Body image

  • Comparing your body to others and feeling worse about yourself after doing this
  • Checking your body frequently or searching for physical flaws
  • Often saying or thinking “I feel fat/big/unattractive”
  • Experiencing emotions like anxiety, guilt, or loneliness

When a person has negative thoughts and feelings about his or her own body, body dissatisfaction can develop. Body dissatisfaction is an internal process but can be influenced by several external factors. For example, family, friends, acquaintances, teachers and the media can all have an impact on how a person sees and feels about themselves and their appearance. 

One of the most common external contributors to body dissatisfaction is the media. People of all ages are bombarded with images through TV, magazines, internet and advertising. These images often promote unrealistic, unobtainable and highly stylised appearance ideals which have been fabricated by stylists, art teams and digital manipulation and cannot be achieved in real life. Those who feel they don’t measure up in comparison to these images can experience intense body dissatisfaction which is damaging to their psychological and physical wellbeing.

Body dissatisfaction is one of the top ranked issues of concern for young people (Mission Australia, 2011). Body image issues have increased worldwide over the last 30 years and do not only concern young people but affect people of all ages. This pervasive problem is concerning because overvaluing body image in defining ones self-worth is one of the risk factors which makes some people less resilient to eating disorders. People experiencing body dissatisfaction can become fixated on trying to change their body shape, which can lead to unhealthy practices with food and exercise. These practices don’t usually achieve the desired outcome (physically or emotionally) and can result in intense feelings of disappointment, shame and guilt and, ultimately, increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

While some aspects of your appearance can be changed, others, like your height, muscle composition and bone structure are genetically fixed. It is important to understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to weight, shape, size and appearance. Challenging beauty ideals and learning to accept your body shape is a crucial step towards positive body image.

While changing your actual appearance can be counterproductive, improving your body image is a constructive goal. We have the power to change the way we see, feel and think about our bodies. Positive body image occurs when a person is able to accept, appreciate and respect their body.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Focusing on your positive qualities, such as skills and talents can help you accept and appreciate your whole self
  • Focusing on appreciating and respecting what your body can do rather than what it can’t
  • Setting positive, health focused goals rather than weight loss related ones is more beneficial for your overall wellbeing
  • Learn to accept yourself rather than comparing yourself to others. Remember that everyone is unique and differences are what make us special
  • Remember, many media images are unrealistic and represent a minority of the population
  • Identify activities that help you feel good in your body. Things like spending time with friends, playing a musical instrument, engaging in relaxation or yoga, having a bath/shower, walking the dog, watching a comedy
  • Expand your areas of interest. One consequence of being very concerned about weight and appearance is that other interests or hobbies may be neglected. Try to think of some new things to try, or some old interests to return to. Are there skills you’d like to learn? Groups you’d like to join?
  •  Ask for help. If possible, let people know what you’re trying to do. Comments about weight or shape are unlikely to be helpful for you right now. 
  • Separate ‘real’ emotions from ‘feeling fat’. If you often say (or think) “I feel fat”, consider what you mean by this. Remember that “fat” is not an emotion! Often individuals with an eating disorder will say “I feel fat” when they experience emotions like anxiety, guilt, or loneliness. Label feelings using emotion words and shift the focus away from weight.
  • Keep at it. You didn’t develop a negative body image overnight and it won’t disappear overnight either. Try not to give up too soon. 

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

Sometimes negative body image can develop into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance.

For someone with BDD, the thoughts are very distressing, do not go away and have a significant impact on daily life, often affecting work, social life and relationships. The person believes they are ugly or defective and that other people perceive them in this way, despite reassurances from others about their appearance.

A person with BDD may:

  • constantly compare their looks to other people's
  • spend a long time in front of a mirror, but at other times avoid mirrors altogether
  • spend a long time concealing what they believe is a defect
  • become distressed by a particular area of their body (most commonly their face)
  • feel anxious when around other people and avoid social situations
  • be very secretive and reluctant to seek help, because they believe others will see them as vain or self-obsessed
  • seek medical treatment for the perceived defect – for example, they may have cosmetic surgery, which is unlikely to relieve their distress
  • excessively diet and exercise
  • needing to repeatedly perform grooming acts, such as combing their hair, applying make-up, or picking their skin to make it "smooth"

People with BDD are often reluctant to seek help because they feel ashamed or embarrassed. However, if you have BDD, there is nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. It is a long-term health condition, just like many physical conditions, and it's not your fault. 

Seeking help is important because it's unlikely that your symptoms will improve if left untreated, and they may get worse. You should visit your GP if you think you may have BDD.

