Negative Body Image Impacting Women & Girls

by Laura Davidson, Boston University Today

For many students, looking in the mirror is harder than it should be. Too often, they don’t like what they see and wish they could change. In today’s culture, it can be hard not to fall prey to images of the idealized body. A 2006 survey published in NASPA’s Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice found that 75 percent of college students are dissatisfied with their weight. Equally disquieting is an earlier survey published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that found that more than 90 percent of women on a college campus had dieted, with almost a quarter dieting “often” or “always.”

To encourage students to have a more positive body image, the Student Health Services Wellness Program is hosting a panel discussion tonight, February 23, titled Lovin’ the Body You’re In. The Wellness Program’s purpose is to help make the BU community aware of health and wellness initiatives at BU. Speaking at the discussion, being held at the Howard Thurman Center at 6:30 p.m., are Kate Ackerman, an internist and endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital Boston and Massachusetts General Hospital; Whitney Post, president and cofounder of the Eating for Life Alliance, which works with colleges to ensure they have the resources to help prevent and treat body image disturbances; and several BU medical staff, including Margaret Ross, director of Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services.

“Everyone is going to deal with this on some level. It’s a continuum,” says Post a former Olympic rower. “What’s important is opening up a dialogue and realizing you’re not the only one.”

That is just what tonight’s panelists hope to achieve.

“What I love about these events is hearing from so many different voices,” Post says. “If you show different perspectives, it’s demonstrating that every person is different, every journey is different.”

While every journey may be different, one common trigger associated with poor body image is stress. Being at college is a time of transition and vulnerability. For many students, it’s their first time living away from home. It’s easy, experts say, to feel overwhelmed by so many new experiences all at once.

“If you’re in a new environment, a new school, this can breed insecurity. You compare yourself to others, compare your body to others, because you want to fit in,” says Dawn Hynes, cofounder of the Eating for Life Alliance. “You’re going to match up the way you look: what can I do to be more like them? What can I do to change myself?”

Such comparisons can be minor at the outset, but can ultimately lead to unhealthy long-term habits. And the negative stresses so commonly associated with college life—academics, socializing, dating—are often targeted at the body.

“So often we feel that if we look a certain way, then we’re going to have what we need,” Post says.

Americans need to recognize the troublesome disconnect we often suffer between how we view others and how we view ourselves. “A lot of times people can see the beauty in other people,” she says, “but not in themselves.”

One of the most important things students can do is build meaningful and supportive relationships and make time for face-to-face interactions. Another important step for students to take, according to experts, is to talk about how they feel. Being open with peers, and helping one another stay positive when discussing physical appearance, can make a difference.

“It’s about changing the conversation,” says Hynes. “Saying you’re not comfortable with that conversation; allowing yourself to have the conversation, but not have it be so negative.”

BU provides several resources for assessing, monitoring, supporting, or referring students who are struggling with negative body image or eating issues. Two good places to start are the Nutrition and Fitness Center at Sargent College and Student Health Services, which has a website where students can hear from those who have experienced similar issues. Full-time students are eligible for a complete nutritional assessment and behavioral medicine services. Most primary care services are free for full-time students.

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