Body image is a key component of a person’s overall sense of self. It’s also complex, and impacted by so many factors. It’s a combination of someone’s “emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body,” explains Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Greenwich, Connecticut.
There are many terms and concepts that get thrown around when discussing body image, and many of these terms are confusing. Some are often misused or misunderstood.
The following alphabetical guide can help you understand the relevant terms commonly used in conversations about body image, giving you more insight into your own body image and how other people feel about their bodies, too.
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anorexia nervosa Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss (or lack of appropriate weight gain in children); difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight; and in many cases, distorted body image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). People with anorexia typically restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some also exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, or binge eat.
Individuals with anorexia tend to have intense fear of gaining weight, as well as a self-image that is unduly influenced by their body shape and weight.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a person needs to reach “a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health” in order to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. However, a serious eating disorder can still be present even when someone isn’t at a very low body weight. “Atypical anorexia includes those individuals who meet the criteria for anorexia but who are not underweight despite significant weight loss,” per NEDA.
body concept Body concept is a term that describes the thoughts and feelings that make up the way you view your body; in other words, the conceptual image you have of your body, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology.
body dysmorphia Body dysmorphia is when you have a very negative view of an aspect of your appearance (not limited to your weight or size) “that is not supported by the objective evidence,” according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. In other words, you may be convinced that your body has a severe flaw or flaws, but in reality, the flaw isn’t there, or is very minor or insignificant.
body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) The difference between body dysmorphia (not a diagnosable disorder) and BDD is the severity, explains Rebecca Boswell, PhD, a supervising psychologist at the Princeton Center for Eating Disorders at Penn Medicine’s Princeton Medical Center in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey. In other words, someone with BDD is excessively preoccupied with a slight or nonexistent physical defect, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology.
People with BDD typically check their “defect” frequently, and their distorted view of their own body has a significant negative impact on their everyday life and functioning, says Dr. Boswell.
body image The picture that you have in your mind of your body as a whole. This includes your body’s physical characteristics (body percept) and your attitudes toward these characteristics (body concept), according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology.
body neutrality “Feeling mostly neutral about one’s body,” says Rachelle Heinemann, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in New York City. “This deemphasizes the importance and relevance of one’s body on self-esteem and value.”
Heinemann and some other body image experts prefer the concept of body neutrality over body positivity. “It promotes the idea that you are so much more than your body,” she says. “The whole point of moving away from pursuing the thin ideal is to expand your world to focus on what is actually important.”
body percept The image you form in your mind of the physical characteristics of your own body, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. For example, you may see yourself as slim or stocky, strong or weak, attractive or unattractive, tall or short. In other words, body percept is how you see your physical body in your mind’s eye.
body positivity “Feeling positive toward one’s body and confident in oneself,” Heinemann says. This includes feeling positively about how your body looks, as well as about what it does for you. Body positivity feels unattainable for many people, so Heinemann recommends body neutrality as an alternate approach.
bulimia nervosa Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binging followed by behaviors such as self-induced vomiting intended to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating, according to NEDA. It’s important to note that self-induced vomiting is not the only compensatory behavior that might indicate bulimia. NEDA also lists misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications; fasting; and excessive exercise as compensatory behaviors.
People who have bulimia typically have a self-image that is unduly influenced by body shape and weight, NEDA says. To be diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, someone must engage in binge-purge behaviors at least once per week for at least three months or more. Binging and purging less frequently than this is still a form of disordered eating and should be taken seriously.
body shaming Body shaming involves humiliating someone by making inappropriate or negative comments about their body size or shape, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). This action or practice can result in severe emotional trauma, especially among young people, adds ANAD.
Body shaming manifests in three main ways, ANAD explains: Criticizing your own appearance, through a judgment or comparison with another person; criticizing another’s appearance in front of them; or, criticizing another’s appearance without their knowledge. All types of body shaming can be “extremely damaging and potentially lead to low self-esteem, anger, self-harm, and even mental health disorders,” per ANAD.
diet culture Christy Harrison, RD, a New York City–based dietitian and the author of Anti-Diet, defines diet culture as a system of beliefs that:
- Worships being thin and equates it to being healthy and virtuous, while propagating an impossibly thin “ideal”
- Promotes weight loss as a way to gain higher status
- Demonizes certain ways of eating while lauding others
- Oppresses those who don’t resemble its purported picture of “health,” which is especially harmful to women, transgender individuals, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, Harrison writes
disordered eating There is no definitive clinical definition for disordered eating. However, this term is often used to describe various abnormal eating behaviors, write the authors of a review published in Clinical Psychology Review. Disordered eating can include eating disorders, but not every instance of disordered eating meets the criteria for an eating disorder. In other words, you can experience disordered eating without having a full-blown eating disorder.
