Health Q&A

Body Positivity: The Link Between Self-Esteem & Mental Health

May 2, 2018

The Link between body image, self-esteem and mental health 

We are constantly inundated with messages about how we should look or to what beauty ideal we should aspire. Often, these are unrealistic and can result in a negative body image. Body image relates to your perceptions regarding your physical attributes like your weight, height, skin tone, hair type or eye colour – amongst other things.

Too often we are dissatisfied with what nature and genetics have provided and fixate on perceived inadequacies.

How does self-esteem affect your mental health?

A positive body image will reflect not only in your ability to like and accept your appearance but also in your ability to recognise and celebrate your unique qualities, understand that you exist beyond a physical appearance and resist the urge to conform to the pressure of unattainable beauty standards.

Self-esteem relates to the overall subjective perception of your own sense of self-worth. In other words: how you value and respect yourself (and how you permit others to treat you). This impacts you emotionally, physically and spiritually. Those with high self-esteem value and respect themselves, appreciate their abilities and practise healthy self-care activities.

Low self-esteem on the other hand can contribute to the development of serious mental health issues such as eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia or to poor decision-making behaviour like substance abuse.

There is a cyclical link between body image, self-esteem and mental health.

Negative internal dialogue may sound something like this:

Body image: I wish I looked more like….
Self-image: there’s something wrong with me / I’m not good enough
Mental health: I shouldn’t even bother trying to take care of myself

In contrast, positive internal dialogue should sound something like this:

Body image: My looks have nothing to do with my abilities
Self-image: I feel capable of dealing with challenges and issues
Mental health: I’m going to make time to take care of myself

Poor self-esteem doesn’t happen overnight. It develops over time through negative reinforcement and it certainly doesn’t help that, in today’s high-tech digital environment, we are exposed to a stream of images and information from various media outlets that present the impressionable individual with an idealised version of beauty, unrealistic standards or role models.

Do you have poor self-esteem?

The following traits are often exhibited by those vulnerable to developing poor self-esteem and subsequently a negative body image:

  • Self-critical – They are their own worst critic, which is often exhibited through self-loathing or frustration at their perceived imperfections regardless of the situation or circumstances.
  • Perfectionism – While this is often admired as a virtue, the downside to perfectionism is the constant fear of failure no matter what impressive goals they may have achieved.
  • Hypersensitivity – Those with low self-esteem can react badly to any form of criticism even if it’s constructive in nature.
  • Hostility & anger – This is more often than not misdirected or misguided, so the local bully who makes your life miserable could actually be projecting their own self esteem issues through anger.
  • People pleaser – They suffer from an excessive need for positive reinforcement so are willing to try make everyone happy, which often leaves them feeling used and abused.
  • Chronic indecision – This can also manifest as a sense of weakness where they create a victim mentality leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
  • Pessimism – They will often believe or convince themselves that they are unworthy or offer no value.
  • Neurotic guilt – This is characterised by an obsession with past mistakes, whether real or imaginary, that they have no control over and yet cannot seem to process, learn from and move on.
Body positivity – a journey of self-love that takes time and practise

Variety is the spice of life so don’t fuel those insecurities. Focus on developing your confidence and acceptance of your body.

  • Watch what you say about yourself. Notice when you judge yourself unfairly and learn to reframe or adjust your own internal dialogue so that you reinforce positive messages about yourself.
  • Be mindful of how beauty is portrayed in the media so that you are able to develop a critical, discriminating eye and are able to challenge unrealistic representations or belief systems.
  • Accept and be proud of your own unique qualities and features. Diversity is what makes us beautiful so try not to constantly compare yourself to others. While it’s healthy to admire traits in others, it’s unhealthy to doubt your own self-worth in the process.
  • Invest in yourself. You are worthy of self-care and devotion. Not only should you be leading a balanced lifestyle with regular exercise, a healthy diet and social activities but you should also reward yourself on occasion. Buy that dress you love now – don’t wait until you lose weight to feel fabulous.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. Understand the merits of failure. These are valuable learning experiences that equip us to make better decisions in the future.
  • Be assertive. Stand up for yourself rather than being timid or aggressive. Anger is a normal emotion, but it should be channelled constructively.
  • Surround yourself with positivity. Be selective with what you expose yourself to or whose advice you take. Not everyone has your best interests in mind. Do a bit of research and identify some positive role models whom you admire and who have nothing to do with physical appearances or beauty standards.
  • Set boundaries. Learn to say ‘no’ because your self-worth is not dependent on other people’s approval.
  • Promote your own talents. There is no better self-esteem boost than to show-off your own capabilities. So whether you write poetry or can cook up a storm, try to focus on your abilities that others will find impressive.
  • Try not to take everything too personally. Listen to what is being said, in context, rather than jumping to negative conclusions. And don’t sweat the small stuff – rather look at the bigger picture.

At Topmed we promote good mental health, so if you or a loved one are suffering from body positivity issues, we suggest that you follow our simple self-esteem tips or seek professional help. Get in touch today for any medical information you need and sign up for cover for you and your family.

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