One of the earliest mentions of any type of theory about self-image came from renowned psychologist Morris Rosenberg. His 1965 book Society and the Adolescent Self-Image was one of the first in-depth explorations of the concept, and it also provided one of the most-cited psychology scales ever: the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The book itself has been cited in peer-reviewed publications over 35,000 times (as of December 2nd, 2018).
Since then, interest has remained steady in “self” constructs, but most of the attention has been aimed at self-image’s cousins: self-esteem, self-concept, self-worth, self-efficacy, self-confidence, etc. As such, there isn’t really one unifying theory of self-image.
However, we do know that self-image is based on our perceptions of reality, that it is built over a lifetime and continues to change as we do, and that it’s something we have some influence over.
The Elements and Dimensions of Self-Image
Although there is no widely agreed-upon framework for the aspects of self-image, there are some proposed types and dimensions. These come from Suzaan Oltmann, an independent distributor at one of South Africa’s FET Colleges.
The three elements of a person’s self-image are:
- The way a person perceives or thinks of him/herself.
- The way a person interprets others’ perceptions (or what he thinks others think) of him/herself.
- The way a person would like to be (his ideal self).
The six dimensions of a person’s self-image are:
- Physical dimension: how a person evaluates his or her appearance
- Psychological dimension: how a person evaluates his or her personality
- Intellectual dimension: how a person evaluates his or her intelligence
- Skills dimension: how a person evaluates his or her social and technical skills
- Moral dimension: how a person evaluates his or her values and principles
- Sexual dimension: how a person feels he or she fits into society’s masculine/feminine norms (Oltmann, 2014)
These elements and dimensions offer a framework through which to view self-image, but remember that this is not a known and widely accepted framework; rather, it is one possible way of thinking about self-image.
10 Examples of Positive and Negative Self-Image
It’s pretty easy to distinguish between positive and negative self-image.
A positive self-image is having a good view of you; for example:
- Seeing yourself as an attractive and desirable person.
- Having an image of yourself as a smart and intelligent person.
- Seeing a happy, healthy person when you look in the mirror.
- Believing that you are at least somewhat close to your ideal version of yourself.
- Thinking that others perceive you as all of the above as well as yourself.
On the other hand, negative self-image is the flipside of the above; it looks like:
- Seeing yourself as unattractive and undesirable.
- Having an image of yourself as a stupid or unintelligent person.
- Seeing an unhappy, unhealthy person when you look in the mirror.
- Believing that you are nowhere near your ideal version of yourself.
- Thinking that others perceive you as all of the above as well as yourself.
The Importance of a Positive Self-Image
Distorted Self-Image and Self-Image Disorder
Having a distorted self-image means that you have a view of yourself that is not based in reality. We all have slight variations and detachments from reality—maybe we think we’re a bit thinner or heavier than we really are, for example—but when your self-image is greatly detached from reality, it can cause serious emotional and psychological problems.
In fact, there is a disorder that centers on this distortion; it’s called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Here’s a description of BDD from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
“BDD is a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.”
We all have things we don’t love about ourselves or things we wish we could change, and we might even occasionally exaggerate our flaws, but people with BDD are stuck in a much more negative and dramatic state of mind when it comes to their perceived flaw(s).
The ADAA goes on to say: “People with BDD can dislike any part of their body, although they often find fault with their hair, skin, nose, chest, or stomach. In reality, a perceived defect may be only a slight imperfection or nonexistent.”
Some of the coping behaviors that point to a diagnosis of BDD include:
- Camouflaging (with body position, clothing, makeup, hair, hats, etc.)
- Comparing body part to others’ appearance
- Seeking surgery
- Checking in a mirror
- Avoiding mirrors
- Skin picking
- Excessive grooming
- Excessive exercise
- Changing clothes excessively (ADAA, n.d.)
Unstable Self-Image (+ Symptoms)
If the problem is more of an unstable self-image than an excessively negative and narrowly focused one, similar to BDD, the individual may be suffering from a different issue: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
People with BPD often experience a profound lack of self-image and self-concept. They may feel like they don’t know who they are, and their perception of their own identity may vary widely over time. They might even have trouble seeing their past self, present self, and future self as the same person.