According to NEDA, disordered eating may include:
- Having a rigid food and exercise regime
- Experiencing guilt or shame when unable to maintain a rigid food/exercise regime
- Preoccupation with food, body, and exercise
- Compulsive eating
- Compensating for consuming food with measures such as excessive exercise, food restriction, fasting, purging, and laxative or diuretic use
- Using weight-loss supplements
eating disorder An eating disorder is a disorder that is primarily characterized by a “pathological disturbance of attitudes and behaviors related to food,” according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Other eating disorders include other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED), avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), pica, and rumination disorder, according to NEDA. ARFID, pica, and rumination disorder are not typically associated with body image issues.
fat-shaming Fat-shaming is the act or practice of criticizing or mocking someone perceived as fat or overweight, according to Merriam-Webster.
However, fat-shaming is not limited to intentionally cruel comments or jokes about people who are perceived as fat or overweight. Mary Himmelstein, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, explains that encouraging people to lose weight or assuming that being overweight is a result of poor lifestyle choices are also forms of fat-shaming. “Suggesting that people just need to ‘try harder,’ eat better, or exercise more assumes that people with high weight aren’t trying, are eating poorly, and aren’t exercising,” Dr. Himmelstein says. These assumptions can be extremely demoralizing to people who are overweight. “They send the message that being fat means you are less valuable and there is something wrong with you,” she adds.
orthorexia nervosa Orthorexia is an obsessive concern with eating a healthy or “pure” diet, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. The diet is typically very restrictive and more focused on wellness than weight loss, adds the APA. Individuals who have orthorexia may insist on eating only certain “healthy” foods or avoid certain food groups altogether. This often results in extremely low caloric intake, risk of malnutrition, and in extreme cases, death.
Orthorexia nervosa is not officially recognized as an eating disorder in the DSM-5.
other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) Previously known as “eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS),” “OSFED-EDNOS is a serious, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder,” according to NEDA. It pertains to individuals who don’t meet strict diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa but still have an eating disorder that causes significant distress or impairment.
For example, if someone meets most but not all of the criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, they may be diagnosed with OSFED. As with anorexia and bulimia, many with OSFED show extreme concern with body weight and shape, and frequently check the mirror for perceived flaws in their appearance.
self-confidence Self-confidence can also be described as self-assurance, notes the APA. It involves “trust in one’s abilities, capacities, and judgment.”
“Self-confidence is how confident you are in your own ability or skills and in yourself,” Schiff says. “It’s about appreciating and valuing yourself, and how much you believe in your own abilities,” she adds.
self-esteem Self-esteem is the degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in a person’s self-concept are perceived to be positive, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. “It reflects a person’s physical self-image, view of their accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person,” the APA explains.
“Self-esteem impacts your decision-making process since those with a positive view of themselves are motivated and feel inspired to take on challenges,” Schiff says. “Those with low self-esteem usually feel less sure of their own abilities and competency and may be unmotivated and doubt their ability to reach goals.”
self-image Self-image is “the opinion or idea you have of yourself, especially of your appearance or abilities,” according to Oxford Advanced American Dictionary. Self-image includes body image, but also encompasses your feelings about aspects of yourself beyond your body.
thin ideal “The thin ideal is the concept of the ‘ideal’ slim and skinny body and physique,” Schiff says. “It is so prevalent in society, the media, and social media that it has increased body dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, and eating disorder symptoms.” This ideal is unattainable and unrealistic for the vast majority of people.
weight bias (or weight stigma) Weight bias is “bias against individuals because of their body size,” according to the APA.
This plays out in many ways: discrimination based on body size at work, at the doctor’s office, online, and in relationships, and bullying of kids at school, per the APA.
Weight bias can lead to suffering and psychological distress, including increasing a person’s risk of mental health problems such as substance use and suicide risk, notes the APA. It can also cause disordered eating, decreased physical activity, healthcare avoidance, and weight gain, and increase a person’s risk of mortality over the long term.