Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Self-image

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What motivates it and how to improve it?


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Mirror image
Mirror image

The key question at hand is, “What exactly is self image?” The Cleveland Clinic (2009) provides us with the definition of “the personal view we have of ourselves.” This includes how we see ourselves physically, our personality and any other characteristics that we feel make us who we are. The greatest influence that fosters our self image comes from those who we spend the most time around: this includes our parents, friends and loved ones. Depending on our life experiences, we can have a relatively good self image or we can have a distorted image of ourselves. There is a constant internalized debate and questioning humans engage in to ask ourselves exactly “What do people think of me?” resulting in the overall image we have. Our responses are dependent upon what we think of ourselves and how we handle certain situations that arise in our lives. Another rather important part of our self image is our own body image. Although we can only do so much to alter this, it is as much connected to the internal thoughts of who we are because it is our outward expression of what is inside. Altogether, this idea of self image is something that is often distorted by several factors in society including the media, peers, and the workforce. It is also something that affects anyone and everyone, but can target specific demographics more significantly than others. This includes people who are constantly in spotlight (celebrities and athletes) as well as the everyday people in our lives. Now that we see it is an evident part of our lives, the goal is to try and improve our self image if it has, in fact, been distorted by one or more of these aforementioned aspects. The following will provide you with a clearer understanding of what self image is, what factors affect it, who it affects, and how we can change or improve what kind of self image we currently have to give us a more enjoyable and successful life.

Factors that affect it

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Pop Magazine Issue 14 Cover
Pop Magazine Issue 14 Cover

One of the strongest influences that a person can have regarding their self-image is by the media. Whether it regards the tabloids, magazines, television or social media websites, there is always an element of the subconscious that is affected. With issues surrounding physical appearance being the prime purpose for positive and negative outcomes regarding the consumer, it is paramount to understand the reasons behind this important factor that develops people’s self image.

Television shows such as “What Not to Wear” aim to alter the person’s outward appearance in their everyday life while at the same time targeting the person’s inner levels of confidence (or lack thereof). By offering the contestant $5000 for a new wardrobe, they must agree to have the hosts of the show take full reign of what clothing they have and are able to throw out what is not “stylish” or “up-to-date.” At the end of the show, the person typically walks away with a new sense of self as well as a completely new set of clothing that can be mixed and matched to create a number of new outfits. The way the media affects one’s self image is easily seen in this situation. By portraying that the way certain people dress is directly related to their success shows how strongly the media has a hold on society.

Another example of how self image is portrayed can easily be seen in magazines. “Cosmopolitan,” “Women’s Health,” “GQ,” and “People Magazine” are great examples of how such magazine corporations market self image in a complete package. Most magazines, such as these, contain a few key elements. These include health and beauty, sex, fitness, nutrition, and fashion. The combination of each of these provides the reader with a total image that is desirable on many levels. By providing the consumer with advice and tips on how to make yourself the best that it can be (in the media’s standards), the reader then becomes desensitized to what is the “norm” and then allows themselves to be manipulated and shaped into who they want them to be. Altogether, magazines and advertisers know what is appealing and how to reel in the reader to show what one’s self image should be.


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Another factor that affects one’s self image is their peers. Because of the strong effect they have on the development of one’s personality, mannerisms and activities they engage in, peers are quite significant to the growth of a person. Peers or colleagues have the ability to enhance the workplace or create an unstable work or living environment. Because of the fact that humans want to be accepted, social environments like the workforce provide opportunities for constant criticism based upon one’s actions and appearance.

