Love Your Tree – Addressing Body Image on College Campuses & Beyond

Contributor:  Kim Anderson, PhD, Psychology Coordinator, and Kate Clemmer, LCSW-C, Community Outreach Coordinator of The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt

“In doing this project, I was forced to look at myself in a new light. My body isn’t just an object that I have to ‘perfect’ and make more ‘beautiful.’ It is an instrument, a tool for me to use to live my life to the fullest. My body is a work of art and it tells a story… my story.” 

~ Love Your Tree Participant

Body image is a complex phenomenon. It has been defined in multiple and confusing ways over many years.  One of the most straightforward definitions suggests that body image refers to “the picture of our own body which we form in our own mind.”1 After years of research, we now know that this “picture” has a vital role in humans’ lives.

Beginning in early childhood, body image has an impact on all areas of life because it affects how we think, feel, and behave.The impacts of this don’t cease to affect us after adolescence despite a persisting myth that body dissatisfaction is “just a phase” associated with adolescent angst.

According to national surveys, 56% of adult women and 43% of men report overall dissatisfaction with their appearance.3 In fact, the term “normative discontent” was coined to describe the pervasive negative attitudes and feelings that many people have toward their bodies.4

Negative Body Image is Too Common

tree-425138_1280Negative body image has been linked to serious psychological and physical problems including low self-esteem, anxiety, social problems, depression, eating disorders and physical problems associated with eating disorders.5,6,7   In contrast, a positive body image is related to high self-esteem, life satisfaction, and an overall sense of well-being.

While negative body image can cause problems at any point in the lifespan, there are some particular life stages that may pose increased risks for body image dissatisfaction during which negative thoughts may intensify or be more likely to trigger unhealthy behaviors.  One of these difficult transitions is college.

With college often comes elevated academic pressure, social/interpersonal stressors, fear of weight gain or “the freshman 15”, increased exposure to substance use and, of course,  new independence around food and eating.  All of these factors can create significant emotional distress (e.g., anxiety, depression) and may lead to problematic behaviors such as chronic dieting, smoking, and compulsive exercise.

A 2006 survey by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) found that nearly 20 percent of the more than 1,000 college students surveyed – both male and female – said they had or previously had eating disorders.9  That means on a large campus of 30,000 students, as many as 6,000 may have experienced an eating disorder.

In another study of college students at Cornell, almost 90 percent of normal-weight women endorsed negative body image and a desire to be thinner.10 Thus, it’s important to remember that even for those who do not develop a full blown eating disorder, the negative effects of body dissatisfaction may be considerable and can still have a negative impact on health.11  With this in mind, interventions for enhancing body image and preventing the development of body image disturbance have been developed.12,13,14 

Love Your Tree Campaign

palm-trees-323350_1280The Love Your Tree campaign is a program that targets two identified risk factors for the development of negative body image: low self-esteem and the internalization of the cultural body ideal.15,16  Specifically, through art and education, Love Your Tree focuses on helping students to challenge our society’s thin ideal.

The nonverbal nature of art can be very engaging and helpful in reducing resistance to participation.17 Further, when education is combined with experiential learning, in eating disorder prevention programs, the increase in knowledge may be longer lasting and more likely to increase attitude and behavior change.14

The Love Your Tree program was established by Julia Andersen, Senior Art Therapist at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, in 2006 to promote healthy body image and help prevent eating disorders in middle and high schools but has since been adapted and implemented in a variety of ways on college campuses and for other organizations. In general, Love Your Tree workshops include education about misleading media messages, the nature of diverse bodies and the importance of health and self-care vs. weight.

The program was inspired by Eve Ensler’s play “the Good Body”, in which she compares one’s body to a tree – each natural and uniquely beautiful, free from comparison.  After providing students with media literacy skills, the Love Your Tree campaign invites students to design a poster in response to the tree metaphor.

