A Theory of Body Image: Dysfunctional to Positive Body Image

Woman in Movement Therapy and showing Gratitude in Eating Disorder Recovery

One of the central symptoms of an eating disorder is the unhealthy relationship to one’s body regarding how the body is fed, cared for, and accepted.  Positive body image can play an integral role in the treatment of eating disorders.  Individuals can not only recover from symptoms of the eating disorder but work to nurture a healthy relationship with the body and create positive body image [1].


This term is typically used for eating disorder professionals as having a healthy awareness of the self and engage in and practice mindful self-care [1]. Flourishing is a part of positive body image and mental and physical health.

Positive body image incorporates a sense of body appreciation, otherwise known as body gratitudes. It is giving thanks or gratitude daily for what your body has done for you. Body acceptance is another feature of positive body image.

This is where an individual will work on being able to accept where your body is at the moment. Inner beauty, positivity and protecting self from external and internal negative influences are all a part of positive body image.

Full flourishing, or recovery, is considered to be reached when a person has an awareness of and commitment to being able to balance own needs with that of responsibilities, and they are not putting their own mental and physical health at risk.

This perspective can shift from a judgmental way to see the self as a more loving and compassionate way to care for oneself.

Individuals lives consist of layers of systems. The microsystem, which is close family and friends, the ecosystem, or community at large, the macrosystem and the culture one lives in [1]. We perceive and experience these in our bodies and is how we view our inner self.

In other words, this is self-regulation. Lack of emotional coping tools and behaviors can push a person to hyper-focus on their body, weight, size, and create a negative body image and disordered eating cycle.

Brain and Body Image

Neuroscience of body image is a complex study of work. It is partially due to the messages we receive from society around an ‘ideal body’ and the stimuli communicated about the body itself through the senses, such as sight, touch, smell, etc. [3].

Woman sitting on a bridge struggling with bulimiaOur body image is connected to our own internal view we have of our self.

This is based on external cues and stimuli we receive from the outside world.

In 2005 a study was conducted that found that there are parts of the brain that process the information we receive and construct that into the image we have of ourselves, and how that may be incorrect sometimes [3].

The University College London studied 17 volunteers who had ‘healthy or realistic’ views of their bodies and had their hands fitted with mechanisms that artificially flexed the hand tendons to feel like what they touched was shrinking.

The participants were asked to touch their waists while the mechanisms were on, and at the same time, their brains were scanned as they experienced the ‘waist-shrinking’ feeling.

The results showed that with the ‘new information’ that their brain was receiving, the parietal cortex was active. This area is the main area in which our senses are processed, as well as our concept of space and distance.

The study showed that the body image creation we have for ourselves comes, in a large part, from the parietal cortex. This study also showed that the body image is perceived much differently between people.

This also brings up the issue of why is this not always accurate. In another experiment of the same as above, one of the participant’s hand was replaced with a dummy or model hand and having the volunteers actual hand hidden out of sight.

If both are touched at the same time, in the same way, the participant will ‘feel’ the model hand as actually experiencing the sensation. This told researchers that sensory input can be confusing, but our brains can have very unique ways of processing varying information.

This was shown in the same experiment in the subject’s reports of how much they felt that their waist had ‘shrunk.’

Brain Changes

Our brains try to fill in the gaps per say from outside messages it receives about our body and self within space. Given these studies above, our brain can be easily tricked and perception can vary from person to person, making inaccurate assessments.

Woman with body image issues sitting at a table

This is true to negative or positive body image. Knowing that we have to take into consideration what our brain is telling us, but it is not the whole truth. There are many variables that play into our self-perceptions.

All of this means that our brain is able to adapt and change over time. These changes occur due to a person’s change in behavior, the environment, learning, and other areas. Change can be both positive or negative.

Positive neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to form and strengthen our dendrite connections, produce morphological change, and increase cognitive reserve [4]. When adverse changes occur, it is when the brain will atrophy and weaken connections.

This can happen due to poor sleep, irregular or unhealthy nutritional intake, lifestyle habits, substance abuse, other comorbid disorders can all affect the brain’s adverse changes.

Final Thoughts

Working with those with eating disorders and promoting a positive body image is essential.

Treatment that has shown to be effective is one that has a collaborative team approach to the goals being supporting the client to an intuitive relationship with oneself, body, food, physical activity, self-care, and emotional regulation.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Cook-Cottone, C. (2015). Incorporating positive body image into the treatment of eating disorders: A model for attunement and mindful self-care. Retrieved October 3, 2017, from , http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.03.004
[2] Kochar Kaur, K., Allahbadia, G., & Singh, M. (2017, June). Therapeutic Impact of Dysfunction in Reward Processing in Anorexia Nervosa – A Mini Review. Retrieved October 3, 2017, from file:///C:/Users/libby/Downloads/fulltext-andt-v4-id1045.pdf
[3] Thorpe, J. (2016, May 20). How Body Image Is Constructed In Your Brain. Retrieved October 08, 2017, from https://www.bustle.com/articles/161517-how-body-image-is-constructed-in-your-brain
[4] Positive Neuroplasticity Improves Brain and Body Health. (n.d.). Retrieved October 08, 2017, from http://www.ptonthenet.com/articles/Positive-Neuroplasticity-Improves-Brain-and-Body-Health-3917

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on November 21, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 21, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com