The Development of Body Image in School-Aged Girls: A Review of the Literature from Sociocultural, Social Learning Theory, Psychoanalytic, and Attachment Theory Perspectives

  • Hannah Knafo The New School for Social Research


This paper outlines the research that has been conducted on the development of body image in young children, particularly in girls. Beginning with a detailed understanding of the developmental progression of body image, and its relationship to self-concept in early life, this review continues to explore the various theoretical perspectives on how body image and body esteem develop at young ages. The research from attachment theory and other psychoanalytic theories, social learning theory, and sociocultural perspectives are reviewed in detail. The review of this literature explains the multiple influential factors on body image and body satisfaction throughout the lifespan. This paper also highlights the need for more empirical research regarding the influence of early parent-child relationships on the full spectrum of body image dissatisfaction, which has become so prevalent amongst women and girls in Western society.

Author Biography

Hannah Knafo, The New School for Social Research
Doctoral Candidate, Clinical Psychology


Abraczinskas, M., Fisak, B., & Barnes, R. D. (2012). The relation between parental influence, body image, and eating behaviors in a nonclinical female sample. Body Image, 9(1), 93-100. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2011.10.005

Allen, K. L., Byrne, S. M., Blair, E. M., & Davis, E. A. (2006). Why do some overweight children experience psychological problems? The role of weight and shape concern. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 1(4), 239-47. doi:10.1080/17477160600913552

Bandura, A. (1971). Social Learning Theory. NewYork, NY: General Learning Press.

Bell, B. and Dittmar, H. (2011). Does media type matter? The role of identification in adolescent girls’ media consumption and the impact of different thin-ideal media on body image. Sex Roles, 65(7), 478. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9964-x

Blond, A., Whitaker, A. H., Lorenz, J. M., Feldman, J. F., Nieto, M., Pinto-Martin, J. A., & Paneth, N. (2008). Weight concerns in male low birth weight adolescents: Relation to body mass index, self-esteem, and depression. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 29(3), 166-172. doi:10.1097/DBP.0b013e318167045c

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Separation anxiety and anger (Volume II). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London, UK: Tavistock Publications Limited.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bretherton, I., & Munholland, K. A. (1999). Internal working models in attachment relationships: A construct revisited. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 89-111). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Brownell, C. A., Zerwas, S., & Ramani, G. B. (2007). “So big”: The development of body self-awareness in toddlers. Child Development, 78(5), 1426-1440. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01075.x

Buhl-Nielsen, B. (2006). Mirrors, body image and self. International Congress Series, 1286, 87-94. doi:10.1016/j.ics.2005.09.149

Cheng, H. L., & Mallinckrodt, B. (2009). Parental bonds, anxious attachment, media internalization, and body image dissatisfaction: Exploring a mediation model. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(3), 365. doi:10.1037/a0015067

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Davison, K. K., Markey, C. N., & Birch, L. L. (2003). A longitudinal examination of patterns in girls’ weight concerns and body dissatisfaction from ages 5 to 9 years. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 33(3), 320-332. doi:10.1002/eat.10142

Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E., & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5-to 8-year-old girls. Developmental psychology, 42(2), 283. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.2.283

Dohnt, H. K., & Tiggemann, M. (2005). Peer influences on body dissatisfaction and dieting awareness in young girls. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 103-116. doi:10.1348/026151004X20658

Dohnt, H. K., & Tiggemann, M. (2006a). The contribution of peer and media influences to the development of body satisfaction and self-esteem in young girls: A prospective study. Developmental Psychology, 42(5), 929. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.5.929

Dohnt, H. K., & Tiggemann, M. (2006b). Body image concerns in young girls: The role of peers and media prior to adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(2), 135-145. doi:10.1007/s10964-005-9020-7

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E. L., & Target, M. (2004). Affect regulation, mentalization and the development of the self. New York, NY: Other Press.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(2), 173-206. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x

Freud, A. (1989). Normality and pathology in childhood: Assessments of development. London, UK: Karnac Books. (Original work published 1965)

Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. Vienna, AT: W.W. Norton and Company.

Fulkerson, J. A., McGuire, M. T., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., French, S. A., & Perry, C. L. (2002). Weight-related attitudes and behaviors of adolescent boys and girls who are encouraged to diet by their mothers. International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders, 26(12), 1579-1588. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802157

Gardner, R. M. (2002). Body image assessment of children. In T. F. Cash & T. Pruzinsky (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of theory, research, andclinical practice (pp. 127-134). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Grogan, S. (2007). Body image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women and children. New York, NY: Routledge.

Haick, T. (2012). The relationship between attachment organization, mirror behavior and body image dissatisfaction in mothers (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The New School for Social Research: New York, NY.

Hargreaves, D., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). The effect of “thin ideal” television commercials on body dissatisfaction and schema activation during early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 32(5), 367-373. doi:10.1023/A:1024974015581

Harter, S. (1999). The construction of the self: A developmental perspective. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Harter, S. (2000). Is self-esteem only skin-deep? The inextricable link between physical appearance and self-esteem. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9(3), 133. Retrieved from

Harter, S. (2012). The construction of the self: Developmental and sociocultural foundations (2nd Edition). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Hill, A. J., & Franklin, J. A. (1998). Mothers, daughters and dieting: Investigating the transmission of weight control. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 37(1), 3-13. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1998.tb01275.x

James, W. (1890). Principles of psychology. New York, NY: Dover Publications.

