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Body Image and Eating Disorders

Body image is the perception a person has about their physical self. This perception is also, and more importantly, linked to the thoughts and feelings the person experiences as a result of that perception. These feelings are not only negative; they can also be positive or a combination of both. How the individual feels is influenced by both environmental and individual factors.

According to the national eating disorders collaboration, there are four aspects to body image

  1.  The way you see yourself (Perceptual)

The way you see your body is not always a correct representation of what you look like. For example, a person may perceive themselves to be fat when in reality, they are underweight. How a person sees themselves is their perceptual body image.

  1.  The way you feel about the way you look (Affective)

There are things a person may like or dislike about the way they look. Your feelings about your body, especially the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction you experience about your appearance, weight, shape, and body parts is your affective body image.

  1.  The thoughts and beliefs you have about your body (Cognitive)

Some people may think that parts of their body are “too big” and wish they were thinner and others believe they will look better if they develop more muscle. You may think your body looks good the way it is and like what it can do, for example, run and dance. The way you think about your body is your cognitive body image.

  1.  The things you do in relation to the way you look (Behavioural)

When a person is dissatisfied with the way they look, they may employ destructive behaviours such as excessive exercising or disordered eating as a means to change the appearance. Some people may isolate themselves because they feel bad about the way they look. Behaviours in which you engage as a result of your body image encompass your behavioural body image.

Environmental influences play a prominent role in how people perceive and feel about their body. Many studies show how the media can negatively affect a person’s body image (Thompson and Small, 2013). When people compare themselves to the pictures they see by the music and movie industries, they are often left thinking that they aren’t beautiful, too fat, not lean/muscular enough, too pale. This dissatisfaction with one’s body image can lead to low self-esteem and even depression (Hausenblas et al., 2013).

The media is not the only influence. A person’s family, friends, acquaintances and teachers all have an impact on how that person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. Body dissatisfaction can affect people of all ages and holds no bias whether you are younger, older, male or female. Suppose a person feels they cannot measure up to what might be perceived as the ‘ideal.’ In that case, feelings of body dissatisfaction can intensify and, in turn, can have a damaging impact on that person’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

A Quote by Cheri K Erdman helps to possibly capture the media impact “Even the models we see in magazines wish they could look like their own images”


Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are incredibly complicated and complex problems and can be made more so because of the secrecy that can often keep them hidden for so long. Eating disorders have become more common in adolescents during the past 20 years. A report on the state of young peoples’ health in the EU stated, ‘The prevalence of anorexia nervosa stands at about 1%, and that of bulimia nervosa at 1.5-2% among adolescents’ (European Commission, 2000). It also adds that about 10 times more females suffer from eating disorders than males. According to the Department of health, up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders. Indeed, every year an estimated 400 new cases emerge.

There is a huge focus in today’s society around the ideal body shape, and that the overvaluation of thinness has increased through the years. While the numbers of articles in women’s magazines on a diet alone have decreased slightly since the 70’s, the numbers of articles on exercise combined with diet have increased. It seems now that thinness is couched in health and is now sought through diet and exercise (Wiseman et al, 1992). Since the 1980’s models photographed in the most popular magazines have become thinner (Sypeck, Gray, and Aherns, 2004).

Restricting food content can be a way of keeping control. However, this is not the same story for everyone. Binge-eating can be a way of relieving anxiety or stress, and overeating can be a way a person comforts themselves. Like a fingerprint, the type of eating issue can be as individual as that person. The person needs to be met and understood inside of their individuality to find ways of working through things with them.

A person with a distorted eating pattern can be predisposed to a number of physical complications, namely, tooth decay, bone density loss, kidney damage, electrolyte imbalance, high or low blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular problems and depression.


Counselling and Eating Disorders

How does it work?

The counsellor you are working with is trained to listen in a non-judgemental, genuine, and accepting way. The key aim is to allow the space and the freedom to express your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that you may feel unable to express to your family, friends, or partner. It can be difficult and sometimes distressing to bring unexpressed emotions out into the open. It is the counsellor’s job to create a space that allows you to feel safe enough to express what you’re feeling and to accept them as part of who you are. Through the exploration of underlying feelings and emotions you can often gain an understanding of your present behaviour and in turn, get to the root of your problems. This process of learning about yourself and accepting the aspects that make you who you are can help provide you with a send of control over your life. This sense of control can also often lead to a feeling of empowerment, especially as you make choices that enhance your life and move forward.

Counselling and psychotherapy can with the psychological causes of food-related issues such as preoccupation with weight, comfort eating, binge eating, negative body image and eating disorders.

