Women and Body Image

Last Editorial Review: 12/29/2004

As women, we all want to look and feel our best. This is not always easy, considering the busy life today's woman leads and the many responsibilities she may have. It can be tough to find time for exercising and eating right, not to mention controlling stress! Sometimes women can feel pressured to look and feel a certain way. We live in a culture that puts much emphasis on physical appearance. Developing and nurturing a positive body image and a healthy mental attitude is crucial to our happiness and wellness, as we move through the different stages of our lives.

Body image and our health and well being

Our health, which we sometimes can and cannot control, affects not just how we feel but how we look. Our body image - how we feel about how we look - can change when we have a health condition or illness. Pregnancy and menopause, natural life events women experience, can also affect body image. Learning about how our health affects our body image is an important first step in developing a positive body image.

The following resources focus on some of the top health concerns that can affect a woman's body image. Information and resources are provided for each health concern.


Every year, Americans spend billions of dollars on products, from vitamins to face creams, to stop aging. We worry about many things such as losing our memory, teeth, eyesight, hearing, sex drive, and ability to get around. Women can have special concerns about osteoporosis (thinning bones) and menopause. As we age, staying active and involved helps us to have a positive outlook on life. A healthy diet and regular exercise can ease common conditions like arthritis and can help prevent or control heart disease and high blood pressure.

In a society that places much value on youth, a woman's body image can be affected by aging in many ways. Physical changes such as weight gain, hair loss, and wrinkles can affect a woman's self-esteem. Menopause can be a stressful time for women due to hormonal changes. Osteoporosis can lead to broken bones and fractures, affecting a woman's independence. Women can often have two stressful roles - as caregiver and caretaker - raising children and taking care of elderly parents. Women can also feel lonely and less useful as they age, leading to depression. But aging is not all gloom and doom. It can offer women new opportunities in life and a new outlook. It is important to keep a positive attitude about aging.

Alopecia and Hair Loss

Bad hair days. We have all had them and know how they can ruin our day. Hair is something we notice right away about a person. When a woman has hair thinning or falling out, it can have a big impact on how she feels about herself. The most common type of hair loss in women is female pattern alopecia or baldness. It affects women mostly after menopause, although it can start as early as the pre-teenage years. Causes can include physical stress such as surgery and illness, emotional stress, thyroid problems, certain medications, and hormonal changes. Hair most often returns to normal once the causes are resolved. Another hair loss condition, which is also temporary in most cases, is alopecia areata. While researchers do not know what causes this condition, they think it may be an autoimmune disease. Hair loss, which is also temporary, is very common in women undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

People who have hair loss are usually in good health. But emotionally, this condition can be hard to handle and can change a woman's body image. There are treatments available for hair loss, along with a wide range of wigs, hairpieces, and techniques for styling hair. It is important to first talk with your health care provider if you have concerns about hair loss. Be aware that there are products on the market that make lots of promises but have never been tested for safety or effectiveness.


Cancer takes a huge toll on American women. By the end of 2001, some 625,000 women will have been diagnosed with cancer, and about 267,300 women will have died of the disease. Fifty-eight percent of the estimated 8.9 million cancer survivors today are women. Cancers that are specific to or affect women in high numbers include breast, cervical, endometrial (uterine), ovarian, lung, skin, and colorectal cancers, as well as AIDS-associated cancers. Breast cancer is the most frequent type of new cancer diagnosed in women. The number one cause of cancer deaths in women is lung cancer; breast cancer is number two. Cancer is a complex group of diseases where cells grow out of control, becoming abnormal and causing illness. Major advances have occurred in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Cancer and its treatments can affect a woman's body image in many ways. Surgery can cause changes in physical appearance and scarring. Other treatments can cause weight loss or weight gain, fatigue, nausea, hair loss, and skin changes, which can change how a woman looks and feels. Wigs and makeup are some options to help women look and feel better. If a woman has a breast removed, she can have surgery to reconstruct the breast or wear a prosthesis (an artificial or fake breast). Some women can find it hard to be upbeat when their treatment makes them feel bad or changes how they look. It is normal to feel this way. Talking with family, friends and your health care provider can give you the support you need to cope with cancer and it's treatments. For more, please visit the Cancer Center.


