Confidence and Body Image

In western societies the media is full of pictures of ‘ideal bodies’. The ‘perfect’ male is handsome, tall and muscular and their ‘perfect’ female equivalent is beautiful, firm and seemingly impossibly thin – often with disproportionately large breasts. These ‘perfect’ people are seen to have happiness, wealth and partners. The subliminal message is ‘be like this and you can have these things too’. This is what creates the pressure in most people – aspiring to these idealised body images. We want these things and we think this is the way to get them. This pressure affects a lot of men and women and, increasingly, boys and girls.

A whole host of studies have shown most men want to be ‘beefier’ and most women want to be slimmer. An alarming amount of young people think they’re too fat, go on diets and skip meals.

Many people ignore the fact that the idealised body images that surround them are just that – idealised – and actually unattainable for most of us. This means they find themselves on a relentless pursuit of the elusive perfect figure – which just leaves them chronically dissatisfied with their appearance. This can lead to poor self-esteem and a lack of confidence.

It helps to put the whole issue into perspective, remembering you’re not alone. The vast majority of people don’t have (and won’t ever have) these perfect bodies either, but what does that really mean? The truth is that it doesn’t actually mean you can’t have the positive things we associate with these images. This is a fallacy that started in Hollywood – and it should remain there.

The biggest myth is you can’t be considered physically attractive without fitting into this mould. There are many ways to be attractive beyond the stereotype. It’s certainly not always the best looking person that gets the girl or guy.

Most of us are much more likely to talk and get to know somebody who is friendly and approachable rather than a more physically attractive self-centred person. Our personality and behaviour count for a lot. We need to accept ourselves for who we are and what we’re meant to look like. Our aim should be to be the best and healthiest we can – we need to realise that this is the ‘perfect’ us.

Recognise your attributes and make the most of them rather than dwelling on imperfections. By all means eat sensibly and exercise to have a healthy body – but also have a healthy mind. Your attitude towards yourself makes a big difference. Lack of confidence in your appearance can lead you to behave in defensive ways that appear unfriendly and aloof, and this behaviour is likely to put people off rather than your appearance.

Believing in yourself and feeling good about the way you look will help to automatically send off more positive signals about the person you really are. So don’t waste any more time trying to be a second class somebody else and get on with being a first class you!

Family pressure

Generally we accept the status quo, but these expectations can be hard to handle when they come from our families – especially our parents. Family expectations can be very difficult to ignore and tend to have a big influence on us regardless of whether they’re positive or negative.

Positive expectations may be meant to spur us on, but often they can just lead to a chronic sense of not quite making the mark – or not quite ever being good enough. At worst some people are left with a permanent sense of failure.

Negative expectations on the other hand may be intended as a form of reverse psychology: “You can’t do it” usually triggers the reaction “Oh yes I will”. The logic of this supposedly being that you’ll be motivated to do something you are told you can’t do.

The flaw and danger in this approach is that, despite good intentions, the recipient is left feeling undermined and insecure. Every time something goes wrong in their life it can seem to be a confirmation of all the negative predictions that were made about them. Rather than trying to prove their families wrong, they can sometimes just give up and accept what they have been made to believe is their fate – no job, no partner, no prospects and probably prison.

Whether positive or negative, ultimately the problem with family expectations is that they put you under pressure and you don’t feel free to just be yourself. Not being able to relax and be natural will affect your relationship with your family and can lead to resentment and other problems.

If you’re not really bothered about the family myths about who you are, and your parents’ lingering aspirations for you don’t bother you then the best thing to do is nothing. Just accept that your family haven’t yet totally figured you out or completely adapted to the adult version of you, and let it go.

But if you feel that you can’t just ignore it, then there are a number of things you can do. The first step often is to try to have a greater understanding of just what their expectations are about.

Family expectations often say more about the family member who holds them than the person they’re directed at. Maybe the family member wants you to be better than they are, or maybe not like them at all. They could be trying to live through you – wanting you to achieve what they felt they couldn’t.

Talk to them about it and let them know how they make you feel. Tell them about the effect it has on your life. Avoid being confrontational, which rarely is successful; be honest and straightforward instead. If you don’t talk about it, you can never really be sure they know.

The other important thing is to let them see the real you. Families often don’t see the real us, because we don’t let them. Don’t collude with their expectations and pretend to be a different person at home – be yourself. Wear the clothes you would going out, smoke, drink, laugh loudly – do what you do. You may well feel a bit uncomfortable at first but in the end you’ll be more relaxed and enjoy their company far more. Taking your family into your world make this easier to do. Go down to your local or have a dinner party with your friends and them. I can feel some of you gasping at the very suggestion – try it first and then reject it, you never know it might just be OK.

But remember, this is a two-way process; if you want your family to see the real you, then make an effort to see the real them. You no doubt have expectations of them which could also do with a review.


This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.