As snowbirds know, in the north people wait all year for summer, which should be a time to have fun and be active outdoors; yet swimsuit season can be especially tough for those who have body image issues. Flip to the Sunshine State, where the weather is almost always warm, hot and hotter: In South Florida it is always swimsuit season. Some women, men, girls and boys become very self-conscious in the persistent heat, as more revealing clothing is worn. They may develop negative feelings about the way they look, and feel pressure to improve their appearance. A characteristic response of people with body dissatisfaction is to repeatedly try crash diets or intense exercise plans, hoping for a “quick fix,” only to give in to food temptations after a few weeks of restricting food and strenuous work-outs.
As the media bombards us with visions of beautiful, extremely thin women and muscularly chiseled men on billboards and TV and in magazines and movies, impressionable people may interpret these cues and begin to believe that they must be thin, hard-bodied and beautiful to be happy, as well as base their self-worth and esteem on their bodies and beauty.
Body image is defined as the subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body: It is the person’s perceptions about their appearance, which often is not related to the person’s actual appearance. While it’s common for individuals to be displeased with some aspect of their physical features, certain people become distressed, see themselves as larger than they are, magnify real and perceived flaws, and believe their growing misperceptions to reflect actual appearance. This is known as body image distortion.
Preoccupation with body shape and size can lead to life-threatening disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, other disordered eating, and compulsive exercise. The number of young girls to older women who show an unhealthy concern over body image is increasing even in prepubescent girls as young as 6 to 8 years old.1 These same pressures are felt by males of all ages, although not as prevalently as with females. Older studies estimated males comprising one in 10 cases of eating disorders, while more recent statistics assess one in four eating disorders cases are male.2 National Eating Disorders Association’s website reports 20 million females and 10 million males in the US experience a clinically significant eating disorder during their lifetime, thus bringing the male to female ratio to just one in two. To close the gap even further, estimates indicate that 40% of binge eating disorder cases are male.3
As the incidence and prevalence of eating disorders continue to skyrocket, it is important to note the changing demographics: Twenty years ago the prototypical eating disorder patient was adolescent female, white and wealthy. Two decades later, all genders, ages, races/ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses are well represented: Eating disorders do not discriminate.
Eating disorders are chronic conditions that arise out of the combination of nutritional, body image, genetic, sociological, environmental and psychological factors, such as personality traits. Due to these multi-factoral origins, the treatment for eating disorders is highly specialized. Therefore it is extremely important for patients to seek treatment with nutrition therapists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists and other medical doctors specializing in eating disorders.
Eating disorders are deadly, and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness,4 killing at least one person every 62 minutes.5 It is crucial to identify body image issues as soon as possible, as body dissatisfaction is known to be the most prominent contributor to the development of an eating disorder.6
We can play a preventive role by watching for and responding to signs that our loved ones may be concerned about their body image, weight and shape. A good strategy is to be on the lookout for any negative influence coming from friends, family, peers and authority figures (for example, in dance and wrestling, some teachers and coaches encourage weight loss, although this is not universal). Even simple comments can begin to change peoples’ thoughts regarding their bodies, making them feel more self-conscious. While it is never appropriate to criticize a person’s body, even positive comments may feel objectifying to the recipient, who may then misconstrue the intended compliment to detrimental consequences.
Having a healthy body image and not placing emphasis on dieting and beauty decreases the risk of our loved ones developing poor body image. Having a healthy lifestyle and promoting positive esteem are important values that we can communicate to others, particularly when they express negativity about their bodies.
- Collins ME. Intl J Eating Disorders. 1991;10(2):199-208.
- Hudson JI, Hiripi E, Pope HG, Kessler RC. Biol Psych. 2007;61:348-358.
- Wade, TD, Keski-Rahkonen A, Hudson J. In: Tsuang M, Tohen M, eds. Textbook in Psychiatric Epidemiology. 3rd ed. New York: Wiley; 2011:343-360.
- Smink FE, Van Hoeken D, Hoek HW. Curr Psych Rpts. 2012;14(4):406-414.
- Eating Disorders Coalition. Facts About Eating Disorders: What the Research Shows. 2016:pdf.
- Stice E. Psych Bulletin. 2002;128:825-848.