How Beauty Standards, Self-Worth, and Body Image Are Intertwined

From Olympic athletes to pop stars, our role models have the power to influence how we live our lives—for better or worse. When it’s Lizzo teaching us that playing the flute is NOT “too nerdy,” that’s great! When it’s the fashion world continuing to prioritize images of dangerously thin men and women, that’s dangerous. There is no escaping these images, unless you want to cut all ties to the world and live alone in the woods, so what can you learn about the impact beauty standards are having on our body images to protect your self-worth?

What to Know About Body Image

What Is Body Image?

Body image is how we see, think, feel, and act about our bodies or appearance. Body dissatisfaction or appearance dissatisfaction is very common these days, and it can often mean that a person has a negative body image. There are four components of body image:

1. Perceptual body image is what you see in your mind, not necessarily the truth. Maybe you look in the mirror and see a “bean pole” or “weakling” when you can objectively lift more weight than most people on your team and others see you as muscular and strong. That’s your perception of your body overriding what is actually true.

2. Affective body image is how you feel about your body. Maybe you see the rolls on your belly when you sit down and think “gross” or feel embarrassed when objectively, everyone’s stomach creases in that position. The truth is that’s a normal thing, but you’ve assigned a negative feeling to that part of yourself.

3. Cognitive body image is the thought process you have about your body. This is when you think “I can’t be satisfied until I’ve lost those ten pounds,” or “if I ever get fat, I’ll die of humiliation.” The truth is that with this mindset, you will probably want to lose more weight after you achieve that ten pounds, and you’ll see every pound you gain as a bad thing regardless of your health.

4. Behavioral body image is when you make decisions based on your body image. You might wear long sleeves or pants if you don’t like your muscles, or you’ll avoid and isolate yourself from summer activities if you don’t like how you look in a bathing suit. You might engage in disordered eating to try and attain a weight you think you‘d like better. Rather than acting based on what’s best for your well-being, you act based on your feelings about your body.

It’s important to remember that it’s possible for all four of the above to be positive too. Maybe you are proud of your work in the gym, so you wear a lot of tank tops to show off those arms. Great! Today’s reading is just to help you be more aware of where your body image might be negative so that you can be careful of your mental health.

How Do Beauty Standards Impact Body Image?

From Instagram to the New York Post, the images and stories we’re exposed to almost 24/7 contain mostly thin, white, able-bodied folks who’ve most likely undergone extensive air-brushing, filters, makeup application, and/or extreme dieting before their bodies were photographed. There’s almost no way that kind of representation can have a positive impact on a normal person with a normal appetite, average income, and any number of unique traits that a diverse population has. But when these images and these people receive loads of praise and attention, the message is clear: if you look like this, the world will love you.

It doesn’t take long in our society, some research says it starts as early as 3-5 years old, before our minds are trained to think “I’m supposed to look like that.” From then on, you’re automatically scanning yourself for flaws you can fix to attain that ideal. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you see yourself as unacceptable until you get rid of those flaws. But when the ideal we’ve been shown is impossible to achieve in a healthy way, you will either make yourself sick in the pursuit of them or hate yourself when you fail.

If you’re starving yourself or over-exercising, that can cause stress to the body that results in anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and poor self-esteem. If you’re constantly berating yourself for not looking the way you want to or hiding and isolating to avoid others seeing your body, that can also result in poor mental health. If you don't learn to recognize when negative body image is impacting your self-esteem and learn to combat it, your mental health could be at risk.

How to Boost Self-Esteem and Body Image

First of all, let’s just acknowledge that this is hard stuff. Most people are hard on themselves when it comes to their appearance—that’s the world we live in. You’re not weak for caring about how you look, and you’re not alone in it either. You’re already doing an act of kindness to yourself by reading about this issue, which means that some small part of you believes that you deserve to feel at peace with your own body. You do!

Here are some ways you can lean toward loving and respecting yourself when you are struggling to remember you are already enough:

1. It’s important to consider how you navigate social media, TV, news, magazines and any other source that’s influencing your brain. Charlotte Markey PhD recommends the FACE method:

  • Filter. Take charge of what you’re seeing online, and get rid of the things that make you feel less than. Maybe that means Unfollowing some accounts that do a lot of pre or post-workout body shots. Maybe that means telling TikTok to stop showing you ads for fad diets. Listen to yourself, and if certain online content leaves you feeling inferior, filter it out of your experience.
  • Avoid. Take screen breaks. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how much filtering you do, being online all the time is going to expose you to unhealthy things at some point. Screen breaks, phone breaks, social media “fasting,” or even getting rid of one or two of your accounts can be great for your body image and self-esteem.
  • Careful of Comparisons. Remember that nobody posts their bad angles or rough moments, so when you find yourself thinking, “I’m so lazy” or “she’s so put-together,” that’s a false comparison. A person’s online presence isn’t reality, and using what you see on social media as a thermometer for how you’re doing in life is a recipe for disappointment.
  • Evaluate. Remember that media of any kind is only one small sampling of a larger world, and it’s always been doctored in some way. It can be a great tool for learning and connection, but make sure you’re grounding yourself in reality too.

2. Do something you enjoy or that you’re good at. That could be as simple as getting yourself a coloring book and some crayons. Maybe you could finally join the choir so you can enjoy singing more often than when you’re alone in your car. Giving yourself the gift of enjoying something is a great way to build self-esteem.

4. Set positive, health-focused, and pro-social goals for yourself. Rather than striving for achievements based on appearance, like “I want to fit into a Size 2 dress for Prom,” strive for “I want to find a dress that reflects my personality and makes me feel comfortable enough to dance with my friends.” Rather than thinking “I need to be able to run a 7.5-minute mile this season,” shift to “I want to feel proud of myself this season and help out the team, whatever that looks like.”

4. Ask for support. We all go through negative body image! Talk to your friends and family about your struggles with body image, and if you think your mental or physical health is being impacted, consult with a licensed therapist. They can help you come up with tools to cope with low self-esteem and negative body image, and they’ll also help you determine if you need to see a doctor for any physical issues you’re having.

We talk a lot about self-care at TheHopeLine, it’s true. But that’s because it’s important! Find ways that you can practice giving yourself care when the world and your inner bullies are telling you that you’d be incredible… if only you lost 15 pounds, plumped your upper lip, upped your weights, or fit into those pants. Self-esteem is about esteeming yourself, not having a running list of flaws you’d like to get rid of.

You Are Already Awesome

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” —1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)

Your faith can be immensely helpful when it comes to self-worth and body image. When you’re able to separate what others see from who you really are, it’s incredibly freeing. Let yourself rest today, or at least for the next five minutes, in the knowledge that you are already there. You’ve already reached the point at which you are beautiful to God. You didn’t need to do a thing to get there either. There is no model, influencer, athlete, actor, or anyone else you “should” look more like. There are no meal plans, weightlifting routines, supplements, protein powders, photo filters, jeans, foundations, haircuts or face washes that can change the contents of your heart. God sees you as wonderfully made, period.

If you want to talk to someone about the anxiety or dissatisfaction you feel with your appearance, please reach out to a Hope Coach today. Everyone at TheHopeLine believes that you are already great and that your thoughts, feelings, and stories are important. We’ll listen without judgment and connect you with resources that might be able to help. You aren’t alone in your struggles with body image—there’s always hope!

If you're struggling to accept your physical appearance, here are 6 ways to stop obsessing over what you see in the mirror.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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