Every year, thousands of young women head off to college in pursuit of personal growth and higher education. However, this big change can alter the way women view their bodies and themselves. Studies show that college-aged females are particularly concerned with the way their bodies look, which consequently impacts the mental health of female students. Focusing on papers, midterms, and other assignments can be hard enough on its own, but with the added challenge of one not being comfortable in one’s own skin, college life becomes even more challenging.
What is body image?
Body image is a subjective picture or mental image of one’s own body that is influenced both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others. Struggles with body image are not unique to any singular group of individuals, and can affect people of any gender, race, and sexual orientation. Having a healthy body image means having an undistorted perception of your shape, feeling comfortable and confident in your body, and appreciating your individual uniqueness. However, it is completely normal to not feel confident about your body 100% of the time — everyone has off days every now and then. A healthy body image is about having a positive relationship with your body and learning to process and deal with off days or bad body thoughts instead of putting ourselves down.
What’s so important about having a healthy body image? Body image dissatisfaction is linked to higher rates of depression, stress, isolation and insecurity, all of which can take a huge toll on the body and the mind. Working towards a healthy body image is especially important for college students because bad body thoughts and insecurities can dramatically affect their education and work quality.
How Body Image is Linked to Health
Studies show that as many as 40% of college females have eating disorders or serious problems relating to body image. That means two out of every five women on college campuses are not able to get the most out of their educational experience. Furthermore, the number of women that are unhappy with their bodies is at an all-time high of 91%, with 58% of college females feeling pressure to be a certain weight. This is incredibly dangerous, because poor body image contributes to poor mental health, and can consequently interfere with learning. Studies show that people with negative body images have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidality than those without. Bad body thoughts can cause low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and make one feel as though their body is inadequate.
These statistics given demonstrate some of the ways women’s college experiences and self esteem can be affected, and can cause such a heavy burden that it makes it hard for them to function on a day to day basis. Women entering college are in a critical age group in terms of body image, and so it is important that they are provided with resources that can help them to feel comfortable and confident on their college campuses.
Why does college contribute to negative body image?
The college transition can be very difficult because it can often be very different from what an individual may have experienced in previous years of education; the introduction of a new setting, new people, and new mentalities can also influence one’s body image. In an article on Her Campus, one student claims that “college does not promote a healthy body image because there is so much fear over how easily one can gain weight.” There is social pressure to consume unhealthy dining hall food, party on weekends, and drink alcohol, yet at the same time there is a pressure to stay fit and not gain the dreaded “Freshman Fifteen.” These contribute to the anxiety women feel during their college experiences, and can cause them to waver in their studies because of having poor mental health.
The pressures of college atmospheres can force female students to be more focused on what they eat and how much they exercise than on their studies and extracurriculars. Some students suggest that if campuses “promoted a balance between staying healthy and enjoying being young” this that would allow students to feel more confident in their own bodies and minds. UCLA has taken strides to make changes among its campus through offering many resources to help combat negative body image and eating disorders, such as an Eating Disorders Program which offers help to people of all ages, and a research program dedicated to understanding and assisting those with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. There is even a student group dedicated to promoting healthy body image on campus called the Body Image Task Force.
Tips to Build a Healthy Body Image
There are a plethora of ways to work on building a healthy body image, and in turn, maintain one’s mental health throughout college. One way to build your self-image is to build a strong family support system and immerse yourself in it; strong family bonds are beneficial to curtailing outside pressures. Next time you’re feeling down about yourself or your body, try calling a family member or other loved one to cheer you up and remind you that you are loved. You can also work to develop skills to deal with stress, such as taking time out of your day to meditate or listening to your favorite music, which are calming activities that will help to create balance in your life. Additionally, try to be more proactively self-compassionate. One study found that people that actively practice self-compassion are more likely to have a healthy body image and experience a higher quality of life.
College can be a day-to-day struggle, and what’s harder than just that in today’s world? Being a female college student dealing with an unhealthy body image and all that accompanies it. Helping students feel as though they are accepted for their bodies is imperative, and contributing to other’s having positive thoughts about themselves can make a great difference in a female’s college experience. It’s okay to love yourself for who you are, treat yourself right and do what you want to do to be mentally and physically happy. With support from campuses and those around us, awareness of positive body image and mental health of female students can be brought to the light.
Aubrey Freitas is an undergraduate student at UCLA double majoring in English Literature and Psychology with a minor in Italian. She is a blogger for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative in the Mind Well section, which focuses on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. Aubrey is the founder of the organization Warm Hearts to Warm Hands, which teaches the skill of knitting to people of the community in return for their donation of an article of clothing they create with the skill, to be given to local homeless shelters.