Body image in adulthood
How comfortable are adults with their bodies?
Our survey found that while 21% of adults (23% of men and 19% of women) felt satisfied because of their body image in the last year, 20% (15% of men and 25% of women) felt shame, 34% (25% of men and 43% of women) felt down or low, and 19% (12% of men and 26% of women) felt disgusted in the last year because of their body image.
Estimates from the British Social Attitudes Survey suggest that one in twenty men and one in ten women reported being dissatisfied with their appearance (6). For pressures around weight and shape specifically, this may be slowly changing. A review of data from multiple studies taking place across 30 years found evidence for body dissatisfaction related to a desire to be thin decreasing slightly and gradually over time among women and girls. When looking at body dissatisfaction related to a desire to be muscular, however, rates among men and boys as well as women and girls stayed consistent over time (52).
How does body image affect adults?
As in childhood and adolescence, increased body dissatisfaction in adulthood has been linked to increased likelihood of depressive symptoms (9,10,53), psychological distress (8) and disordered eating and eating disorders (10,11,54). Positive body image in adulthood has been linked to better overall wellbeing and quality of life (8,12,55).
This is reflected in our survey, where 34% of adults (28% of men and 40% of women) said they felt anxious and 35% said they felt depressed (25% of men and 45% of women) because of their body image. Just over one in eight (13% overall – 11% of men and 15% of women) experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image.
In our survey, body image was associated with a desire to change physical appearance: 7% of adults (4% of men and 9% of women) said they had edited photos of themselves in the last year to change the shape of their face or body because of their body image. Furthermore, 8% of adults (4% of men and 13% of women) said they had considered cosmetic surgery, fillers or Botox in the last year because of their body image.
Body image in adulthood may also affect relationships and sexual wellbeing. There is some research to suggest that greater body satisfaction is linked to more positive sexual experiences, particularly for women (56). By contrast, body image concerns can raise self-consciousness, which can impact negatively on sexual experiences and responses (57). In our survey, one in five adults (20%) said their sex life has been negatively affected by their body image in the past year, and 15% said their relationship with a partner or spouse had been negatively affected by their body image in the past year.
What affects body image in adulthood?
As in childhood, the factors associated with body image in adulthood are varied and linked to the degree to which ideas about ‘ideal’ body types have been internalised, as well as how likely individuals are to compare themselves to others based on appearance.
The media and social media
Exposure to idealised images of bodies in the media has been linked to greater internalisation of bodily ideals, and increased body dissatisfaction in both women (58) and men (59). The same is true of social media (20,60). In our survey, around one in five adults said that images used in advertising (21%) and images used on social media (22%) caused them to worry about their body image.
As with the research in children and young people, these effects may be most pronounced for adults who already experience body dissatisfaction (59) and may be due in part to the ways that media and social media facilitate comparisons to others based on appearance (20). This was reflected in our survey, where 32% of adults (22% of men and 41% of women) said they negatively compared themselves to others because of their body image.
Peers, partners, and the workplace
While we often associate bullying and teasing with childhood, appearance-based teasing also plays a role in body image into adulthood. Weight-based and appearance-based teasing have been found to be significantly linked to body dissatisfaction and unhealthy weight control behaviours among adults, though this relationship remains strongest in children and adolescents (61). In addition, how we speak more generally about bodies with friends, partners and peers can affect our body image. One review of the literature found that ‘fat-talk’ – a term given to speaking about our bodies and weight in casual conversation in a way that reinforces traditional body ideals – was significantly associated with body dissatisfaction (62). Concerns about appearance may also negatively affect participation in the workplace, with one survey finding that 17% of women said they would not go to a job interview, and 8% would avoid going to work, if they felt badly about their appearance (63).
Pregnancy and new parenthood
For many, adulthood brings a transition to parenthood. This transition, particularly for women, represents a unique change in body and body image. In our survey, 41% of women who had been pregnant said they felt more negatively about their body image after pregnancy compared to before they were pregnant (23% slightly more negative and 18% much more negative), 12% said they felt more positively about their body image post-pregnancy (7% slightly more positive and 5% much more positive). Many pregnant women report a shift in the way they relate to their bodies across pregnancy, from a focus on appearance to a focus on ability and functionality (64). However, they also report pressure to continue to adhere to traditional bodily ideals, particularly around weight and returning to their pre-pregnancy body shape following childbirth (64). Indeed, reviews of the research have found associations between increased body dissatisfaction, postpartum weight and depressive symptoms during pregnancy and new motherhood (65,66).
Body image concerns and body dissatisfaction have been found to be more prevalent among individuals who are overweight or obese (67). This may be due in part to not matching societal ideals of body shape and weight and experiences of appearance-related shaming or stigma. One qualitative study suggests that individuals who are overweight experience both direct discrimination (verbal abuse when out in public) and indirect discrimination (such as more subtle comments and unaccommodating environments) (68). Individuals described this stigma as contributing to emotional distress, causing social isolation and avoidance of situations where they might experience discrimination, including participation in health-promoting activities (68). Indeed, some quantitative research also suggests that experiences of stigma around weight are associated with less uptake of physical activity (69,70).
Studies investigating the impact of various obesity-related public health campaigns found that those campaigns perceived as stigmatising or shaming were received least favourably by recipients, and were no more likely, or in some cases the least likely, to motivate people to change their behaviour. These preferences were the same regardless of the individual’s own body weight (71,72). Campaigns that focused more generally on themes of healthy eating and health-promotion for all adults were received the most positively (71).