Self-image is the idea or conception one has about oneself (Colman, 2001). While the term is often used interchangeably with self-esteem, self-image refers to one’s perception of oneself, while self-esteem indicates the value one places on oneself (i.e., positive or negative).
Adolescents and young adults often experience an identity crisis as they struggle to figure out who they are as individuals, and what social role best fits with their self-image. This has to do with the transition from a dependent child, whose identity is largely shaped by family, to an independent young adult, who is discovering his interests, abilities, and social role in relation to peers.
Society may promote body image ideals, suggesting through media images that males should be big and strong, while females should be thin and beautiful. These pressures can result in distorted body images.
People who perceive themselves as heavier than societal ideals (especially adolescent females) may develop eating disorders. Distorted body image may also contribute to substance abuse, with males using steroids to gain muscle mass and both males and females using stimulants (e.g., diet pills, methamphetamine) to get or stay thin (Kumpfer, Smith, & Summerhays, 2008). Severe distortion of body image that results in marked distress and impairment is known as body dysmorphic disorder.
Western cultures (such as in the United States) tend to be individualistic, valuing autonomy and promoting independence, achievement of individual goals, attending to the self, and discovering and expressing unique, inner attributes. Asian cultures tend to be more collectivist, emphasizing harmonious interdependence with others, attending to others, and fitting in.
Individualistic cultures tend to stress that emotions and personal attributes come from within (internal), while collectivistic cultures consider external factors—the individual’s relationships, role, and obligations in relation to family and society.
A culture’s focus—on individual independence and autonomy (individualistic), or interrelatedness (collectivistic)—helps shape a person’s self-image and self-conceptOpens in new window (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).
Self-image is a feature of several personality disordersOpens in new window, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
The DSM-IV-TR, used by mental health professionals in the United States, describes mental health disorders. A feature of borderline personality disorderOpens in new window is an unstable self-image as well as impulsivityOpens in new window, self-destructiveness, and unstable interpersonal relationships and mood.
Unstable self-image or sense of self is characterized by shifting goals, values, vocational aspirations, sexual identity, and friends. The DSM-IV-TR describes individuals with borderline personality disorderOpens in new window as having a self-image based on being bad or evil or feelings of not existing at all.
In narcissistic personality disorderOpens in new window, self-image is stable but inflated (grandiose). Narcissistic personality disorder is also characterized by a need for admiration and a lack of empathy.
Inflated self-image is manifested in a sense of self-importance, exaggeration of achievements and talents, an expectation to be recognized as superior, preoccupation with fantasies of power and success, and a sense of entitlement.
Dissociative identity disorderOpens in new window (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) is characterized by at least two distinct personality or identity states. It reflects a failure to integrate various aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness and is usually associated with a history of trauma.
Each personality state may have its own personal history, self-image, identity, gender, and name. different identities may emerge in specific circumstances (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
In psychoanalytic terms, the super-ego (or ego ideal) forms an individual’s idealized self-image. The super-ego’s criticism, prohibitions, and inhibitions form the conscience. Typically developing within the first five years of life, the super-egoOpens in new window reflects internalization of the parent’s moral standards and values. Violations of these standards results in shame, guilt, or anxiety. As the child develops through adolescence, values and ideals from peers and society are incorporated into the child’s changing self-image.
- Kirberger, K. (2003). No body’s perfect: Stories by teens about body image, self-acceptance, and the search for identity. New York: Scholastic Paperbacks.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Colman, A.M. (2001). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Kumpfer, K.L., Smith, P., & Summerhays, J.F. (2008). A wakeup call to the prevention field: Are prevention programs for substance use effective for girls? Substance Use & Misuse, 43, 978 – 1001.
- Markus, H.R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224 – 253.