Understanding The Complex Relationship Between Self-Esteem and Physical Appearance



Self-esteem is defined as the confidence one has in their own worth and abilities. Unfortunately, the logic behind a simple definition is never simple itself; relatively small things, such as perceived flaws in physical appearance, can damage one’s self-esteem to the point of causing constant anxiety and depression (of which 350 million people suffer from worldwide).

One study performed in Rhode Island focused on that exact connection in teens among psychiatric hospitals. Bradley Hospital, Butler Hospital, and Brown Medical School collaborated to assess the prevalence and clinical correlations of body image concerns in adolescent inpatients at Bradley Hospital, the nation’s first psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents. These included body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders (such as bulimia or anorexia), and other clinically significant concerns over shape and weight.

The study discovered that adolescents with negative body image concerns (approximately one-third of Bradley Hospital’s inpatients) were found to be more depressed, anxious, and suicidal than those without intense dissatisfaction over their appearance, even when compared to adolescents with other psychiatric illnesses. Jennifer Dyl, a lead author on the study, stated the importance of these results.

“These findings underscore just how central feelings about one’s appearance tend to be in the world of teenagers and how impairing these concerns can be. Helping teens verbalize their negative feelings and concerns about their appearance is the first step in getting them to value themselves as individuals and recognize the importance of other non-weight, or non-appearance-based qualities and activities as contributors to their self-esteem and self-worth.”

That’s good advice for everyone, especially those suffering from physical changes they cannot control, such as hair loss. Approximately 60% of those experiencing hair loss say they would rather have hair than money or friends; that statement alone is indicative of a major self-esteem problem — you are not singly defined by how beautiful your hair is, how in-shape you are, or how perfect your teeth are (tragically, one in four Americans avoid smiling because of the poor condition of their teeth).

Another fascinating study was done recently with the sole focus of charting self-esteem in individuals across their lifespan to understand how confidence and self-worth change as we grow. By surveying 164,000 people from ages four to 94, the study found that self-esteem actually increases markedly between the ages of 15 and 30, subtly improving until it peaked at 60.

By rating statements such as “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others” or “I wish I could have more respect for myself,” the trend (surprisingly, even to the researchers who executed it) was generally upward. This could be attributed to the personal skills and knowledge people gain as they age, allowing them to feel more valuable as an individual. Of course, it’s important to note that the findings were the result of an average of experiences — not every individual trended the same way (those with hair loss or body image issues probably saw very different charted paths).

Fortunately, there are outlets for those who feel trapped in bodies that they hate. Rather than fall into the endless pit that is depression, you can reach out to an online support group and chat with those that are going through similar experiences. Acceptance and understanding that your appearance doesn’t define you is the key to taking your life back from the jaws of depression and anxiety, and building your self-esteem up.

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