Let’s start with a little bit of learnin’! What is body image exactly?


Alright, people, back to the basics! Can you guess when the phrase “body image” was first coined? The era? Century? Month?

Would you have guessed that it was first used in the 1930s by a psychiatrist named Paul Schilder?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know this little nugget of trivia — until about a half an hour ago, I was also stuck in a state of indecision. When I thought about it long and hard, I realized that for all of the time that I spend thinking about body image, I could not even place a specific time or definition to body image! That’s when I did what any self-respecting college student would do — popped open a browser and asked the powers that be (in this case Google Chrome) to work some magic for me. (Well, that’s only slightly true. First I checked Facebook, which is a little unsurprising.)


Paul Schilder, pioneer of the body image definition

I eventually made it to a source that appropriately defined body image as Paul Schilder did in his book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body. Schilder describes body image as “the picture of our own body which we form in our mind” (Schilder pg 50). The definition was surprisingly vague to me, and almost a little too self-explanatory. It sounded too simple in my head, so I moved on in my search.

According to dictionary.com, body image is defined as “an intellectual or idealized image of what one’s body is or should be like that is somtimes misconceived in such mental disorders as anorexia nervosa”. This was more along the lines of what I had been expecting from the original definition, considering the context of the time period in which we live. To be consistent, however, I checked one more source to see what they could tell me about body image.

Body image in context of eating disorders

Body image in context of eating disorders

Merriam-Webster’s definition of body image is similar in many of the same ways: “a subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others”. Of the definitions that I found in my web search, I felt that this definition was the best description of the body image that I have defined myself growing up. It establishes the connection between the internal and external forces that dictate a person’s perception of their body, where the person’s internal observations of their body and the external judgment of social and cultural norms play significant roles in shaping their body image.

The most interesting thing that I noticed about my search is how diverse and varied the definition of the same word actually is. Compared to more modern explanations, Schilder’s original definition was so broad and ambiguous that it no longer feels appropriate to apply it to the 21st century. And, as we can see from more recent definitions, they are incredibly specific and in some cases address relatively recent dangers of poor body image, like eating disorders.

Body image and its many interpretations

Body image and its many interpretations

This is an example of what is called “semantic change“, when the meanings of words change over time to create a completely new meaning within the context of the social and cultural influences of the day.  Like so many other words in the English language, the definition of “body image” has changed, reflecting the social and cultural significance of the concept at the same time that it is being defined. Perhaps this was a good thing; perhaps it was not. That is still up for discussion.

So what is body image? I could find you more definitions from print sources, psychological analyses, and web articles. I think that the most important thing, however, is that body image is embodied and created in myriad ways. Maybe the versatility comes from the wide array of definitions it has collected over the years. Regardless, the pervasive nature of body image in society and culture remains an important theme to understanding how it impacts how many institutions and persons are defined today, for better or worse.


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