Overcoming an eating disorder can require both medical and psychological help as both the psychological and the physical health of the person are intricately linked. The treatment of an eating disorder should not focus solely on eating or weight issues and at the same time should not ignore these aspects. The following are frequently asked questions are taken from BodyWhys (2013) and might help in your understanding of Eating Disorders


Question: What is an Eating disorder?


In a general sense, eating disorders are experienced as disturbances in eating habits and are accompanied by physical and emotional distress. They lead to a deterioration of physical and psychological well-being, and ultimately can cause death. To understand what an eating disorder means for the person experiencing these difficulties, it is more helpful to think of the eating disorder as something that a person has developed in order to feel that they can cope with their lives. However, the more the person relies on the eating disorder to cope, the more they need the eating disorder to cope. Very quickly, they spiral into a situation where they feel they will only be able to cope and live if they hold onto the eating disorder. The person’s sense of who they are comes to depend on them holding onto the eating disorder, and this is why it is so complex and terrifying for a person to think about letting go of the eating disorder. Therefore, while it is clear to everyone else that the person is harming his / herself, the only way the person with the eating disorder feels they can survive is by maintaining the eating disorder.


What Causes an Eating Disorder?


It is impossible to say exactly what causes an eating disorder for any particular person. An eating disorder develops from a combination of factors (biological, socio-cultural, familial, and psychological) that are particular to each person. At some point, controlling food or engaging in disordered eating behaviours (skipping meals, repeated dieting, restricting food intake, vomiting, bingeing, over exercising) gives the person a sense that they can cope with something they have experienced as overwhelming or distressing. Instead of experiencing the feelings and working them out, the person blocks them by controlling their food. However, the sense of security the person gains from the eating disorder is fleeting, and they need to continue to control their food to regain and hold on to this sense of security. This is how the eating disorder develops and establishes itself in a person’s life – they get trapped in a vicious cycle of having to progressively increase their control over their food (and body) to feel like they can cope and survive.


Can you fully recover from an Eating Disorder?


The short answer to this question is YES. People with eating disorders can and do make full recoveries. People sometimes describe recovery as learning to re-connect with oneself, building up a trust in one’s ability to cope without needing to control, not translating life issues into food issues as a way of dealing with them, letting go of the need to control food intake to feel okay. Recovery has a very personal meaning for each person, so it isn’t easy to generalise and scale the recovery process. Factors such as how long the person has had the eating disorder and the quality of support they receive will influence the recovery process’s length of time.


Do Men/Boys get Eating Disorders too?


Yes. Eating disorders are not specific to women and girls. Most literature asserts that one in ten people with an eating disorder is male. However, more recent studies suggest that the figure may be substantially higher. It is often more difficult for men to seek help because eating disorders are still perceived by many to only affect women and girls.


How do I know if my therapy is working?


This is a question that people often ask because therapy is a process, which ebbs and flows, and often change occurs very slowly. This slowness can be experienced as frustrating for the individual because they are making a huge effort and expect to see results. If you are worried that your therapy is not working, then it is really important that you bring this concern to your therapist/counsellor for discussion. If you feel you cannot do this, then that is something to bring back to your therapist. Suppose you have concerns that you are not getting better or unclear how you are progressing. In that case, the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing around this can provide valuable input into your therapy sessions and often free things up and provide a sense of movement again. The essential element in therapy is that you manage to establish a trusting relationship with your therapist to feel safe to be as you are. It can take some time to develop trust in any relationship, so you will need to give the therapeutic relationship some time before making any decisions about whether your therapist is the right person for you.



Ata, R. N., Thompson, J. K., & Small, B. J. (2013). Effects of exposure to thin-ideal media images on body dissatisfaction: Testing the inclusion of a disclaimer versus warning label. Body Image, doi:

Department of Health and Children. (2006) A Vision for Change. Available from

European Commission. (2000). Report on the state of young people’s health in the European Union. Available from

Harley Therapy (n.d)

Hausenblas, H. A., Campbell, A., Menzel, J. E., Doughty, J., Levine, M., & Thompson, J. K. (2013). Media effects of experimental presentation of the ideal physique on eating disorder symptoms: A meta-analysis of laboratory studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(1), 168-181. Retrieved from

National Eating disorders Collaboration (2013). Body Image. Available from

Sypeck, M.F., Gray, J. And Ahrens, A. (2004). No longer just a pretty face: fashion magazines’ depictions of ideal female beauty from 1959-1999.International Journal of Eating Disorders, 36 (3): 342-347

Wiseman, C.V., Gray, J.J., Mosimann, J.E., and Ahrens, A. H. (1992). Cultural expectations of thinness in women: an update. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 11 (1): 85-89