Body Image: Recognizing Triggers and Environmental Causes

Contributor: Carrie Decker, ND, Naturopathic physician

young-370385_640For an individual who has dealt with an eating disorder or someone who has watched a person close to them suffer, the factors that contribute to the development of this struggle is often questioned. The development of an eating disorder is multifold, and even genetics may contribute.

Body image also comes up as a contributor to eating disorder development. For both boys and girls alike, a negative body image can lead to preoccupation with ways to change it, and possibly the development of an eating disorder. But what factors lead to people feeling negatively about their body?

What Influences Body Image?

As with many behaviors and interests, people are affected by the people and things most present in their life. In childhood, the influential beings are caretakers and with increasing age social factors and peers have greater influence.

The images portrayed by the media including television, movies, magazines, and things online also become more influential with age. Concerningly, some research has demonstrated that a negative body image is becoming increasingly prevalent in younger children (1).

The Media and “Weight-teasing”

walkway-403481_640In the pre-adolescent years between 9 and 14, the media starts to play a stronger role; however, studies have also shown that parental emphasis on a desire for thinness also has influence (2). In females between 5th to 12th grade, 69% reported that images in magazines affected their perception of ideal body image, and 47% reported wanting to lose weight because these images (3).

“Weight-teasing” in adolescence also leads to the development of lower self-esteem and negative body image (4). In both boys and girls age 12 – 18 the media continues to play a role in the desire for a specific body image (5). For boys this often is the desire to have a more muscular or toned appearance, and women the desire to achieve a low body weight.

The Influence Goes Beyond Fashion Magazines

Regardless of the content that one is intentionally seeking via media use, advertisements and pictures within it play a subtle but very significant role of influencing social norms and concepts of ideal body image (6). Even magazines that support seemingly more holistic pursuits such as yoga or natural living often utilize models with an unnaturally thin or “perfect” physique.

And not just individuals with an eating disorder have an obsession with an “ideal” body – the popularity of weight reduction surgeries, breast enhancement, and many other surgical interventions for enhancement have become common place. Each of these surgeries is sought after because of the desire for an appearance different than what one would naturally have.

Reinforcing a Positive Body Image

book-fair-678256_640The question of course is how to not be subject to these images that are falsely perceived as perfect, and how to reinforce a more positive image of one’s self. This is no easy task, as these images seem to jump out of the wall on a day to day basis. Some answers are not obvious, and may come secondarily to other attitude shifts.

The exposures which lead one to self evaluate may need to be discontinued for some time. For some this may mean taking a break from activities of competition as a competitive attitude often comes with self-comparing behaviors. For others this may mean stopping some aspects of exposure. This can include magazine subscriptions, time spent on the internet, or watching television.

Finding “Safe” Stores to Shop at

Even the selection of where to shop can be an issue – just as there are “child safe” aisles at the grocery store, finding a grocery without magazines or tabloids in the checkout or practicing self-disciple by not looking at them may be necessary.

Self-weighing behaviors trigger a negative feedback loop, and for most people is not necessary even at routine physician visits. Frequent weighing can cause individuals to be more likely to diet as well as engage in other unhealthy weight control behaviors, and also contributes to lower self-esteem and greater body dissatisfaction (7).

Embracing the Differences Between People

assistance-72834_640Sometimes embracing the aspects of difference in image or the beauty in imperfection can be helpful. There is increasing societal awareness of the impact image has on ideas of beauty, even many models have come forth embracing pictures of what they really look like prior to the photo enhancement techniques used in advertisements.

Advocacy for real bodies, with hopes, will become the next social norm, and many of these people have supported its promotion. Many other tactics to improving body image exist, and seeking one of these out to embrace on a daily basis will help promote greater self (and other!) acceptance. Doing something for someone else rather than dwelling on something that you don’t like about yourself also helps to shift the focus and promote healing as well.

Treating the Body as a Function

The body is magnificent in its form and function – weight is but a very small part. The liver is constantly metabolizing nutrients, detoxifying harmful substances, and processing cholesterol (among many other things), the heart is pumping blood through the body at a rate of roughly 70 beats a minute, the lungs are breathing and exchange air 14 times a minute.

The body is always renewing itself as well, as the skin completely renews itself in 28 days, the majority of the cells of the immune system turn over in 2 weeks, and the red blood cell population is entirely new in 120 days.

Each of these parts of the body is improved in function by taking in nourishment through food. Taking some time to learn about or meditate on the function of the body and be grateful for it daily will also help to give a larger perspective to life than just focusing on the just the size or shape of the being that holds it!

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

In what ways do you think that we, as an eating disorder community, can help to provide emphasis and awareness to the importance of positive body image?

About the Author:

Dr. Carrie Decker is a board-certified naturopathic physician with the North American Board of Naturopathic Examiners, graduating with honors from the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Decker works with clients locally in Wisconsin as well as distant regions via telemedicine (Skype or phone) services.

To find out more about Dr. Decker or naturopathic medicine, visit or call 608.620.5831.


  1. Damiano, S. R., Cornell, C., Hart, L., Sutherland, F., & Paxton, S. J. (2013). A parent’s guide to promoting positive body image in their young children: development of a prevention resource. Journal of Eating Disorders, 1(Suppl 1), O40.
  2. Field, A. E., Camargo, C. A., Taylor, C. B., Berkey, C. S., Roberts, S. B., & Colditz, G. A. (2001). Peer, parent, and media influences on the development of weight concerns and frequent dieting among preadolescent and adolescent girls and boys. Pediatrics, 107(1), 54-60.
  3. Field, A. E., Cheung, L., Wolf, A. M., Herzog, D., Gortmaker, S. L. & Colditz, G. A. Exposure to the mass media and weight concerns among girls. Pediatrics. 1999 Mar;103(3):E36.
  4. Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Haines, J., & Wall, M. (2006). Weight-teasing and emotional well-being in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(6), 675-683.
  5. Field, A. E., Austin, S. B., Camargo, C. A., Taylor, C. B., Striegel-Moore, R. H., Loud, K. J., & Colditz, G. A. (2005). Exposure to the mass media, body shape concerns, and use of supplements to improve weight and shape among male and female adolescents. Pediatrics, 116(2), e214-e220.
  6. Hawkins, N., Richards, P. S., Granley, H. M., & Stein, D. M. (2004). The impact of exposure to the thin-ideal media image on women. Eating disorders, 12(1), 35-50.
  7. Quick, V., Loth, K., MacLehose, R., Linde, J. A., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013). Prevalence of adolescents’ self-weighing behaviors and associations with weight-related behaviors and psychological well-being. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52(6), 738-744.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 18th, 2015
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