Body Image and Social
THOMAS F. CASH
EMILY C. FLEMING
Among its many functions, the human body is a "social object." Physical appearance distinctively identifies a person within his or her social world, conveying such basic information as gender, race, approximate age, and perhaps even socioeconomic or occupational information. Throughout history and across cultures, human beings have altered and adorned their outer appearance for purposes of social communication. As Jackson articulated earlier in this volume, physical appearance influences social perceptions and behaviors, often in accordance with social stereotypes. Whether due to cultural socialization (see Jackson's chapter) or to bioevolutionary processes (see Nancy Etcoff's Survival of the Prettiest), an individual's degree of physical attractiveness can shape personal and interpersonal experiences over the lifespan.
In this chapter we address the question of how the self-perception of physical appearance, or body image, influences one's social experiences and functioning. Body image is not isomorphic with physical attractiveness—we do not see ourselves as others see us. Physically attractive people are not necessarily satisfied with their appearance, nor are less comely people inevitably unhappy with their looks. Regardless of people's actual physical characteristics, their own perceptions, beliefs, and feelings about their appearance might determine how they believe others view them. If so, a positive body image would facilitate social confidence and comfort, whereas a negative body image would lead to social inhibition and anxiety.