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Nurturing Positive Body Image in College

Sheena Gregg

about the AUTHOR

Sheena Gregg MS, RDN, LD is the assistant director of Student Health Promotion and a registered dietitian nutritionist in UA’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness.

February is an exciting time as campus is getting closer to spring break and warmer days.  

For some students, however, pressures to look a certain way for a spring break trip, social media influences and general group peer interactions can affect body image and overall self-esteem. Negative body image in the college student population can be concerning due to the correlation between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, as well as other mental health issues. 

What is Body Image? 

Body image is how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror or when we picture ourselves in our mind. There are several things encompassed in body image: 

  • What you believe about your own appearance (including your memories, assumptions and generalizations). 
  • How you feel about your body, including your height, shape and weight. 
  • How you sense and control your body as you move. This includes how you feel in your body, not just about your body. 

Individuals with a negative body image often have a distorted perception of their shape and perceive parts of their body unlike how they really are. Feeling ashamed, anxious and awkward in our body can also be experienced when having a negative body image, which can lead to avoidance of social events with friends, needing constant assurance from others about appearance or having a general view of yourself as unattractive. Negative body image thoughts can trigger individuals to engage in unhealthy dieting and exercise behaviors. 

The concept of having positive body image can feel daunting, especially when we think it means loving our body exactly as it is every single day. The truth is that having a healthier body image means we are able to celebrate and appreciate our natural body shape and the uniqueness of each person. We also understand that a person’s physical appearance says very little about their character and value as a person. We may not love exactly how we look every single day, but we continue to appreciate what our body does for us functionally and we continue to provide it with the self-care and respect it deserves.  

Steps For Improving Body Image 

  • Unfollow accounts on social media that trigger negative body image thoughts and feelings. 
  • Identify and challenge negative body talk. 
  • Surround yourself with body-positive people. 
  • Set positive, health-focused goals rather than weight-related goals. 
  • Identify both physical and non-physical aspects of yourself that you appreciate. 
  • Wear clothing that you feel comfortable in. 
  • Engage in basic self-care such as getting adequate sleep and eating regularly. 

When to Seek Help 

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, there is a strong link between eating disorders and negative body image. If you’ve found yourself engaging in unhealthy dieting or exercise behaviors that result in obsessive thoughts related to shape and weight, resources are available on campus. The Counseling Center and Student Health Center are available for students experiencing negative body image or engaging in potential eating disorder behaviors.  

UA Body Appreciation Week  

Each February, The Division of Student Life, along with other campus partners, celebrates Body Appreciation Week. Feb. 19-23 has a full schedule of in-person and virtual events focused on raising awareness about eating disorders, promoting positive body image across all gender identities and encouraging constructive dialogue about these issues to help prevent the development of eating-disordered behaviors and attitudes. Many of these events will provide fun swag items such as t-shirts, buttons and other things to help promote positive body image among your friend group. We hope to see you there!

How Faculty & Staff Can Help

As a faculty or staff member, there are many ways you can promote positive body image with students:  

  • Promote unfollowing accounts on social media that trigger negative body image thoughts and feelings. 
  • Focus compliments on a student’s performance or personality traits and avoid compliments related to their appearance. 
  • Avoid use of negative body talk or diet talk in the classroom or office. 
  • Encourage students to engage in basic self-care such as getting adequate sleep or eating regularly. 

This story is part of the Mental Well-being series, which features tips and insights on issues related to mental health from experts at The University of Alabama.