Body image

It is common for young people to feel increasingly uncomfortable with their bodies as changes occur during adolescence. Low self-esteem occurs when expectations of how you want your body to look don’t match up to reality. These types of feelings can lead to distorted thoughts and emotions about your bodies and negative thoughts about body image and self-worth can lead to changes in eating and exercise behaviours.

What is body image?

Body image is how a person sees, thinks and feels about their physical appearance. How a person looks is only a small part of who they are. However, body image is the number one concern for many young people in Australia.

When body image becomes a focus, people may overestimate their size or weight or think that their muscles should be bigger. When body image becomes confused with personality and self-worth, it may mean that there is a deeper problem that could lead to an eating disorder.

Body image is different to gender dysphoria, which is a medical term used to describe the distress or discomfort that people may feel when their assigned sex and gender identity don’t match. It’s common for people feeling gender dysphoria to be uncomfortable with their body (e.g. during puberty) and the roles of their assigned gender. Read more about gender identity.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders usually begin in the late teenage years, but can start at any age and continue into adulthood. Eating disorders are usually related to emotional issues such as control and self-esteem. They are often a way of avoiding thinking about the real problems.

There are usually a number of factors that contribute to them, such as difficult relationships with friends or family, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, loss and grief, stress, or feeling that you’ve lost control over life.

Types of eating disorders

There are a number of types of eating disorders, although someone does not have to be formally diagnosed to be experiencing significant emotional or physical health problems from them.

  • Anorexia nervosa is characterised by extreme concerns about weight, fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and deliberately keeping a very low body weight by limiting the amount of food eaten, or by over-exercising. Although they are usually underweight, people with this condition believe they are 'fat'.
  • Bulimia nervosa is a compulsive cycle of eating large amounts of food and then trying to avoid weight gain (for example by vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively). People with bulimia nervosa may be underweight, overweight or normal weight, so it is not always easy to tell they are experiencing this eating disorder.
  • Binge eating disorder is about frequently eating large amounts of food, often when not hungry, but not making any attempts to lose weight (as occurs in bulimia nervosa).

Read more about the symptoms and types of an eating disorder.

Taking action

Many people try to hide their eating disorders. If you think you have an eating disorder it’s important to talk about it honestly and openly, as it can have a significant and long-term impact on your health.

A doctor or counsellor can help you to explore your beliefs and behaviours about weight, and how you feel about yourself. They can guide you in finding better ways of managing your feelings and having a healthier and more positive approach to yourself, food and weight.

Giving yourself a new focus can also help. This might mean finding a new interest or taking up a hobby. Spending time with people who are positive and supportive can also help you along the way. Talking to someone who has recovered from an eating disorder can be especially helpful.


Recovery time is quicker for some people than for others, and the old feelings and behaviours may come back. Some people find that when they let go of their eating disorder, they experience other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. It may be that these problems were always there and the eating disorder was a way to cope with them.

If this happens to you, it’s important to talk to your doctor and work out the underlying cause.

Where to get support

Sometimes you need more than the help of your friends and family. Eating disorders are medical conditions and so treatment from a health professional is necessary. There are a range of health professionals available to support you while you recover.

Support groups, websites and helplines can also be a great help.

Find out more