A study completed in Canada expresses the importance of peer relationships in relation to self image. Specifically, the researchers looked at body image satisfaction among a group of 258 girls approximately 11.8 years old by providing questionnaires before, during and after a school-based session that went over the span of six weeks. The issues that were addressed included self esteem, body satisfaction, and perfectionism, which are all factors that have the capability of leading to disordered eating (especially among this age group). It was found that the program provided the girls with an improved self esteem regarding body image satisfaction over time (McVey, Davis, Tweed, Shaw, 2003). By providing the group of girls with a way to gain a greater understanding on how to deal with these issues, it showed the importance of peer relationships. Had these girls not received such valuable information, there is potential for them to lose sight of how to have a healthy and well educated self image. Although the study did not look at the extended long term effects of how this intervention would affect them in the future, it did indicate that there was some significant information that could lead to successful future research. Studies similar to this have the ability to greatly affect young people to examine their way of thinking and provide a healthy alternative to the forced norm that society expects us to maintain (regarding self image).


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The workplace is a place where appearance and self image is representative of not only the employee, but the company they are employed for as well. Whether one is required to wear a common uniform or follow a specific dress code, the confidence and self image the person has can be restricted or amplified. If one is meant to wear a common uniform (e.g. a fast food chain, janitorial staff, military, primary school child), one’s self image has the potential to be suppressed especially because of the monotony and lack of individuality that is able to be expressed. However, if there is a dress code, many people have a little more creativity and a way to express who they intend to present themselves as. Oftentimes, one’s self image (as portrayed by the clothing they choose to wear) can “make or break” whether one is viewed as professional enough to maintain the job they have.

USCGAUX Summer Undress Blue – Bravo
USCGAUX Summer Undress Blue – Bravo

Research completed in Athens, Greece regarding plastic surgery takes a look at whether one’s appearance is directly related to the choices they make regarding their professional lives as well as their personal lives. While also examining self-confidence, researchers tried to get a clearer look at 100 women who had recently received plastic surgery (within the past 40-60 days) and how they felt about their results thereafter. By providing a questionnaire to understand measures of self-confidence, self image and social acceptance, researchers were able to get a better understanding of whether the representations of these women undergoing plastic surgery for the purpose of improving their self image and self confidence existed. Questions included some similar to this in the questionnaire provided to the 100 women in the study:

  1. In which of the following plastic surgery operations were you subjected?
  2. At what degree did you personally desire to undergo plastic surgery?
  3. Would you characterize your desire to repair your deformity as obsession?
  4. For what reasons did you decided to undergo that plastic surgery operation?
  5. At what degree you felt fear before that plastic surgery operation?”

Altogether, there were 30 questions that were exploratory and 7 other questions that related to demographics. The results showed that there was, in fact, a significant relationship between interpersonal relationships and the effect it has on positive change in the interaction between their work partners/colleagues. They also saw that the opinion of others, regarding their appearance, was quite important to the females’ self image. In the end, researchers found that their hypotheses were proven and that there is a strong importance of outward appearance, especially in the workforce (A. Foustanos, M.D., L. Pantazi, and H. Zavrides, M.D., 2007). This study shows us that we, as humans, seek to prove ourselves with our outward appearance even if it means resorting to invasive procedures to make us happier and more satisfied individuals in our place of employment. This distorted way of thinking can lead to a variety of issues in the future development of a person that infiltrates their personal lives. It is important to recognise this issue as it has the potential to truly affect our mental health.


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Now that we have examined what factors primarily affect one’s self image, we can now take a look at specific demographics that undergo constant criticism that could affect their overall sense of self image they may have including the self image of those that follow them. Some of the most criticised groups of people are those who receive significant amounts of publicity: celebrities and athletes. Everyday people look up to these people as role models or mentors depending on the work they do or what they represent.


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Amanda Bynes on the Red Carpet
Amanda Bynes on the Red Carpet

