Body image, internal image, and self-perception

The image we have of ourselves

Raise your hand if, when looking at yourself in the mirror, you like what you see… (I can’t see many!)

And now raise your hand if you  never like what you see when you look at yourself in pictures… (there you go, almost everyone!)

Have you ever wondered why do we have such a complex relationship with our body image? What’s the reason behind it? The answer is difficult, but if you concentrate on the screen I’ll try to be as rapid as possible… however I can’t assure you I won’t be long.

The relationship we have with our body image depends on the type of relationship we have with our internal image, which is the image we have of ourselves no matter the real perception we have of our body (very often we don’t even recognize us in the mirror). We employ this image as a model image, which we usually compare with photos, for example.

One’s feeling does not correspond to one body’s image.

The image we have of ourselves depends on several types of mental process, the most important of whom are: sensorial perception, emotional expressions’ perception and the recognition in other people’s faces, the maternal face’s introjection, looking one’s self in the mirror, the process of familiarization, the love we have for ourselves, the role models.

As you may imagine, such discourse is very detailed and focuses on the psychological processes that sometimes follow the diverse logic from the ones we use most of the time. Let’s look at the various points in detail so that we can make them clearer.

  • Sensorial perception in the creation of our inner image

Sensorial perception can be defined as a constant, subconscious flow of information that derives from the mobile parts of our body (such as muscles, articulations, tendons) which shapes the tones, posture, and movement.
The ability to perceive and recognize our own body position in space (known as “Kinesthesia”), together with touch, sight, pain or thermal sensations are recorded and shape our body image. In psychology the latter is referred to the mental frame we create of our body.

  • Emotional expressions’ perception and recognition in others’ faces

Our own face’s perception derives from the innervation process which controls muscles. As a consequence when we’re happy we have a diverse expression from the one we have when we’re upset or sad. Since our face is the only part of our body we can’t look at ( if not in the mirror  ), we create our image of it through other people’s faces. It means that, when we have a certain feeling, for example, we imitate or imagine repeating the expression we’ve already seen on someone else’s face.

It follows that the inner image of our face’s expressivity is linked to the experiences we previously had with other people, who worked as a real mirror to us. In summary, we store into ourselves an image of the other person that helps us codifying our sensorial perception. Therefore our inner image isn’t limpid and it might also be fragmentary because the memory of our face and expressions is exclusively linked to the mirror or a photo.

  • The maternal face’s introjection in the creation of our inner image

Here things start getting more complicated. We’ve previously said that other people’s face helps us decoding what we perceive physically and emotionally. If you think about it, the first face we meet is our mother’s one (whether you want it or not). By looking at his mother’s face, the baby sees himself, starting from the way he feels, since a responsive mother returns what the baby gives her. The baby feels a correspondence between what he feels and what he sees, he feels accepted, recognized, and satisfied with his desires. When the mother isn’t responsive, the baby feels he’s not receiving what he’s giving and he hasn’t got an acknowledgment with his mood. This maternal face is introjected and employed for the creation of the one’s whole image; when the maternal look hasn’t been responsive through the time the child will have problems when looking at himself in the mirror, because he wasn’t accepted and recognized. He will also have problems with other people’s faces because they will be felt as ambiguous or like they should be analyzed. Such primary experience is fundamental for our inner image’s construction: a person who had a responsive relationship with his/her mother will have a good relationship with mirrors, with his/her proper image and others’ faces.

  • Looking at ourselves in the mirror as a creation of our bodily image

So, if the maternal face is fundamental for our feelings’ recognition, the mirror becomes fundamental for our body’s recognition. The baby aged between 6 and 18 months who looks at himself in the mirror goes from not being able to identify himself, thus playing with the image as it was another person, to identify with that figure. Such a moment is relevant because the body had been lived in a fragmentary way until that time: now the baby finds a unicity through that image’s projection.

It would look like we build our inner image’s construction exclusively during our first years of life, but it becomes very delicate during adolescence too… it’s a moment when our inner image’s construction can be influenced by the desire to look like our role model: how many of us dressed or acted like the most famous singer or actress of a certain time? So many did. The risk consists of building a false identity because when we feel we look alike to our role model, that’s the right moment when we feel stronger, attractive, and popular. It’s such a pity it’s a mere illusion because we can’t be them.

If you’re still here despite all the psychological summary, you’ve surely understood that the image we have of ourselves is not simply what we see in the mirror.

Then add the process of familiarization, which is part of the energetic economy of our body thanks to whom we look in the mirror every morning and recognize ourselves ( well, that depends on the night you spent!). Thanks to such a process, we feel like we don’t see our face for the first time every single day, otherwise, it’d be a continuous trauma! Apart from the relationship you have with your image, it’s very comforting for our brain to see every day the same face in the mirror, and in case you feel a certain sensation of deep love for yourself, then it becomes quite pleasing too.

If there’s anyone among you survivors that wants to share thoughts and experiences about the image we have of ourselves, I’d glad to answer to such comments.

If you want to learn more about psychology and photography, find more articles here.