How Does Body Image Influence Disordered Eating?

Updated on April 12, 2020

Body image is an important part of self-esteem, and it’s especially prone to becoming negative during the turbulent adolescent years.  As young children become tweens and then teens, their body changes in ways that might make them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, negative body image can have further consequences. Quite often, a distorted or flawed body image, especially one that concerns weight and body fat, is the key contributing factor in a developing eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa.

The consensus among experts in the field is that eating disorders and negative body image are inextricably linked. So how are they related?

What Is Body Image, Anyway?

Everyone has some concept of how they appear – whether it’s accurate or not.In some cases, people develop a sense of body dysmorphia (AKA distorted body image) in which they perceive flaws where there are none. As relates to eating disorders, this often appears as a self-perception of being overweight or fat. Body image in teenagers is especially complex in that adolescents’ bodies and self-image change so rapidly. This can impact their social life, educational life, and physical development if they employ disordered eating behaviors to address this distorted self-image. 

Negative Body Image Can Have Long-Lasting Effects

Many aspects of our personalities are determined during adolescence. If left unaddressed, negative body image can become a central part of the adult’s eventual personality. The National Eating Disorder Association conducted a study that found that 50 percent of pre-teen girls and 30 percent of pre-teen boys were dissatisfied with their bodies and weight and that this dissatisfaction tends to increase as they age – 60 percent of adult women and 40 percent of adult men have a negative body image.

How Body Image and Eating Disorders Are Linked

Despite common misconceptions, eating disorders are not simply a matter of eating too little or too much; they’re among the most dangerous kinds of mental and behavioral health disorders. Although there is no universal cause identified for eating disorders,negative body image in teenagersis one potential contributor. The majority of people with eating disorders have a negative or distorted body image and often have tried various unhealthy coping mechanisms to lose weight, from dieting to restriction to purging.

Since eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are normally accompanied by distorted body image, it must be taken into account when making a diagnosis. As an example, anorexia nervosa usually results in extreme weight loss, even though individuals with the disorder still see themselves as overweight.  This further leads to a need for body image rehabilitation during eating disorder treatment.

Treatment Methods for Disordered Body Image

As the understanding of eating disorders and their causes has grown, so have the efficiency and comprehensiveness of treatment. This means that integrated therapy programs that treat the behavioral, emotional, and personal aspects of the disorder are available. In most adolescent eating disorder treatment facilities, the staff is trained in not only medical and psychiatric methodologies, but in various mindfulness and therapy techniques which can help their clients overcome body dysmorphia.

Some of the most common and effective treatment options for negative body image with eating disorders include:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
  • Group Therapy
  • Art and Music Therapy

How Do I Know If My Teen Has Body Image Distortions?

Certain symptoms of a poor body image which may lead to a developing eating disorder are frequent and common enough for parents to watch out for. They occur in the majority of eating disorder cases. These include:

  • Compulsive exercise
  • Constant weighing and counting calories
  • Spending too much time in the mirror
  • Wearing baggy clothes that hide the body

It can help to replace these practices with body-enhancing activities such as yoga, dance classes, listening to music and regular pleasure walks.

As a parent, it’s essential to be aware that as their body changes, your teen may begin to develop discomfort or unhappiness with their body. If you notice behavioral symptoms that indicate body dysmorphia, don’t hesitate – reach out to a specialist today.

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