The body image in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience is defined as the ‘conscious awareness of our body’, which has many facets from how our body looks and feels to us right now, to how we think about it rationally and emotionally in the longer term. This is complemented by the body schema, a largely unconscious representation of body coordinates in space that helps us interact with the environment. I am interested in how these mental representations of our body determine our sense of self - how we feel and think about ourselves as persons with inherent worth and the capacity to shape the world around us. As we touch upon in the Louder Than Words Podcast, there is a long history of how humans have used their bodies as means to control their self-image and their environment; some behaviours like extreme fasting may at once be revered and a symptom of psychopathology.

My own and others’ research suggests that there is a strong reciprocal relationship between body image and both physical and mental health. In other words, a negative body image is associated with low self-esteem and low mental health, especially for those who have internalised certain body ideals that are prevalent in our current society. Body image also drives people to make behavioural choices that impact their physical health (dieting, exercising), which can be good for us but can also lead to physical ill health and psychopathologies. Indeed, low self-image, negative emotionality and a history of excessive dieting and other health-related behaviours can predict who at risk (through genetic propensity or life events) will go on to develop eating or body dysmorphic disorders. These are mental health conditions with childhood origins that are marked by judging yourself largely, or even exclusively, in terms of your eating, your physical appearance and your ability to control them. As a result, people become intensely distressed by perceived fatness, ugliness and flaws in their appearance as well as by transgressions of their eating habits. More broadly, focus on weight and appearance and the stigmatisation of obesity are also known to have unintended negative consequences on physical and mental health, both directly and indirectly by reducing patient engagement with healthcare services.

My research field also offers a silver lining. While the body is foundational for our sense of self, its mental representations are continually re-established through everyday sensory-motor experience. This lifelong malleability makes the body image both vulnerable and immensely powerful at the same time. It is both what underlies the body image distortions that we see in psychopathologies and something that can be recalibrated and healed. I feel that as a society we should strive to promote other sources that make people feel worthwhile and in control of their environment: family, community engagement, the nurturing of physical and mental fitness as better indicators of health and wellbeing, and the celebration of our physical, mental and interpersonal skills to protect and promote a balanced self-image in everyone.

In the podcast I mention a wonderful article by Keel & Klump (2003) that describes historical and cross-cultural accounts of the symptoms we now ascribe to eating disorders. Do get in touch with me if you would like any further information or links to other research papers.

Keel, P. K., & Klump, K. L. (2003). Are eating disorders culture-bound syndromes? Implications for conceptualizing their etiology. Psychological bulletin, 129(5), 747.