Reflecting a positive self-picture
By Jael Lodge
The fact that negative self-image can lead to self-esteem problems is not surprising. Western researchers, however, have made a discovery in the continuing study of the relationship between the two.
In an article published in the British Journal of Dermatology, part-time Western psychiatry faculty member Madhulika Gupta discusses a study which addresses the issue of self-image and self-esteem. The researchers discovered that among adolescents and young adults, depression and suicidal thinking can occasionally be linked to skin conditions and the negative self-image which can result.
"In the study we examined the prevalence of depressions in skin disorders," Gupta says. "What we found is that although [moderate acne sufferers] are clinically the least severe, instances of depression were similar to that of those suffering from psoriasis, a more chronically disfiguring condition, as well as the prevalence of suicidal tendencies."
Gupta feels the age group studied, moderate acne sufferers, adolescents and young adults, are more prone to depression than are others. "They are vulnerable to changes in body image and self-esteem," she says.
Negative self-image and self-esteem can also be a symptom of deeper issues. "The individual tends to focus on acne when there are more serious problems. There is a subgroup of acne sufferers who become more concerned with their general body image," Gupta says.
The study discovered when the acne clears up in this group, even when there has been no other physical change such as to their weight, the other worries about self-image also tend to disappear.
Another study in which Gupta participated discovered that there are other issues related to self-image which can be either connected to, or separate from, weight and skin concerns. "We looked at different aspects of the body. What we found was that the anorexic/bulimic group were significantly more occupied with other aspects of their appearance, such as nose, ears, jaw or legs."
Gupta points to the phenomenon of negative self-image as an increasingly global issue which is under-recognized and under-studied. Images and ideals, with the assistance of modern communication, can be transmitted across distance and cultures. "From a very young age people are bombarded with these images," says Gupta.
Gail Hutchinson, a psychologist and director of the Student Development Centre, agrees with Gupta's findings. "The way you view yourself is undoubtedly [an issue]."
According to Hutchinson, the association of depression with self-image is a complex symbiotic relationship, where the two elements actually feed off each other. The difficulty arises in determining the initial problem.
"Whatever happens in your life feeds into your self-image," Hutchinson says, citing examples such as parents, events, peers, cultural issues, trauma or abuse. "You have to try to find out where the messages are from and then question them."
These messages can also be produced internally. The sociological concept of "The Looking Glass Self" produces a set of factors which are equally complex. "There's a whole series of processes that we can identify," says Alan Pomfert, head of the sociology department at King's College.
Pomfert defines processes such as "reflected appraisals" (thinking they know how others see them) and "social comparison" (looking at themselves as compared to others) as elements of this theory. A third process is one of "self-attribution," whereby someone compares themselves to perceived ideals, such as those presented in the media described by Gupta.
"Some people are highly affected by this and others just let it roll off them," Pomfert says. "What we can't predict is who will be affected by what and to what extent."
Pomfert emphasizes self-image can be related to things other than personal appearance. "I still think that primary are the achievements you have and how you feel about them.
"Low self-esteem can be boosted by achievement or lowered by failure, no matter how supportive friends and family might be."