This is known as identity disturbance: a “markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self” (Salters-Pedneault, 2018). It involves your personality, thoughts and feelings, and demeanor changing according to the context. Everyone does this to some extent, but people with BPD often find themselves exhibiting major shifts in identity.
It’s easy to see how these issues lead to instability in self-image; if we’re not at least mostly the same all the time, then who are we?
The symptoms that are associated with an unstable self-image and BPD in general include:
- Having an unstable or dysfunctional self-image or a distorted sense of self (how one feels about one’s self)
- Difficulty feeling empathy for others
- Feelings of isolation, boredom, and emptiness
- A persistent fear of abandonment and rejection, including extreme emotional reactions to real and even perceived abandonment
- History of unstable relationships that can change drastically from intense love and idealization to intense hate
- Intense, highly changeable moods that can last for several days or for just a few hours
- Strong feelings of anxiety, worry, and depression
- Impulsive, risky, self-destructive and dangerous behaviors, including reckless driving, drug or alcohol abuse, and having unsafe sex
- Unstable career plans, goals, and aspirations (Cagliostro, 2018).
Low Self-Image and Depression
As you might expect, low self-image can also be a driving factor and/or a product of depression. When we feel bad about ourselves, it’s natural that our perception of ourselves can suffer. Similarly, when our self-image takes a hit, it follows that we start to feel pretty bad about ourselves and our lives.
An effective depression treatment will likely include some work on building and maintaining a better self-image and, since they’re so closely related, that better self-image can also reinforce the treatment and help you feel happier and healthier.
Interesting Statistics and Facts
As noted above, a healthy, positive self-image is important for a lot of reasons. For a list of even more reasons why it’s important, check out these 9 facts about self-image from The World Counts website:
- One study conducted a test on women. 3 out of 4 said that they were overweight. Only 1 out of 4 really was.
- After viewing images of fashion models, 7 out of 10 women felt more depressed and angrier than before.
- Anorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder, has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illness.
- In advertising, the body type of models which is portrayed as ideal, is naturally possessed by only 5% of American women.
- Only 1 out of 10 high school students are overweight, but 9 out of 10 are already on a type of diet.
- Teenagers who engage in unprotected sex which results in unwanted pregnancy, often have poor self-images.
- There are fewer cases of men with eating disorders because of the perception that they are women’s diseases.
- Today’s media greatly influence the self-image of teenagers. They are told that their value is related to how thin or muscular they are.
- In a study on Self-image Maintenance and Discriminatory Behavior, evidence showed that prejudice develops from a person’s need to justify a threatened perception of the self (The World Counts, n.d.).
The Problems That Occur When Obsessed with Self-Image
When a person gets obsessed with his or her self-image, it can wreak havoc in their life—especially when their obsession is with the physical dimension of their self-image.
Here are just a few of the risks of an obsession with your physical image:
- Significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
- Development of a clinical eating disorder
- Development of Body Dysmorphic Disorder
- Physical disfigurement
- Persistent feelings of shame (Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders)
Of course, many of these problems can spawn even more serious problems themselves; eating disorders can lead to being severely unhealthy—even leading to hospitalization or long-term health risks—and depression and anxiety can result in worsening mental health and functioning.
Pregnancy and Self-Image Issues
One particularly trying time for those with self-image obsession issues is pregnancy.
Pregnancy can bring with it some significant changes in the body. Obviously, the biggest change is the ever-expanding belly! However, there can be tons of other changes: weight gain, weight gain in unexpected places, swelling of certain body parts (like breasts and feet – yes, feet!), acne, stretch marks, and more.
It’s natural that some of these changes can cause self-image issues. Some women find it hard to feel confident and sexy in their rapidly changing body, and they might have trouble seeing themselves the same way they used to.
These self-image issues aren’t always easy to deal with, but there are things you can do. For example, you might want to try the following:
- Focusing on the positive work your body is doing.
- Expressing your feelings with a partner, family member, or friends.
- Getting regular physical activity, like a light swim or a walk.
- Trying prenatal yoga.
- Getting a massage to relieve stress and feel more comfortable in your body.
- Learning as much as you can about pregnancy so you know what to expect.
- Seeking mental health support if you need it (OWN, n.d.).