During poster creation, students are encouraged to celebrate the acceptance of diverse bodies and challenge the narrow definition of beauty set forth by the media. This is one of the most important aspects of the campaign as it employs a cognitive dissonance intervention which has been used successfully in eating disorder prevention programs to reduce body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin-ideal, and eating disorder behavior.19

Therapy Through Art

branches-238379_1280Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation in which someone holds attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that contradict one another.  Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory suggests that it’s uncomfortable for us to be in such a state of internal conflict and so we’re likely to try to align our thoughts and behaviors in a way that makes more sense.20 For example, expressing positive statements about your body, feeling gratitude for your body or, in this case, promoting messages of self-acceptance through art, would be in direct conflict with a belief in the “thin ideal” or behaviors like restrictive dieting or over-exercise.

Since its development, the Love Your Tree program has been the catalyst for thousands of pieces of body-positive artwork.  Poster exhibits on campuses and throughout communities have provided student artists of all ages an opportunity to creatively convey an appreciation for their own bodies and to encourage others who view the art to do the same.

“In addition to prevention and educational programs like Love Your Tree, The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt provides a full continuum of treatment options for individuals and families impacted eating disorders.


  1. Schilder, P. (1935).  The Image and Appearance of the Human Body.  New York:  International Universities Press.
  2. Fisher, S. (1990).  The evolution of psychological concepts about the body.  In T. F. Cash and T. Pruzinsky (eds.).  Body images:  Development, Deviance, and Change. New York:  Guilford Press.
  3. Garner, D., (1997). The 1997 body image survey results.  Psychology Today, 30, 30-44.
  4. Rodin, J., Silberstein, L, & Striegel-Moore, R. (1985).  Women and weight:  A normative discontent.  In T. Sonderegger (Ed.), Nebaska symposium on motivation:  Psychology and gender (267-307).  Lincoln: University Nebraska Press.
  5. Stice, E., & Bearman, S. (2001).  Body image and eating disturbance prospectively predict increases in depressive symptoms in adolescent girl:  A growth curve analysis.  Developmental Psychology, 37, 597-607.
  6. Stice, E., & Shaw, H. (2002).  Role of body dissatisfaction in the onset and maintenance of eating pathology:  A synthesis of research findings.  Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53, 985-993.
  7. Streigel-Moore, R., & Franko, D. (2002).  Body image issues among girls and women.  In T. Cash and T. Pruzinsky (Eds.), Body image:  A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice.  New York:  Guilford Press.
  8. Stokes, R., & Frederick-Recascino, C. (2003).  Women’s perceived body image:  Relations with personal happiness.  Journal of Women and Aging, 15, 7-27.
  9. National Eating Disorders Association. National Eating Disorders Association announces results of eating disorders poll on college campuses across the nation. [Accessed August 17, 2015]; Market Wire. 2006 Sep; Available at: 
  10. Neighbors, L., & Sobal, J. (2007).  Prevalence and magnitude of body weight and shape dissatisfaction among university students. Eating Behavior, 4, 429-439.
  11. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S., Hannan, P., & Haines, J. (2006).  Does body dissatisfaction matter?  Five-year longitudinal associations between body dissatisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males.  Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 24-251.
  12. Cash, T., (1997).  The body image workbook:  An 8 step program.  New York: MJF.
  13. Steiner-Adair, C., Sjostrom, L., Franko, D., Pai, S., Tucker, R., Becker, A. et al. (2002).  Primary prevention of risk factors for eating disorders in adolescent girls:  Learning from practice.  International Journal of Eating Disorders, 32- 401-411.
  14. Stice, E., & Presnell, K. (2007).  The Body Project: Promoting body acceptance and preventing eating disorders.  New York: Oxford University Press.
  15. Stice, E., Chase, A., & Appel, A. (2001).  A randomized trial of a dissonance-based eating disorder prevention program.  International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29, 247-262.
  16. Smolak, L., & Levine, M. (1996).  Adolescent transitions and the development of eating problems.  In L Smolak, M. Levine, & R. Streigel-Moore (Eds.), The developmental psychopathology of eating disorders:  Implications for research, prevention, and treatment (pp. 207- 233).
  17. Rubin, J. (Ed.)  (1987).  Approaches to Art Therapy, NY: Routledge.
  18. Festinger, L. (1957).  A theory of cognitive dissonance.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders.  These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.  We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors.  If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.  

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 28, 2015. Published on