If you're like most women, looking in the mirror -- particularly a full-length mirror -- is rarely the experience you want it to be. Unlike most men, experts say, women are rarely satisfied with their appearance and are always seeking a better body image.
"Research suggests that in general, women have slightly lower self-esteem overall when compared to men. But when it comes to body image, there is an enormous gender gap, with women reporting an overwhelmingly greater body dissatisfaction when compared to men," says Denise Martz, PhD, a clinical health psychologist, and professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
Martz, who recently designed and supervised a 2,000-woman body image survey for Slim-Fast, says women of all shapes and sizes are affected.
"Seventy-eight percent of the women in our survey said they wished they could wear a smaller size -- even the ones who were already a size 8," says Martz.
Many believe this dissatisfaction with size and shape is linked to an even more serious problem: a lack of self-esteem.
"Unfortunately, in our culture, self-image and body image are inextricably entwined -- so it becomes extremely difficult to feel good about yourself when, every time you look in a mirror, you see only the negatives," says Michelle May, MD, an Arizona family practice physician and founder and director of Am I Hungry.com.
And many women find themselves unable to break this cycle, even though they realize it's wrong-headed.
"A large percentage of the surveyed women said it is possible for women to be a larger size and have self-esteem, but when it came to them personally, they said it's hard to feel good about themselves when they are a larger size," says Matx. "So what they are saying is that, in theory, we should not equate self-worth with size, but when it comes to us personally, we still do."
So why do women feel this way -- and what can we do about it? The answers may surprise you.
Body Image and the Media
When it comes to eroding women's self-esteem, the first finger of blame almost universally points to the media. From sexy, leggy models in magazines, to ultra-thin celebs on the big and little screen -- even ads for healthy and low-fat foods -- media images seem to play on our need to be glamorous and skinny.
"All of it sends just one message to women: That you are only acceptable if you look a certain way," says May.
Clinical psychologist Caroline Kaufman notes that this message has far-reaching effects -- even in places you'd never dream it would matter.
"In 2003, a pair of Harvard researchers noted how, when the Pacific island of Fiji got cable TV in 1995 (Friends, Ally McBeal, Melrose Place, etc.), rates of anorexia and bulimia skyrocketed," says Kaufman, an instructor at Columbus State Community College in Ohio.