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About 16 million Americans have diabetes and the numbers are growing every day. Obesity (being overweight), aging, and the couch-potato lifestyle increase a person's risk for diabetes. Children can also get diabetes. During pregnancy, diabetes can occur, which goes away when the pregnancy is over. But this can put a woman at increased risk for developing diabetes when she is older. People who have diabetes have higher than normal blood sugar levels, which prevents their bodies from getting needed fuel for growth and energy. Some of the problems that can occur with diabetes include blindness, loss of a limb, heart disease, kidney failure, and premature death. With the proper treatment and changes in diet and exercise, many people who have diabetes can live healthy and full lives.

A woman's body image can change when she has diabetes. Even if a woman feels great, having to always watch what she eats and check her blood sugar can be a constant reminder that something is wrong. Starting a diet and exercise program to help manage diabetes can be stressful. It is important for women to learn as much as they can about managing diabetes. It is also important for women to know the warning signs of diabetes: extreme thirst; frequent urination; weight loss without trying to lose weight; extreme hunger; sudden vision changes; tingling or numbness in the hands or feet; continuous fatigue; very dry skin; slow-healing sores; and increase in infections. Seeing your health care provider as soon as you think there may be a problem is best. For more, please visit the Diabetes Mellitus Center.


HIV/AIDS is the third leading cause of death in women aged 25 to 44. For African-American women aged 25 to 44, it is the number one cause of death. The number of women getting infected with HIV has increased greatly in the past 10 years, particularly for younger women. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV weakens the body's immune system, causing infections and illnesses in a person that they otherwise could fight off. With major advances in treatment, HIV is becoming a chronic (lifelong) disease that can be managed with drugs. Prevention, such as not having sex and always using a condom every time a person has sex, is the best weapon against HIV.

Living with a chronic disease like HIV can affect a woman's body image. Drugs that a woman needs to stay healthy and to treat HIV-related illnesses can change how she feels and looks. Side effects such as nausea, fatigue, headache, diarrhea, and weight loss, can vary from person to person and be mild to extreme. Living with HIV can be stressful, affecting a woman's self-esteem and mental health. Women may need to care for children and other family members who also have HIV. Feeling alone, overwhelmed, and depressed at times is normal. Taking care of yourself and having a positive attitude is important. Getting the support you need from family and friends is equally important. For more, please visit the AIDS/HIV Center.


Autoimmune disease is the fourth leading cause of disability in women. There are over 80 different disorders, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Seventy-five percent of these illnesses occur in women, mostly of childbearing age. Lupus is three times more common in African-American women, even though women of all races get lupus. With autoimmune disease a person's immune system, which fights off disease and infection, attacks healthy tissue, making a person sick. Autoimmune diseases are hard to diagnose and treat. People can suffer a great deal, both physically and mentally, before health care providers figure out what is wrong.

Lupus and other autoimmune diseases can affect a woman's body image in many ways. Physical changes a woman has no control over can occur. With lupus, there is a trademark "butterfly" rash on the face and hair loss. Fatigue that can often be extreme is a partner in all of these illnesses, and can lead to depression. Coping with not feeling well, sometimes every day, can be very stressful. A woman may lose her independence or not be able to care for her family. It is important for women to talk about their concerns and to get the support they need. Many advances are happening with the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases.


If you are like most of today's women, you will live a third of your life after menopause. Menopause is the point in a woman's life when her period stops for good. This means she can no longer get pregnant. Menopause does not happen all at once. It can be a slow process where a woman has symptoms before her period stops, called perimenopause.

Learning about the physical and emotional changes with menopause is a good first step in having a positive body image. Hot flashes, while giving you really low heating bills, can be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Other symptoms include sleep problems, anxiety, depression, vaginal dryness (which can cause painful sex), having to urinate a lot, memory loss, weight gain, thinning hair, and changes in sex drive. Not every woman gets all these symptoms and each woman's experience is different. But when a woman starts to have any of these symptoms, it can be a surprise to her and can change how she sees herself. Simple changes in diet and exercise can help to ease the symptoms, along with hormone therapy (HT).

