The Media And Body Image: How To Safeguard Your Self-Esteem

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

The media may play a significant role in our body image and how we feel about ourselves. We can consciously and unconsciously compare ourselves to the "perfect" images of people we see in magazines, commercials, films, and social media. If you struggle with your body image, you aren't alone – self-conscious feelings toward our bodies are pervasive in society.

You can learn to improve your self-esteem and body image and start feeling good about who you are, the way you are. This article explores the connection between body image and the media and provides tools to promote a healthy, positive body image.

Self-love can feel wonderful

Body image and the media are closely related

Our attention is often focused on the connection between the media and body image for women, but the relationship exists for people of all genders and identities. 

Women in the media typically look polished and together. They may have perfect hair and makeup, stunning complexions, thin waistlines, and curves "in all the right places." Likewise, men in the media are generally tall, muscular, and masculine with toned physiques. 

How people look in the media creates an unrealistic image of what many people think they should look like. Only 5% of society resembles the images portrayed in the media. And 59% of people find beauty filters used in social media troubling.

Many studies have shown that the more time we spend viewing media, the higher the chance we'll experience low self-esteem. One study found that boys who felt pressure about their weight were more likely to have depression and engage in drug use or binge drinking.

Society’s portrayal of the “ideal” body is continually shifting. For example, in Ancient Greece, the “ideal” body type for women was “full-bodied;” during the Italian Renaissance, the “ideal” woman had a rounded stomach and plenty of curves; and the American 1990s often featured women who were thin with more androgynous features. 

The lie that the media tells

The media often shows us images that may be difficult to live up to. Models, actors, and actresses tend to have professional makeup artists, hair stylists, fashion designers, and personal trainers. And their appearances are often altered with filters, body editing programs, Photoshop, and other digital manipulation tools. Common changes include: 

  • Airbrushing skin to appear smoother 
  • Thinning bodies and removing visible fat 
  • Enlarging “desirable” features (e.g., muscles, breasts, buttocks, etc.)
  • Minimizing “undesirable” features 
  • Brightening and enlarging eyes 
  • Whitening teeth 
  • Removing stretch marks and cellulite

There is often a significant difference between images before and after photo retouching. Face filters can produce similarly dramatic changes

Many people may not realize they're trying to look like an ideal that might not even exist. This may cause individuals to believe they look below average because they compare their real-life appearance to digitally altered photos. 

The impact of social media

Research indicates that over 92% of internet users are on social media, which often portrays a highlight reel of an individual's life. 

For example, people rarely post pictures of themselves right after waking up (although they may claim to), in unflattering positions, or showing what their body looks like after having children. But, many people don't perceive the posts as selective edits. Instead, when we see pictures of people at their best on social media, we may mistake this for their everyday lives. And we may not know if they’re using filters, body apps, angles, lighting, and other methods of altering the images we see. 

Then, we might compare our everyday life to their highlight reel. This could lower our self-esteem. Research shows a correlation between higher social media usage and lower self-esteem.


How to avoid low self-esteem and body image from social media

How bodies and people are portrayed in the media is a large-scale societal topic that may be difficult to change as an individual. But there are changes we can make in our personal lives to improve our body image and self-esteem. We’ll explore some of these below.

Limit exposure to the media

Research shows a link between body image and the media, and it may negatively impact your self-esteem. Therefore, you may want to limit your exposure. 

Consider taking breaks from social media. Give yourself time away so you aren't constantly exposed to content that might impact your body image. If you have to, you can uninstall social media apps for a while so that it’s not as easy to check them. You can install apps that set limits on your phone for your chosen social media apps. These often automatically close the social media app after 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or whatever time limit you choose.

Try to stop comparing yourself to others

Comparing yourself to others may lead to disappointment because your self-esteem can become dependent on the lives of others rather than yourself. It could be time to work towards stopping this habit so you can improve your self-esteem. 

Many people in the media have been touched up, so you may want to avoid comparing yourself to something that isn't real. Social media tends to be full of people's best images, often their happiest ones. It can be hard to find unaltered and unfiltered photos and even more challenging to be able to identify them. 


Research shows that physical activity and exercise benefit your mental and physical health. When you exercise, endorphins are released in your brain, making you feel happier and potentially improving your self-esteem.

As you exercise, you might also improve your cardiovascular health, increase your overall energy level, build muscle tone, and increase your strength. These things may help you feel better without comparing yourself to others.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Self-love can feel wonderful

Let it go and forgive

Sometimes, media and body image can hurt our self-esteem because someone in our past made a negative comment about our looks. Despite the old "sticks and stones" rhyme, words can hurt. But they don't have to hurt forever. 

A mental health professional can help you begin to forgive, let it go, and move past the hurt. This might help you learn how to accept and love yourself.

Take self-esteem challenges seriously

Negative body image and low self-esteem may lead to other mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. The matter should not be taken lightly. 

Some groups are acting to try to change the way the media unrealistically portrays people, and more people are embracing their natural selves and posting this on social media. If you're struggling with low self-esteem and body challenges, consider reaching out for support. 

Get help from a professional

If you feel you have detrimental self-esteem and body image challenges, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Mental health professionals can help you pinpoint any underlying struggles, identify the impact the media may be having on your body image, and help you in your recovery. 

Sometimes, self-esteem and body image struggles can become so severe that you may not even want to leave the house. This might make attending in-person therapy sessions challenging. If you struggle with getting to therapy appointments, online therapy can help. With internet-based counseling, you can get professional mental health services anywhere you have an internet connection. Plus, it’s more convenient than traditional therapy since appointments are available day and night. 

Online therapy has been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy. Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and many others has been proven particularly effective. Over 300 studies have found that ICBT is more effective in the long term than in-person therapy, with more clients continuing to experience notable symptom reduction and mental health improvement even three months post-treatment.

Read below for some reviews of our counselors from people experiencing struggles with body image and self-esteem:

Counselor reviews

"This past year was one of the hardest times of my life and Douglas has been a major part of helping me recover and grow from those difficulties. He has helped me improve my self-image, guide me through issues dealing with work, increase my self-confidence, learn to trust myself more, stand up for myself, and so many other things."

"Shawna is an insightful and caring counselor, an attentive listener with a focus on practical strategies and techniques. In just a few sessions I feel confident I have the toolkit to manage stress and the negative thoughts that took up so much of my day before. Wish I'd done this sooner!"


It can be fantastic when you learn to accept yourself exactly as you are. You're a person of great worth and value. Don't let a poor body image hold you back. Qualified therapists like those from BetterHelp are waiting to help you discover the self-love and fulfilling relationships you deserve—take the first step.
You are deserving of positive self-esteem
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started