The subjective mirror: What is body image?
Body image is a complex construct that basically consists of three dimensions: perceptual , cognitive-affective and behavioral . A basic definition of body image could equate it to the mental image or internal photograph of our own body, both of its general appearance and of each of its parts, that people have in our minds. However, this simile includes only the first of the dimensions of the construct listed a moment ago: that is, the perceptual. Body image is much more than the mental photograph that we harbor in our consciousness: Also the thoughts and emotions that this image arouses in us, and which are often difficult to dissociate from it, are part of the body image. The behaviors derived from these cognitions and affects make up the last component. All these cognitive-behavioral phenomena in relation to consciousness and the experience of one’s own body can be, globally speaking, positive or negative for the person; They will rarely be truly neutral, especially in a culture like ours, which places supreme importance on the image and the body. Body perception can lead to feelings of anxiety, pride, sadness, satisfaction, etc., and the cognitive-affective fact can lead to adaptive or maladaptive behaviors, beneficial or harmful for the individual. In this sense, for some authors, body image is the way one perceives, imagines, feels and acts with respect to their own body. In other words, we could say that it is the relationship that a person has with his body.
In neurological terms, body image can be defined as the representation of the different parts of the body that are housed in the somatosensory and motor areas of our cerebral cortex.The representation of each of the body parts in the cortex is not proportional to the size of the body segment in question, but there are important variations depending, for example, on sensitivity. The area of the somatosensory cortex dedicated to the lips or the clitoris, for example, is much larger than the area dedicated to the back. Also the degree of development or the functionality of a certain part of the body in a certain person can condition variations, such as the muscles of the lower extremities in soccer players or the fingers of the hands in professional pianists.
Body image is not something static, stable, much less inherent to the person. Current psychological studies estimate that body image begins to form at an early age , and does so in different ways depending on gender, ethnicity, sexuality and the degree of (dis) ability, among other variables. Towards the age of two years, most boys and girls are capable of recognizing their own image in a mirror, with which it can be considered that there is already, by then, a first approximation to their own body image. However, body image includes the mental representation of specific parts of the body whose visualization does not necessarily require a reflective surface, such as the distal parts of the extremities or the abdomen. Body image is a fluid and dynamic construct that is modified throughout the evolutionary development of people, mainly during childhood, adolescence and early youth , coinciding with: a) The time of greatest objective changes in somatic parameters (growth, puberty, etc.), which favors greater cognitive attention in the body, and b) The psycho-evolutionary stages of basic formation of the self and personality, moments in which the effects of external influences are maximum (sad examples of this being the devastating consequences that oppressive discourses of aesthetic violence have on pre-adolescent and adolescent girls in terms of the development of eating disorders, for example).
However, a person’s body image can vary throughout their life, either spontaneously in response to evolutionary cognitive-affective changes or in response to more or less specific external interventions. Examples of external interventions potentially modifying body image can be the non-formal interventions of the mass media that promote body-shaming [self -shaming ], in their collusion with the aesthetic order dictated by the large lobbies of the body control industry (diet, exercise, fashion, beauty remedies, etc.). So can, however, preventive and psychotherapeutic interventions designed to improve body image and build healthier relationships with one’s own body. Psychology has demonstrated the efficacy of certain cognitive-behavioral interventions for the positive modification of body image, which has also been maintained in the long term. In addition, but, the body image not only changes throughout life, but it usually undergoes variations within short time scales, sometimes even in an ultra-daily way (several times in the same day). It is common for people to report feeling thinner or lighter after a few hours of fasting, such as in the morning when they get up; on the contrary, the fact of eating more than usual, of not exercising if one is used to it, or the comparison with social models (real or presented and purified by the media, according to Latour’s concepts of translation and purification  ) has shown a modifying power of body image in the short term.
The importance of the concept of body image lies in its great relevance in self-esteem and in the genesis of problems, very disabling and generating great suffering, of the relationship with the body and with food. This does not only include eating disorders, such as nervous anorexia or bulimia, or other nosological entities such as body dysmorphic disorder, but a much broader and more prevalent range of psychological problems that cause great discomfort in the population and that have in common feelings of dislike towards one’s own body and alterations in the emotional relationship with food and with one’s own body.
