Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Mental Health

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Author: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

 

Body image and self-esteem start in the mind, not in the mirror. They can change the way you understand your value and worth. Healthy body image and self-esteem are a big part of well-being.

Body image is mental and emotional: it’s both the mental picture that you have of your body and the way you feel about your body when you look in a mirror.

Healthy body image is more than simply tolerating what you look like or “not disliking” yourself. A healthy body image means that you truly accept and like the way you look right now, and aren’t trying to change your body to fit the way you think you should look. It means recognizing the individual qualities and strengths that make you feel good about yourself beyond weight, shape or appearance, and resisting the pressure to strive for the myth of the “perfect” body that you see in the media, online, in your communities.

Self-esteem is how you value and respect yourself as a person—it is the opinion that you have of yourself inside and out. Self-esteem impacts how you take care of yourself, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Self-esteem is about your whole self, not just your body.

When you have good self-esteem, you value yourself, and you know that you deserve good care and respect—from yourself and from others. You can appreciate and celebrate your strengths and your abilities, and you don’t put yourself down if you make a mistake. Good self-esteem means that you still feel like you’re good enough even when you’re dealing with difficult feelings or situations.

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Why do body image and self-esteem matter?

Body image and self-esteem directly influence each other—and your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. If you don’t like your body (or a part of your body), it’s hard to feel good about your whole self. The reverse is also true: if you don’t value yourself, it’s hard to notice the good things and give your body the respect it deserves.

Below, see how good body image and self-esteem positively impact mental health:

diagram of positive impacts

These are just a few examples. As you can see, good body image, self-esteem, and mental health are not about making yourself feel happy all the time. They are really about respecting yourself and others, thinking realistically, and taking action to cope with problems or difficulties in healthy ways.

Below, see how poor body image and self-esteem negatively impact mental health:

diagram of negative impacts

As you can see, the problem with negative thinking and feelings is that once people start to focus on shortcomings or problems in one area or one situation, it becomes very easy to only see problems in many other areas or situations. Negative thinking has a way of leading to more negative thinking.

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How can I encourage a healthier body image?

Treat your body with respect.

Eat well-balanced meals and exercise because it makes you feel good and strong, not as a way to control your body.

Notice when you judge yourself or others based on weight, shape, or size. Ask yourself if there are any other qualities you could look for when those thoughts come up.

Dress in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, in clothes that fit you now.

Find a short message that helps you feel good about yourself and write it on mirrors around your home to remind you to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

Surround yourself with positive friends and family who recognize your uniqueness and like you just as you are.

Be aware of how you talk about your body with family and friends. Do you often seek reassurance or validation from others to feel good about yourself? Do you often focus only on physical appearances?

Remember that everyone has challenges with their body image at times. When you talk with friends, you might discover that someone else wishes they had a feature you think is undesirable.

Write a list of the positive benefits of the body part or feature you don’t like or struggle to accept.

The next time you notice yourself having negative thoughts about your body and appearance, take a minute to think about what’s going on in your life. Are you feeling stressed out, anxious, or low? Are you facing challenges in other parts of your life? When negative thoughts come up, think about what you’d tell a friend if they were in a similar situation and then take your own advice.

Be mindful of messages you hear and see in the media and how those messages inform the way people feel about the way they look. Recognize and challenge those stereotypes! You can learn more about media literacy at www.mediasmarts.ca.

Ask your community centre, mental health organization or school about resiliency skills programs, which can help people increase self-esteem and well-being in general.

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Self-test: Self-esteem

Read each statement and circle your response.

 

strongly agree

agree

disagree

strongly disagree

On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.

3pt

2pt

1pt

0pt

At times, I think I am no good at all.

0pt

1pt

2pt

3pt

I feel that I have a number of good qualities.

3pt

2pt

1pt

0pt

I am able to do things as well as most other people.

3pt

2pt

1pt

0pt

I feel I do not have much to be proud of.

0pt

1pt

2pt

3pt

I certainly feel useless at times.

0pt

1pt

2pt

3pt

I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.

3pt

2pt

1pt

0pt

I wish I could have more respect for myself.

0pt

1pt

2pt

3pt

All in all, I tend to feel that I am a failure.

0pt

1pt

2pt

3pt

I take a positive attitude toward myself.

3pt

2pt

1pt

0pt

Add up the number of points in each response you circled. The higher the number, the higher your self-esteem, with a minimum score of zero (very low self-esteem) and a maximum score of 30 (very healthy self-esteem). It’s normal to occasionally feel less satisfied about yourself. But if you often have a hard time recognizing your value or worth, think about seeking some extra support.

Adapted from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

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where do I go for more information?

Kelty Eating Disorders from Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre has a lot of information about disordered eating, eating disorders, and healthy living at www.keltyeatingdisorders.ca. The program finder tool can help you find service providers around BC.

Jessie’s Legacy at www.jessieslegacy.com provides education, resources and inspiration to prevent eating disorders and address disordered eating. Created and operated by Family Services of the North Shore, Jessie’s Legacy supports BC youth, families, educators and professionals through online resources, live events, social media, and the Love Our Bodies, Love Ourselves movement.

HeretoHelp at www.heretohelp.bc.ca has a wellness screening self-test (and tests for other areas of mental health, including depression and anxiety), a Wellness Module that explores healthy eating, and many other resources to help you learn about mental health and well-being.

Blue Wave at www.bluewavebc.ca is a youth mental health initiative from the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division. Blue Wave has adapted a resiliency course called Living Life to the Full for youth, which includes a session on building confidence, and you can learn how to find courses in your area.

Mindcheck, for youth and young adults, has a section on body image and eating with a screening questionnaire and self-help resources. You can find Mindcheck at www.mindcheck.ca.

About-Face at www.about-face.org is a US organization that encourages women to look at the way bodies are shown in media. They have resources on body image, self-esteem, media literacy, and more.

This info sheet has adapted some content, with permission, from Body Image and Self-Esteem: A guide for parents and youth by Family Services of the North Shore.

 

 
About the author

cmha bc logo

The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing a mental illness through public education, community-based research, advocacy, and direct services. Visit www.cmha.bc.ca.

 
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