Jung, J., & Peterson, M. (2007). Body dissatisfaction and patterns of media use among pre-adolescent children. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 36(1), 40-54. doi:10.1177/1077727X07303486

Kernberg, P. F. in collaboration with Buhl-Nielsen, B., & Normandin, L. (2007). Beyond the reflection: The role of the mirror paradigm in clinical practice. New York, NY: Other Press.

Krueger, D. W. (2002a). Psychodynamic perspectives on body image. In T. F. Cash & T. Pruzinsky (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice (pp. 30-37). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Krueger, D. W. (2002b). Integrating body self & psychological self. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lemche, E. (1998). The development of the body image in the first three years of life. Psychoanalysis & Contemporary Thought, 21(2), 155-275. Retrieved from

Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lewis, M. (1991). Ways of knowing: Objective self-awareness or consciousness. Developmental Review, 11(3), 231-243. doi:10.1016/0273-2297(91)90011-C

Lewis, M., Sullivan, M. W., Stanger, C., & Weiss, M. (1989). Self development and self-conscious emotions. Child Development, 146-156. doi:10.2307/1131080

Lowes, J., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8(2), 135-147. doi:10.1348/135910703321649123

Mahler, M. S., Pine, F., & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant: Symbiosis and individuation. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Meissner, W. W. (1997). The self and the body: I. The body self and the body image. Psychoanalysis & Contemporary Thought, 20(4), 419-448. Retrieved from

Moore, C., Mealiea, J., Garon, N., & Povinelli, D. J. (2007). The development of body selfawareness. Infancy, 11(2), 157-174. doi:10.1080/15250000709336637

O’Dea, J. A. (2006). Self-concept, self-esteem and body weight in adolescent females: A three-year longitudinal study. Journal of Health Psychology, 11(4), 599-611. doi:10.1177/1359105306065020

Orbach, S. (2009). Bodies. New York, NY: Picador. Patton, S. C., Beaujean, A. A., & Benedict, H. E. (2014). Parental bonds, attachment anxiety, media susceptibility, and body dissatisfaction: A mediation model. DevelopmentalPsychology, 50(8), 2124-2133. doi:10.1037/a0037111

Rochat, P. (2003). Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life. Consciousness and Cognition, 12(4), 717-731. doi:10.1016/S1053-8100(03)00081-3

Rodgers, R. F., Paxton, S. J., & Chabrol, H.(2009). Effects of parental comments on body dissatisfaction and eating disturbance in young adults: A sociocultural model. Body Image, 6(3), 171-177. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2009.04.004

Rosenberg, M., Schooler, C., & Schoenbach, C. (1989). Self-esteem and adolescent problems: Modeling reciprocal effects. American Sociological Review, 1004-1018. doi:10.2307/2095720

Selman, R. L. (2003). Promotion of social awareness: Powerful lessons for the partnership of developmental theory and classroom practice. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Smolak, L. (2002). Body image development in children. In T. F. Cash and T. Pruzinsky (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice (pp. 65-73). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in children. In T. F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of science, practice and prevention (pp. 67-75). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Smolak, L., Levine, M. P., & Schermer, F. (1999). Parental input and weight concerns among elementary school children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 25(3), 263-271. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-108X(199904)25:3<263::AIDEAT3>3.0.CO;2-V

Stern, D. N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the human infant. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Tantleff-Dunn, S., & Lindner, D. M. (2011). Body image and social functioning. In T. F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (pp. 263-270). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Tiggemann, M. (2005). Body dissatisfaction and adolescent self-esteem: Prospective findings. Body Image, 2(2), 129-135. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.03.006

Tiggemann, M. (2011). Sociocultural perspectives on human appearance and body image. In T. F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body image: A handbook of science, practice, and prevention (pp. 412-501). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Tosi, K. (2014). The child mirror paradigm and the adult attachment interview: Intergeneration influences of the mother’s attachment pattern (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The New School for Social Research: New York, NY.

Tremblay, L., Lovsin, T., Zecevic, C., & Larivière, M. (2011). Perceptions of self in 3–5-year-old children: A preliminary investigation into the early emergence of body dissatisfaction. Body Image, 8(3), 287-292. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2011.04.004

Troisi, A., Di Lorenzo, G., Alcini, S., Nanni, R. C., Di Pasquale, C., & Siracusano, A. (2006). Body dissatisfaction in women with eating disorders: Relationship to early separation anxiety and insecure attachment. Psychosomatic Medicine, 68(3), 449-453. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000204923.09390.5b

Ward, A., Ramsay, R., Turnbull, S., Steele, M., Steele, H., & Treasure, J. (2001). Attachment in anorexia nervosa: A transgenerational perspective. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 74(4), 497-505. doi:10.1348/000711201161145

Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London, UK and New York, NY: Routledge.