Genetic Influence on Body Image

moleculeContributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder

There is more to body image than meets the eye. Body image is a culmination of multiple factors that influence the way a person perceives his or her body and the feelings and emotions that result from the way a person views their body.

The factors that can relate to and influence body image are widespread and may include an individual’s environment and surroundings, the experiences and circumstances they have had (including any past trauma, abuse or neglect), the presence of other mental disorders (such as an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), temperament, personality, and character traits, and genetic predisposition.

Body Image Has Previously Been Seen as Environment-Only

Many people understand body image to be something that is only influenced by the environment by which we are surrounded. For example, as a society that is predominately influenced by a dieting mentality and weight obsession, there are justifiable reasons to think that this mainstream culture plays a role in the development of poor body image in many people.

However, it is important to note the fact that not everyone who is within this culture will develop negative or poor body image, therefore it cannot be assumed that environment is the only factor at play. This logically leads to an explanation that other aspects are involved with the development of body image. While genetics and biology may not be the more obvious factors interplaying with body image, a direct correlation exists.

How Do Genetics Relate to Body Image?

What is the role of biology and genetics in body image and how a person views themselves and their body? Research has suggested that some individual’s genes may make them more susceptible to weight-obsessed, dieting mentality that permeates Western culture, as well as predisposed to developing other mental illnesses, such as an eating disorder1.

Mature woman with   daughter having serious conversationOne particular study estimated that the heritability of thin idealization, or the degree to which people differed in their partiality towards the thinness ideal can be attributed to genetics, is over 40 percent1.

In response to this study that was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, lead author noted, “We were surprised to find that shared environmental factors, such as exposure to the same media, did not have as big an impact as expected.”

It is also thought that that possible genetic factors that influence the internalization of a thin idea may also overlap with genetic aspects that determine personality characteristics that may play a role in the development of eating disorders, such as perfectionism, tendency towards anxiety and more.

This information is important to take in consideration in the understanding of body image, as both genetic and environmental factors are likely both contributing to the manner in which a person develops body image.

Recognizing the Genetic Component to Combat Stigma

While further research is helping identify exactly which genes may be responsible for the internalization of the thin ideal, recognizing the existence of the genetic component of body image is important for breaking the many stigmas that surround body image struggles.

Women and men alike should know that body image is indeed a complex concept, one that cannot just be pinned on the surround environment. Accepting this information can help alleviate much of the shame that is involved with poor body image. Women and men who deal with negative body image may feel shame in their struggles, which can lead to an inability to seek out help and support.

mother and daughter resting on a bench in the parkThe truth is that negative body image may be the result of biological factors in combination with environment factors, and genetics are not things that can necessarily be avoided or changed.

Finding Professional Support

Seeking out professional support can be one of the most effective tools in overcoming a negative body image. For example, a person who is more inclined towards a perfectionist personality and who struggles with poor body image may benefit from psychotherapy and counseling, which may help in overcoming rigid thinking and attitudes.

Other aspects of professional treatment may be helpful for negative body image as well, such as pharmacotherapy. Understanding the many factors involved can be helpful in increasing the effectiveness of treatment.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What do you think is the genetic and biological influence and connection with body image? How do you think a holistic approach to treatment that addresses both environmental and biological factors is helpful in overcoming a mental health disorder?


  1. Susiman, Jessica L., et al. Genetic and environmental influences on thin-ideal internalization. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Volume 45, Issue 8; 942-948, December 2012.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 12th, 2015
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