Real Talk: College Women and Body Image

You're more than your reflection.
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Esther - Case Western Reserve University
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You're more than your reflection.
Body image

At least once a month, I look in the mirror and start to feel down. Sometimes my skinny jeans just don't fit me right, for example. On those days, I can’t help but think “Maybe if I lost a few pounds, this would look better on me.” And I know I'm not alone.

Body image, a term we're all familiar with as women in this culture, refers to how you see yourself and how you perceive the reflection looking back at you in the mirror. With so much pressure on women - particularly young women - to look perfect at all times, it can be hard to see anything but disappointment in the mirror.  

We've started to address the unrealistic standards set by the fashion industry, but there's much more to body image than that. (Learn more about fashion/media and body image connection in this past CF post.) Today, I'm going to delve into how poor body image can cause problems for college women and how we can overcome these issues to cultivate healthier relationships with ourselves.

Note: I'm going to touch on some heavy topics here (trigger words: eating disorder, diet) so feel free to skim over parts that you might not feel as comfortable reading.

So what is a healthy body image?

To start, let's establish a baseline for healthy. Once we know what positive body image is, we can recognize unhealthy/poor body image when we see it.

This post from Operation Beautiful explains what healthy body image looks like:

Healthy body image means that you can accept yourself and your body for what it is, and that you are able to acknowledge the beauty that exists inside and out. Just because you may wake up one morning not feeling so hot does not mean that you can’t still accept your body and appreciate all that it does for you.

In short, it's healthy and normal to feel a little "off" every now and then... sometimes, that feeling can even help you improve your health and wellbeing (like noticing that your favorite jeans don't fit as they used to or that you feel sluggish and out of shape). But at the end of the day, if you have a healthy body image, you should be comfortable with yourself and accepting of the body you have.

My Day-to-Day Struggle with Poor Body Image

The first thing I do when I wake up is turn off all the alarms that I snoozed, and check Instagram...and then Tumblr...and then Snapchat...and then Facebook...basically, all things social media. And like many others out there, I follow models and fashion/beauty icons for inspiration. And then I look at myself and notice how much I don't look like them.

We've talked before about how social media can negatively affect your body image, and I've definitely felt the effects: At 5' 2" (and a half!), I am about as far from modelesque as you get. And most of the time, that's fine with me. That just means I can shop for shoes in the kid's department for trendy styles at a fraction of the price. Other times, I can't help but sit and stare at how endless Cara Delevingne's legs look - and feel bad about my own.

It's sometimes an uphill battle for me to feel good about who I am. I'll be online shopping for a pair of jeans and remind myself that I have to keep the filter for petite sizes on, unless I want to give my campus a free mopping. And even then, I can't help but be a little cynical and think about the photoshopping that probably went on not-so-behind the scenes at those clothing shoots. But then I remember how much caffeine I drink and how much time I spend cooped up in the library...and how thankful I should be that my body hasn't given up on me yet.

Like I said, I struggle with this, but I'm also aiming for healthy. And I work towards that every day. This is extra important to me because I know that poor body image can lead to some unhealthy behaviors, two of which I'll detail below.

Poor Body Image Can Lead to... Trying Fad Diets

When you don't feel the best about your body, it can be easy to fall prey to an unhealthy fad diet. 

Fad diet culture is so prevalent that it seems normal these days. But while it feels like some of our biggest role models are constantly on some new diet, that doesn't mean we should be doing the same. These high-profile celebrities are usually receiving professional help and advice when they undertake such plans. And I don't know about you, but I don't have a nutritionist, doctor, and trainer on call 24/7 to monitor my health.

In the age of technology, it's ridiculously easy to search for the newest diet plans, whether that's keto or paleo or whatever other-o that's in the limelight at the moment. But depriving your body of any macro or micronutrients just because the Internet says it's okay can be highly detrimental. Your body needs a certain amount of each nutrient to function optimally. While there is no one that knows your body better than you do, it's still important that you get a health professional's opinion and guidance before you change your diet.

Aside from being potentially detrimental to your health, fad diets don't even lead to lasting weight loss or health. More often than not, these trendy diets will help you lose weight quickly in a short amount of time (and most of it is water weight, by the way). I can attest to this after experimenting with some of them myself. But once you start eating normally again, don't expect the number on the scale to stay down. Magazines and calorie-counting won't help you lose weight or get healthier for the long term...a proper balance of healthy diet and exercise will.

If you've ever heard of the phrase "eat to live" as opposed to "live to eat", remember that living also includes enjoying yourself and the treats and goodies that life has to offer. A healthy relationship with food is one of the most important ones that you can cultivate to maintain and develop a positive body image. 

Poor Body Image Can Lead to... Eating Disorders

As I mentioned above, it's normal to feel less than your best, to want to fit back into your favorite skinny jeans, or to try to get into better shape. But sometimes, this totally normal thing can get out of hand and become about something more than just how you look or feel... and that's where eating disorders come in.

In case you didn’t know, February 21-27 was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and just so that we’re clear, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, disorders are defined as follows:

Eating disorders -- such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder – include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.

measuring-body

Photo Credits: Flickr

I won’t pretend to fully understand the difficulties and challenges that come with an eating disorder, as I've never had one myself. But as someone who has been close to a person with an eating disorder, I will say that it’s not something that you choose to have and it is not something that can be fixed by "just eating a sandwich" or "working out and eating healthy". It’s a real illness, the same way depression is a real illness, and the same way the flu is a real illness. And this very real illness can prey upon anyone, though young women are particularly at risk.

An overwhelming 40% of college women are reported to have eating disorders and nine out of ten college women have said they have tried to control their weight through dieting (and though dieting doesn't cause eating disorders, it can often be a precursor to an eating disorder). And let's not forget the other half of the population -- in a university study, 3.6% of males were reported to have eating disorders. That might not seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, that amounts to around 10 million men in the United States with an eating disorder.

Although eating disorders do not have a known "cure", recovery and improvement are possible - so don't give up hope if you're struggling. For anyone going through a difficult period right now, remember that recovery is a process and not an end point.  

Working Towards Healthy Body Image

So, how do we avoid the negative and embrace the healthy when it comes to body image? At the end of the day, what's most helpful to me is the following mantra: You're more than what you see in the mirror. 

If you want to cultivate a healthy body image, start by being fair and kind to yourself and try your hardest not to compare yourself to others -- much of how you look is dictated by genetics and the only way to change that...well, there is no way to change that. It may sound cheesy, but whether your body is small or big and your face round or square, the size of your heart matters more, and that's where true beauty can be found.

Another helpful tip is to focus on treating yourself right: That might mean getting a few extra hours of beauty sleep or painting your nails or hitting the gym and sweating it out a little. It's up to you. This practice will put you more in touch with your body and get you into the habit of treating it well.

At the end of the day, you only get one body, so remember to love and thank it for everything that it's done for you. Your body helps you to get through those terrible midterms even when you're stuffing it with junk food and caffeine. Your body carries you across campus every day to the classes that expand your mind. Your body does a million amazing things every day, without you even realizing it. Something so amazing and complex cannot be defined by a number on a scale or the tag for a pair of jeans. Your body is yours, and yours alone -- so don't let anyone take that away from you.  

What is your experience with body image?

Do you have an experience with body image you want to share? How do you feel about fad diets?  Remember to leave a comment below if you want to share your thoughts and opinions!