In this sense, the behavioral component is highly relevant because it constitutes the visible part of the body image, and also because these behaviors are the ones that often maintain body (in) satisfaction. This is what in psychology is called the theory of self-fulfilling prophecy. We will understand it right away with an example. If a person thinks that his body is horrible and therefore avoids social situations in which someone can notice him, he will significantly restrict the number of potential occasions in which he could enter into contact with other people who express an alternative judgment about his body , and therefore the probabilities of confrontation of their initial hypothesis will decrease. Let us take the case of a girl with a complex because her body has a normal population size and morphology (say, at the 60th percentile of the normality curve ), and not exceptionally small, as some fashions dictate. For this reason, she usually dresses in the least conspicuous way possible (even when she likes colors a lot) so that her body goes unnoticed, she almost always rejects invitations to go out – much more if they come from the sex that attracts her – because when she is In the company of other people, he feels that his body is being observed and judged negatively, and he avoids any sexual contact at all costs. Let’s see what consequences these behaviors can have. By not wearing the colorful dresses that you would like, you are restricting the ability of others to point out that they fit you., and continues to think – by default – that they feel bad. By not hanging out with friends, you can reinforce your cognitive interpretation that you are rejected and lonely because of your looks, when in fact you haven’t even given other people a chance to meet you. By rejecting sexual contact, you reinforce negative conceptions about your body, such as that it is not sexually attractive , that it is not suitable for sexual pleasure or that it cannot be a source of pleasure for another person. Thus, access to the full sexual potential of his body, which is probably among the most important bodily functions for the development of the self , is restricted and his own right to pleasure is censored. The paradox is that, In their own eyes and in society, this person will be confirming some of the stereotypes that weigh on women who are not thin : that they are bitter, that they do not have good aesthetic taste for clothes and accessories, that they do not have good or many friends. , that they are not sexually attractive and that they often do not find a partner. The ideological system is its guardian.
The importance of body image in global self-assessment is called body image investment ; In studies carried out with a healthy population, it has been found that between a quarter and a third of personal self-esteem corresponds to body image . Regarding eating disorders and dysmorphic disorder, it was considered for a long time that the perceptual distortion that exists in these patients (that is, the inability to perceive the dimensions of the body correctly, usually overestimating its real measurements) it was the main component and therefore should be the cornerstone of psychotherapy. It is now known that body dissatisfaction is a much more important variable, and preventive or therapeutic interventions that are based on the modification of the body image and its affective component (dissatisfaction) have been shown to be effective in solving these problems, both through classical approaches and some innovative ones in the form of technology, intervention ecological or dramaturgy.
These findings have supported the need to also consider situations not strictly defined in psychopathology manuals, but causing great discomfort and very prevalent in the population, as psychological problems that can be addressed psychologically and socially. It is what is known under the umbrella term of problems related to weight and diet , or problems related to body image. This way of proceeding is in line with those of us who think that dimensional systems, based on normality spectra and their extremes, are more useful than categorical systems, based on definitions of rigid pathological categories based on the enumeration of criteria, to study normality and psychological and biomedical pathology. Problems related to body image, in a broad sense, are also tributary of prevention, since they can constitute a gateway to disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or dysmorphic disorder.
Many people think that it is possible or even easy to modify body weight or shape through dietary, sports, aesthetic interventions, etc. Such is the power of advertising and the mass media, that these beliefs are maintained despite direct, daily and tangible experience, within the reach of practically any citizen – whether in their own flesh or that of an acquaintance or friend – who evidence that in the vast majority of cases diets, exercise plans, creams, etc. Well they do not work, well they do not have a lasting effect, or they can sometimes even be harmful in the long term.Metabolic studies, however, have shown that approximately eighty percent of the factors that control weight (as well as height or other anthropometric parameters) are genetic, with which the real possibilities of printing large changes on the body are slim. It’s no surprise that this is the case, as weight maintenance relies on highly sophisticated metabolic pathways that have evolved to ensure weight homeostasis under changing environmental conditions, especially starvation or adverse conditions.
The objective difficulties in modifying the body, which are often tried to be ignored while the potentials of diets, gyms, liposuctions and creams are exaggerated, constitute a key piece in the corporate fabric of the beauty and fashion business. The engine of a business that sometimes seems perpetual is based on creating a perennial dissatisfaction, so that endless frustration maintains the behavior of seeking and consuming solutions that manage to make up the supposed defects of the body. In line with this, body image enhancement interventions that rely on modifying the body have not shown any efficacy in controlled studies. In contrast, interventions aimed at modifying the psychological components of body image (perceptual, cognitive-emotional, and behavioral) are, to date, the only ones that have shown promising and lasting results. Changing the body image, therefore, does not imply changing the body, but normalizing and sanitizing the relationship with it, which constitutes a source of empowerment on a socio-political level.