Physical Appearance And Self-Esteem: The Power Of Positive Self-Perception

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated February 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition that causes a person to be highly preoccupied with perceived flaws or defects in their physical appearance, which can lead to distress, anxiety, and depression. While individuals with BDD may find it challenging to love their physical appearance, symptoms can be managed, and self-esteem can often be boosted with support and positive coping mechanisms.

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Learn to love your physical appearance

What is body dysmorphic disorder?

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition characterized by an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in one's physical appearance. These flaws are often imagined or exaggerated and can cause significant distress and impairment in daily life. Individuals with BDD may spend hours daily obsessing over their appearance and engaging in repetitive and compulsive behaviors, such as checking their appearance in mirrors, seeking reassurance from others, or avoiding social situations. 

Symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder

The symptoms of BDD can vary widely from person to person, but common symptoms include the following:

  • Obsessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in one's appearance
  • Repetitive and compulsive behaviors related to appearance, such as checking mirrors, grooming, or seeking reassurance from others
  • Avoidance of social situations or other activities due to concerns about appearance
  • Anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions and symptoms 
  • Distress and impairment in daily functioning

Causes of body dysmorphic disorder

The exact causes of BDD are not fully understood, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Some possible causes of BDD include:

  • Genetic predisposition to an anxiety or obsessive-compulsive-related disorder
  • Traumatic or negative experiences related to appearance (bullying, teasing, criticism)
  • Cultural or societal pressures to conform to specific beauty standards
  • Perfectionism or high standards for oneself
  • An eating disorder 

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The connection between physical appearance and mental health

Physical appearance and mental health are often closely interconnected. An individual's perception of their body can impact their mental health and well-being. For example, negative body image and dissatisfaction with one's appearance can lead to BDD, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

On the other hand, positive body image and acceptance of one's appearance can lead to improved mental health and well-being. A positive body image can boost self-compassion, promote healthy behaviors, and reduce the risk of developing mental health conditions.

The impact of society on physical appearance

Society's beauty standards and media portrayals of idealized bodies can significantly impact one's perception of one's body. The constant pressure to meet social standards can lead to negative self-image and self-esteem and contribute to developing mental health conditions such as BDD and eating disorders.

Note that these beauty standards are often unrealistic and unattainable, leading to a culture of comparison and dissatisfaction. Recognizing and challenging these unrealistic standards may promote a more positive body image and improve mental health.

Physical appearance can significantly impact our self-esteem, which is one's overall sense of self-worth and confidence. Society often places a significant emphasis on external appearance, leading some individuals to experience pressure to meet specific beauty standards. 

How to focus on loving your body 

Some people believe loving your body means loving every single part of it. However, it can be normal to have areas of your body that you are sometimes less confident about. Despite this concern, these areas do not define you. By shifting your focus toward the parts of your body that you love, you may appreciate your body more for how it looks. 

One way to focus on the parts of your body that you love is to practice gratitude. Take time each day to consider what you're grateful for, including your body. Maybe you love your strong arms that allow you to carry heavy loads or your curvy hips that give you an hourglass figure. Whatever it is, mentally note and express gratitude for that part of your body.

Another way to focus on the parts of your body you love is to dress in a way that accentuates those areas. If you love your legs, wear shorts or skirts that show them off. If you love your shoulders, opt for off-the-shoulder tops. You may become more confident and empowered by highlighting the parts of your body you love.

Finally, try to surround yourself with positive influences. Unfollow social media accounts that make you compare your body to others. Instead, try to follow accounts that promote body positivity and self-love. Surround yourself with friends and family who uplift and support you, and steer clear of those who make negative comments about your appearance.

A note on eating disorders and self-love

It can be essential to love your body as it is. However, in some cases, individuals may experience bodily changes due to an eating disorder, such as extreme weight loss. Although it can still be vital to love yourself in these circumstances, knowing the differences between self-love and enabling an illness can also be essential. 

If you are living with an eating disorder and have lost significant weight, consider reaching out to your doctor or therapist for support. You can also call the ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767 from Monday through Friday, 9 am to 9 pm CT. 

Tips for learning to love your physical appearance

Learning to love your physical appearance can be challenging, but it may be possible with support. Below are a few steps to consider. 

Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs

Negative thoughts and beliefs about one's appearance are common symptoms of BDD. To challenge these thoughts, try to ask yourself:

  • "Is this thought based on facts or feelings?"
  • "What evidence do I have to support this thought?"
  • "What would I say to a friend with the same thought?"

You can begin to see yourself in a more positive light by challenging counterproductive thoughts and beliefs.

Focus on your strengths

Instead of focusing on your perceived flaws, focus on your strengths and positive qualities. Make a list of your strengths and accomplishments, and read it daily to remind yourself of your worth and value.

Practice self-care

Taking care of yourself may improve your self-esteem and overall well-being. Practice self-care by:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Practicing relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation

Surround yourself with positive influences

Surrounding yourself with positive and supportive people may help you improve your self-esteem and confidence. Seek friends and family who make you feel happy about yourself, and avoid those who are critical or judgmental. In addition, block people on social media who are unkind to you about your body, weight, or personality. 

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Learn to love your physical appearance

Seek professional support

BDD can be challenging to manage independently. If you're experiencing a mental illness, it can be essential to reach out for support. A mental health professional can help you develop coping strategies and guide you toward self-compassion. In addition, they can provide you with a place to process and explore your feelings. BDD can be isolating, as those with the condition often feel like they are the only ones experiencing their symptoms. Working with a therapist can validate and support individuals with BDD. 

Treatment for BDD often involves a combination of therapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the first-line treatments for BDD. This modality helps individuals challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about their appearance and learn coping strategies to manage anxiety and compulsive behaviors. Medication may sometimes be prescribed. However, consult your doctor before starting, changing, or stopping any medication.

Support through online therapy

Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of therapy for those living with body dysmorphia, providing hope for individuals struggling with this condition. One study found that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively reduced BDD symptoms, with clients reporting significant improvements in their body image and overall well-being. Another study found that exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing individuals to the feared aspects of their appearance, was also effective in reducing BDD symptoms.

For those who have a busy schedule or can't find proper support in their area due to distance barriers, receiving support for BDD online may also be possible. Research has discovered that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can effectively reduce BDD symptoms, with clients reporting significant improvements in their body image, anxiety, and depression. In addition, people who use online platforms may encounter other benefits, such as reduced cost, improved reachability, and more options for a therapist. 

Takeaway

Loving one's body can be challenging for someone with body dysmorphic disorder, but it is possible. Manage the symptoms of BDD and boost your self-esteem and confidence by challenging negative thoughts and beliefs, focusing on your strengths, engaging in self-care, surrounding yourself with positive influences, and receiving professional support. You can contact a therapist online or in your area to get started.
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