Celebrities are a particular group that are looked at on a regular basis. Their every move is watched, examined and mimicked in some cases. Due to the media, a lot of what they do is highlighted and exaggerated from what they wear to what they do. Social media sites, including “Twitter” are a great example of how a celebrity’s actions are under constant scrutiny. In particular, the public oftentimes engages in “celebrity worship” where they begin to compare themselves to how celebrities look to a degree that can significantly affect their psyche. A study completed in Great Britain looked at this association with young people and celebrity worship. Researchers wanted to look at whether this association was stronger with the viewer’s same sex celebrity, but also if it there was a stronger association for females than males in this respect. The study was conducted among three sample groups of various age groups (adolescent [14-16 years], young adults [18-30 years] and an older group [22-60 years]) to gather a more diverse sample. Each group was given two questionnaires that asked questions regarding body image. The results showed that females were much more likely to have an association between celebrity worship and body image. They also found that when they related celebrity worship with poor body image, it can be explained as intense-personal (meaning they keep their relationship with the celebrity to themselves) which results in the chances of having a poorer body image to be higher, especially among female adolescents. Finally they found that the phenomena of celebrity worship can be seen higher among females between the ages of 14-20, but does not exist thereafter. Although this may be present, the study shows that there is an association that cannot be ignored (J. Maltby, D. Giles, L. Barber, and L. McCutcheon, 2005). Therefore, we can see that females are capable of being affected by celebrities and relating it to their own lives and self image. This could have a negative effect on them in the grand scheme of life. Hopefully, by changing the norm of what is “socially acceptable” will become something that can be taken more seriously so as to understand how it is not positively affecting the public, as disordered eating is one of the biggest issues related to this. After being under such constant scrutiny as a celebrity, it must be difficult to understand that people are attempting to attain what they have while not living or maintaining an ideal lifestyle.


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Vienna City Marathon 20090419 Günther Weidlinger AUT posing with KEN athletes before starting
Vienna City Marathon 20090419 Günther Weidlinger AUT posing with KEN athletes before starting

Athletes are also a highly coveted demographic of people that are looked at on a regular basis. Depending on the level of skill and marketability they have, the more successful they are able to be. A study conducted in France took a look at how manipulating and distorting pictures of competitive swimmers affected how they perceived themselves to actually look. The study was completed among 21 French males and 21 French females as they were asked to assess what they perceived their bodies looked like (or what they wanted to look like) once their pictures had been slightly changed. The results showed there was a gender difference between males and females. Males were more likely to have a bigger difference between their real body image in comparison to their perceived body image than females. Also, females were less likely to express the desire to have a more stout body than the males (I. Urdapilleta, D. Aspavlo, L. Masse, and A. Docteur, 2010). It is clear that the effect the sport industry has on athletes plays a large role in how an athlete performs on and off the field. An athlete’s body is the source of success and any alterations that occur that hinder their performance could be quite detrimental. Unfortunately, the public that watches these athletes looks up to them for a variety of reasons and can sometimes fall short, resulting in a negative outcome. If athletes are already expected to maintain so much, how much more scrutiny must the consumer feel when they examine how hard they must be on themselves in order to attain such a coveted body type?

How to change or improve your self image

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In lieu of the aforementioned studies, we can now take a step back and ask how we can actually improve our current self image. It is safe to say that there are some key elements that can be examined from each section which are linked to a successful self image.

  • By not allowing the media to completely guide and shape your opinions of who you are, you are able to avoid being manipulated by what society wants to mold you into. Choosing who you want to be despite what the media may expect from you is essential to having a healthy self image.
  • Relying upon peers is essential for successful living; however, develop yourself and your self image around what makes you feel accepted without compromising your values. Allow your peers and colleagues to support you, not bring you down.
  • Use the workplace to express yourself professionally (referring to your outward appearance) instead of standing out in an improper way.
  • Make yourself more aware of how you are affected by celebrities and athletes. Their constant infiltration by the media can have a serious effect on the way you present yourself to others. Continue to maintain a unique self image that is your own and not dictated by those who are constantly in the spotlight.

