental well-being, and relationships. When we have a healthy body image, we are able to objectively perceive our appearance and separate our value as individuals from our physical appearance.

What is Negative Body Image?

Negative body image is often characterized by dissatisfaction with one's appearance. This can lead to behaviors such as dieting, checking, and avoidance as an attempt to alleviate this dissatisfaction. Negative body image usually develops during childhood.

Body Image Issues in Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that arise from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Negative body image is one of the potential contributing factors to eating disorders. This is because individuals with eating disorders tend to place a significant emphasis on their body shape and weight, which can influence their self-esteem and self-worth.

  • Anorexia: A diagnosis of anorexia nervosa is characterized by a disturbance in body weight or shape perception or an inability to recognize the severity of low body weight.
  • Binge eating disorder: Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder. However, over-evaluation of shape and weight is not necessary for its diagnosis. Studies have shown that only 60% of BED patients meet the criteria for over-evaluation of shape and weight. However, it is believed that patients with BED who are preoccupied with their shape and weight may have a more severe form of the disorder.
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder: People with the eating disorder avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) do not typically experience any preoccupation with shape and weight.

Negative Body Image and Other Disorders

Body dissatisfaction may lead to dieting and disordered eating, which can be gateway behaviors to an eating disorder.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a type of psychiatric disorder that falls under the category of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. Individuals with BDD are preoccupied with slight or nonexistent defects or flaws in their physical appearance, including their body shape.

To be diagnosed with BDD, a person must:

  • Engage in repetitive behaviors (such as checking or reassurance-seeking) related to the preoccupation
  • Experience impairment in functioning

However, if the individual's body image concerns only occur within the context of an eating disorder, only the eating disorder is diagnosed.

Muscle Dysmorphia

Body weight and size dissatisfaction have been a well-known problem among women for a long time. However, it has recently been identified as a growing concern among men. Muscle dysmorphia is a type of body dysmorphic disorder that mainly affects men and boys who desire to have a more muscular physique.

Since many people with muscle dysmorphia engage in exercise and changes in eating habits aimed at influencing their body weight and shape, some researchers believe that muscle dysmorphia is, in fact, a variation of anorexia nervosa that is more closely aligned with traditional male gender norms.

Treatment for Negative Body Image

Body image is often one of the last symptoms of an eating disorder to improve during treatment. Regardless of the type of treatment or symptoms experienced, the stages of recovery from an eating disorder tend to follow a similar pattern. Weight recovery and behavioral changes usually occur before psychological recovery.

However, some degree of body image distress and preoccupation can persist even after recovery from an eating disorder. This is because it is not uncommon for people in our society to have some level of body image concerns.

A variety of interventions aim to target negative body image. These interventions fall into several categories, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Fitness training
  • Media literacy
  • Self-esteem enhancement
  • Psychoeducation
  • Gratitude

In many cases, treatments involve multiple types of interventions. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapies and media literacy programs often incorporate psychoeducation.

Strategies to Try at Home

Here are some self-help strategies you can do on your own to improve your body image based on the interventions above:

Keep a Body Gratitude Journal

If you have a daily routine that includes making self-deprecating comments about your body, then it's likely making you feel worse. To come to a more balanced perspective, it's essential to shift your attention and appreciate good things about your body. You can achieve this by keeping a body gratitude journal. Try to write something positive about your body daily.

Clean Your Social Media Feed

Individuals are regularly exposed to numerous images and messages that promote the importance of being thin or having an ideal body shape. To counter the negative impact of such messages, it is crucial to seek out and promote messages that encourage body acceptance and the representation of diverse body types.

Buy Clothes That Fit Now

Many people avoid buying clothes that fit properly and instead wear shapeless clothes or hold off on buying new clothes until they lose weight. This approach needs to be revised and can lead to increased unhappiness in the present without any real motivation to change. Instead, it's recommended to buy a few essential items that fit well and make you feel good right now. This can boost your confidence and reduce feelings of anxiety and self-disparagement when getting dressed.

Change Negative Body Language

Participating in "fat talk," which involves negative and critical comments or discussions about weight and appearance, can have a harmful effect on body image. One way to improve body image is to refrain from making these types of judgments, such as saying, "I'm so fat!" Consider taking a pledge to avoid engaging in fat talk altogether.

Final Words

Various movements encourage people to love their bodies. However, it may not always be possible. For some, a more achievable goal would be to learn to appreciate and accept their bodies.

Improving body image requires effort, and the above activities must be practiced consistently over time. This is a valid goal for therapy, regardless of whether or not an individual is struggling with disordered eating.

If these strategies are not helpful in the long run and the negative effects of poor body image are impacting your well-being or daily life, seeking help from a professional is recommended.