Body image is a person's conception of his or her own body, including opinions about how that physical form appears to others. Altered body image is therefore any set of opinions about that body that diverge highly from reality or what is considered rational by that society. In certain cases, the phrase is also used to talk about situations in which a person's body does change, but where the mind has trouble making sense of the physical changes. There are many cases in which altered body image might develop, and sometimes this condition can become quite hazardous to a person's health.
One of the most common types of altered body image involves slight negative opinions about a person's own body. Sometimes, this discrepancy between reality and body image is due to insecurity or unrealistic expectations. In certain cases, depression can cause a person to experience altered body image problems. Generally, taking steps to feel good about one's self is the best way to overcome this problem.
Sometimes, a person might focus not on dissatisfaction with his or her body overall, but with a specific aspect of the body that is viewed as a flaw. This flaw might be rationally quite minor, such as having small hands, but when it becomes an obsession it can seem enormous to the person with body image problems. Sometimes, people who obsess over minor flaws take irrational measures to attempt to fix the problem, but this typically does not solve any issues in the long term. This is because another flaw will usually become the focus of the person's obsession.
When a person experiences altered body image problems due to actual changes in the body, the process of recovery is typically quite different. Amputees, for example, need to come to terms with permanent changes to their bodies through therapy and other treatments. In some cases, a person's self-image might come to include non-biological features, such as a hearing device or a prosthetic limb. The most important part of body image in these cases is usually thought to be restoring positive self-image. Failing to do so can result in depression.
Body image is highly complex because it is not only a personal issue but a social one as well. The way people talk about a person's body can have real effects on the way that person sees his or her body. This is particularly true when dealing with children, as children often learn how to think about themselves from their social spheres. The cause of altered body image is not always apparent, but treatment typically involves therapy and learning to think in more positive ways.