The Cleveland Clinic (2009) also provides a list of ways to improve your overall self image as listed below:

  • Take a self-image inventory
  • Define personal goals and objectives
  • Set realistic and measurable goals
  • Confront thinking distortions
  • Identify childhood labels
  • Stop comparing yourself to others
  • Develop your strengths
  • Learn to love yourself
  • Give positive affirmations
  • Remember that you are unique
  • Learn to laugh and smile
  • Remember how far you have come

Some wonder whether there is a gender difference in promoting a healthier self image. According to a study regarding this issue, the researchers sought to uncover the differences while finding ways to improve them overall. Seeing as most research is done on improving women’s self image due to a strong influence of the media, peers, etc. not a whole lot of research is done on how men are affected. Many men struggle with self image, especially body image, when related to muscular size and even social comparison. Researchers found that the key to improving self image is to implement psycho-social interventions in order to reduce the levels of internalization (which leads to negative thought of one’s self image), by teaching people to make social comparisons more realistic, as well as showing people that social identities should be questioned when related to body dissatisfaction. Altogether, they found that these were some key ways to improve a negative self image when related to body dissatisfaction that works for both men and women (Grogan, 2010).

Also, a study regarding women’s self image and body image was conducted to see if reading theistic material could affect how they perceived themselves. A group of college women were asked to complete questionnaire regarding their levels of religiosity and body esteem. Afterwards, they were put in one of three treatment groups: spiritual, religious and control. Each group was given different materials to help cope with body image and was shown photographs of thin models to trigger these concerns. The results showed that those who were in the religious group fared better than the other two groups while the spiritual group had better results than the control group (C. Boyatzis, S. Kline, and S. Backof, 2007). Therefore, it can be seen that this could be a possible form of intervention for those who are struggling with self image, particularly with their body image. More research is needed to be done on this form of treatment, but it could indicate future success.


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In summary, there are many factors that are involved with one’s self image. The perception we have of ourselves drives who we are and what we desire to be. Life experiences play a huge role in this and can build up or tear down the self image we have created and have developed. In addition to self image, body image plays a big role in what we see ourselves to be. The combination of the two creates the full picture. Our self image has the potential to be distorted by a variety of factors including the media, peers and the workforce. Others have certain expectations of who we are and we can often lose sight of our originality and creativity. Also, celebrities and athletes have an effect on how we present ourselves. They are often role models, but are also under constant scrutiny and criticism for their actions and appearance. Therefore, it is critical to examine how the media is portraying them and compare it to what is the reality. By having a more thorough understanding of what self image is, what factors contribute to it and who they have a strong effect on, we can draw positive advice and skills to improve our self image if it has been distorted in some way. We can do this by looking at ourselves, our experiences and what has possibly stood in the way of contributing to our success as an individual. Altogether, our self image is one of the strongest representations of who we are. In order to live an enjoyable and successful life, we must be willing to stand up and implement the tools given to us so we build and maintain a positive self image.


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Boyatzis, C. J., Kline, S., & Backof, S. (2007). Experimental Evidence that Theistic-Religious Body Affirmations Improve Women's Body Image. Journal For The Scientific Study Of Religion, 46(4), 553-564. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2007.00377.x

Cleveland Clinic Foundation. (2009, Dec 15). Fostering a positive self-image. Retrieved from

Foustanos, A., Pantazi, L., & Zavrides, H. (2007). Representations in plastic surgery: the impact of self-image and self-confidence in the work environment. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 31(5), 435-442.

Grogan, S. (2010). Promoting positive body image in males and females: Contemporary issues and future directions. Sex Roles, 63(9-10), 757-765. doi:10.1007/s11199-010-9894-z

Maltby, J., Giles, D. C., Barber, L., & McCutcheon, L. E. (2005). Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: Evidence of a link among female adolescents. British Journal Of Health Psychology, 10(1), 17-32.

McVey, G., Davis, R., Tweed, S., & Shaw, B. (2003). Evaluation of a school-based program designed to improve body image satisfaction, global self-esteem, and eating attitudes and behaviors: A replication study. Wiley Periodicals, Inc., (36), 1-11. doi: 10.1002/eat.20006

Urdapilleta, I., Aspavlo, D., Masse, L., & Docteur, A. (2010). Use of a picture distortion technique to examine perceptive and ideal body image in male and female competitive swimmers. Psychology Of Sport & Exercise, 11(6), 568-573.

See also

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Here are various book chapters that cover further information regarding self image

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