Oral Health

A nice smile and good teeth are often the first things we notice about a person. But not having healthy teeth can affect not only how our smile looks, it can also affect our overall health. People with gum disease are more at risk for heart disease. Pregnant women with gum disease are more likely to have their babies born early and with low birth weights. Many serious illnesses show early signs and symptoms in the mouth. Cavities can happen to us at any age, not just when we are children. Brushing each day after every meal with a soft bristle toothbrush and using dental floss daily, drinking fluorinated water, using fluoride toothpaste, plus check ups with a health care provider, can help a person to have and maintain good oral health.


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A woman's body image can be affected by her oral health. Oral lesions, such as cold sores and canker sores, may happen more often due to changing hormones during a woman's period, pregnancy, and menopause. Dry mouth, common in adults, can make it hard to eat and speak, and can be hard to cope with. Bad breath can happen when teeth and dentures (false teeth) are not properly cleaned and can be embarrassing. Tooth loss can occur as a result of gum disease or tooth decay. People over 40 years old are more at risk for mouth cancer, which often is not noticed in its early stages because people do not have regular visits with their health care provider. It can be hard for some women to get used to dentures.

Polycystic Ovary Disease (PCOD) and Infertility

Infertility - not being able to get pregnant - affects millions of American men and women. In women, infertility is most often explained by problems with ovulation, the process where the ovaries release eggs to be fertilized. Polycystic Ovary Disease makes a woman's ovaries become larger than normal and have fluid-filled sacs or cysts, which can make it more difficult to become pregnant or cause infertility. In addition to infertility, PCOD can cause irregular or no periods and pelvic pain. Women with PCOD can be more at risk for diabetes and miscarriage. There are many treatments for PCOD, along with options for getting pregnant.

PCOD and infertility can affect a woman's body image. Not being able to get pregnant can be very frustrating and can change how a woman views herself. Symptoms of PCOD, such as weight gain, excess hair growth (particularly on the face), thinning hair, and acne, can be upsetting and affect a woman's confidence. Losing a pregnancy can cause feelings of loss and guilt. Coping with PCOD can be stressful and women can experience depression and mood swings. Taking care of yourself, reducing stress, and getting support from family and friends is important.


Even before a woman knows for sure that she is pregnant, her body is already starting to change. It can be a wonderful experience and many women feel good and strong, especially by their second trimester. However, while every pregnancy is different, there are common discomforts most women have that can take getting some used to, such as weight gain, morning sickness, and fatigue. Getting enough rest, eating right, not over-doing it, and exercise can help to ease the symptoms. It is important to have regular pre-natal care from your health care provider.

A woman's body image can change during pregnancy. Skin changes such as acne or spider veins on the face and varicose veins on the legs can occur. Some women feel more emotional because of changing hormones. Sleep loss can add stress to already stressed lives. Women can worry about their changing roles, from being in the workplace, a wife, a single person, to becoming a mother and a caregiver. Women may have concerns about how a new baby will affect their other children. Relationships with partners can change, which can affect how women feel about themselves. It is important to talk to your partner, family, and friends about your feelings and concerns throughout your pregnancy. For more, please visit the  Pregnancy Planning Center.

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Skin Disorders and Scarring

Facing the day can be hard when a person has a skin disorder. While not life threatening, they can change the way a person looks and can be upsetting. Skin disorders can occur on not just a person's face, they can appear all over the body. Common skin disorders include acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. Some skin disorders tend to run in the family. While the reasons for some skin disorders are not clear, stress, pregnancy, and reactions to medications can affect skin health. Scars can form on a person's body from injury, surgery, and burns, and can vary in how noticeable they are.

Physical changes from a skin disorder can affect a woman's body image. Deep marks on the face from teenage acne, redness and bumps from rosacea, thick and scaly patches of skin from psoriasis, and red and swollen skin from eczema can occur. Skin disorders can be uncomfortable with itching, burning, and pain. While there are many treatments for skin disorders, it can be stressful finding the right one. It can take also time to clear up or get a skin disorder under control. Talk to your family and friends for support. It is also important to talk with your health care provider about ways to treat a skin disorder and use makeup to make the skin look better. Be aware that over-the-counter products can make false claims about what they can do.

For even more good information, please visit the Women's Health Center.

Portions of the above information has been provided with the kind permission of the National Women's Health Information Center.

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