 Initially, they will probably ask a number of questions about your symptoms and how they affect you, such as:

  • Do you worry a lot about the way you look and wish you could think about it less?
  • What specific concerns do you have about your appearance?
  • On a typical day, how many hours is your appearance on your mind?
  • What effect does it have on your life?
  • Does it make it hard to do your work or be with friends?

If your GP suspects BDD, they can refer you to a mental health specialist for further assessment and any appropriate treatment. With treatment, many people with BDD will experience an improvement in their symptoms. The specific treatments recommended for you will depend on how severely BDD affects your daily life.

There are a number of very good self help resources available. You can find out about ways other people have found to get better, explore some of the reasons why you may be feeling as you do and find practical suggestions of measures you can take in your life to try to recover.

Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)

The Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) is administered by the Australian Mental Health service and provides a number of resources based on current evidence-based practice. 

Overcoming Body Dysmorphia is an information package designed to provide you with some information about body dysmorphic disorder - how it develops, how it is maintained and how to address this problem. It is organised into modules that are designed to be worked through in sequence. Each module contains information, worksheets, and suggested exercises or activities.  

Wellbeing Services Library 

Take a look at the books available in our library. All books in the Wellbeing Library can be borrowed by providing your student details to staff at the reception desk. You are also able to access e-books, information for how to do this is on the library section of our website. 

Reading Well Books on Prescription

Reading Well Books on Prescription is an early intervention service to help people understand and manage their mental health. The agency provides a core book list of accredited titles recommended by healthcare professionals that covers a range of common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, phobias and eating disorders. These can be recommended/referred to by G.P or health care professional.

For lists of books available go to


Videos can provide you with a wealth of information in a short space of time. Below we have a list of short films/clips and videos which give information about eating disorders, personal recovery stories and tips for taking the first steps towards seeking help.

Eating Difficulties Peer Support Group

An Eating Difficulties Peer Support Group run by students at the University of Exeter. For more information click here.

Exeter Depression and Anxiety Service (DAS)

A free, confidential, NHS talking therapy service, offering effective treatments and therapies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which can help you get your life back on track. You may self-refer for a range of difficulties including eating disorders, by completing their online registration form. Click here for the website.

Telephone: 01392 675630


Somerset & Wessex Eating Disorders Association (SWEDA) offers a range of services throughout Somerset and the surrounding area. 

Based at Shepton Mallet in Somerset, in the Southwest of England (UK), they provide support to anyone affected by eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, compulsive eating, binge eating disorder and all related conditions.

Their services include Counselling Services, and a monthly Self-help Support Group.

British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) 

If you would like to find a private counsellor who specialises in eating disorders to help you cope with your difficulty and make positive change, you can find a qualified, experienced therapist in your area by using the Find a Therapist search tool -

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

The BABCP provide details for accredited therapists working within the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy model -

Body Dysmorphia Foundation

BDF is a charity dedicated to the relief of suffering from BDD. 

Mental Health Foundation

The Mental Health Foundation provides up-to-date research and studies to help people understand, protect and sustain their mental health. There are links to articles, blogs and research.

NHS Choices

The NHS Choices website has information about conditions and treatments as well as services and hospitals.

NHS Direct

NHS Direct provide 24-hour medical advice and information. They have comprehensive information and advice on all types of eating disorders, videos of people’s experiences, an eating disorder forum, and other useful links.

Telephone: 111

Student Minds

Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity. Its aim is to empower students with the knowledge, confidence and skills to look after their own mental health and support others.

Love Your Body is an ongoing campaign run by Student Minds aiming to inspire body confidence in everyone. 


Mind are a national charity who offer information on all mental illnesses. They have specific leaflets and information sheets on eating disorders.

Tel: 020 8519 2122

Information Line: 0845 660163

To download an information leaflet for body dysmorphic disorder go to:


Fixers offer online support and have a range of young people’s stories, family’s personal experiences and expert information about eating disorders and body image.


If you have an eating disorder or body image issues, or know someone who does, you may find it useful to contact a support group such as B-eat for information and advice.

Beat provides:

  • a confidential helpline on 0808 801 0677 – they also have a designated youth helpline on 0808 801 0711 (all year round, 4– 10pm)
  • live chat and online support groups, where you can talk to others in a similar situation
  • a national network of volunteer support groups

You can also use the Beat HelpFinder directory to find eating disorder support services in your local area.


Samaritans offer a 24 hour online and telephone support service, when you need emotional support and someone to talk to anytime. You can call their free and confidential helpline 24/7 on 116 123.