Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Friends and family's opinions help form women's self-image

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) How does the modern woman assess her body image? Apparently, it’s not just by looking in the mirror. Women of all ages base body image largely on how important their social group and family perceive them.

A study surveyed 801 women of all ages to discover why they arrive at their own body image. The study's conclusion states that ultimately a person is responsible for developing their own positive body image, but factors out of a woman’s control also strongly affect how she feels about herself.

Women most likely to have a positive self-image are those who appreciate their body and know how to best maximize the functions of their body. These women are more likely to take better care of themselves through exercise and rely on intuitive eating, which waits for hunger signals before you eat.

dailyRx Insight: Women should focus on the inside of their bodies and maximize their healthy functions through healthy eating and exercise.

Tracy Tylka, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University and senior author of the study, divided the women surveyed into three groups: emerging adults age 18-25, young adults age 26 to 39, and middle age adults age 40 to 65. The survey asked women five different questions: how the women perceive social support from a variety of different relationships, whether they believed their bodies were accepted by people in their aforementioned social groups as well as by others in society and the media, whether they focus more on their body's functions and less on their appearance,  whether they engaged in intuitive eating, and finally how they felt about their own bodies.

Women in all age groups who focused on the health of their bodies generally were intuitive eaters. Women who perceive that they have strong social support also tend  to believe that others accept their bodies. This strong social support or the perception of social support empowers them to be less concerned about their physical appearance and more concerned about how their bodies function. This healthy outlook encourages appreciation of their own bodies and a healthful approach to eating.

Some differences came forth in the study regarding body mass index (BMI). Heavy women can have a good body image if they perceive that important others are not trying to change their body shape or weight and instead accept them as they are. The same applies to women who have a low BMI. If the slender women perceive that their social group doesn’t accept their appearance, they might have a poor body image. An easy to understand clinical implication involves educating partners, family, friends and the media on the importance of accepting others' bodies. 

Women of child-bearing years, age 25-39 seem to have a greater appreciation of their body functions, probably because they are capable of getting pregnant and it is so exciting to see what their bodies can do. Women in the older age group have less of an appreciation of their body functions, probably because they are past their child-bearing years.

It is estimated that 10 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, with millions more having significant stress or anxiety over weight related issues. Eating disorders cover a range of illnesses, from anorexia nervosa (a person being dangerously underweight and still believing they're overweight), bulimia nervosa (a normal weight person who tries to control binge eating by purging food after they've eaten it) and binge-eating disorder (eating large amounts of food due to stress or anxiety) among others. People with these disorders are unable to change their behavior despite suffering the negative health consequences that result from being dangerously underweight, morbidly obese, or purging behaviors. Patients are overwhelmingly women, but men make up about 10% of patients as well. Treatment for all eating disorders involves psychotherapy and learning healthy behaviors, and in the case of bulimia and binge eating disorder, anti-depressant medications (Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, Paxil, Celexa) have been shown to help as well.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 29, 2011
Last Updated:
March 31, 2011