It has been estimated that up to 70% of women will try to diet at some stage in their lives and many either perceive themselves as bigger than they are or wish to shed some weight. Notably, dissatisfaction with shape and appearance can affect women of any age – from girlhood to their more senior years. Men tend to be generally more satisfied with their bodies, but in recent years there has also been an increase in male body image concerns, often (but not always) reflected in a wish to be bigger or more muscular.
While gender seems to play an important role in terms of how much and what kind of body dissatisfaction is expressed, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and social class may also have an impact. For instance, different cultures tend to have different beauty ideals and while the prevalent western beauty standard of thinness (particularly for women) is widespread, it is not universal. Many African cultures value a more voluptuous body shape as a sign of good health and attractiveness.
While stereotypes often focus on the idea that body image issues are most common in white, upper/middle class women, the reality is far more complex. In short, anyone can struggle with thoughts of physical inadequacy or be unhappy about the way they look, no matter who they are.
Where does body dissatisfaction come from?
There can be many reasons for someone becoming dissatisfied with the way they look – we often focus on the media and the perceived societal pressures to look a certain way, but often there are other factors at work too. We may have grown up around critical parents or other family members; been bullied at school or at work; or face unique pressures in our social and cultural environment to be a certain way. We may develop beliefs about what it means to look a certain way (for example, associating thinness with success and attractiveness) and reject anything that does not conform to this ideal. Over time, criticisms from others (parents, partner, community, peers) are internalised and stay with us to the extent that we start seeing ourselves as others have seen us – justified or not.
How to be less dissatisfied with your body
- Focus on the positives – What do you like about your looks? What (positives) have other people commented on? If you are not sure, ask those you love and trust – you may be surprised by what they say.
- Focus on the whole you – you are more than your weight or dress size. Think about what makes you tick. What are you good at? What do people like about you? This can help shift the focus from concentrating on things you are unhappy about to feeling more positive about yourself overall.
- Be mindful of the images you see on social media platforms – they are more often than not airbrushed and altered and do not portray reality. How useful is it to be comparing yourself to bodies that don't really exist?
- Be kind to yourself – stop treating other people better than you treat yourself. You are the only person you will spend the entire rest of your life with.
- If you feel that you are really struggling and would like to speak to someone about your body dissatisfaction and how it impacts on your life, don't hesitate to reach out. You are not alone and help is available.