At most colleges, many students find the competition outside of the classroom just as challenging as inside the classroom. There is great pressure to look a certain way and body image issues may develop because of these expectations.
Body image is more than just how someone feels about their body. It is a mental representation of how one feels about themselves and is influenced by feelings, behaviors, thoughts, self-esteem, and the world around us. A survey by Psychology Today found that 24% of women would trade three years of their life and 15% would trade five or more years of their life if they could be their ideal weight. This demonstrates what a drastic effect body image and weight can have on a person.
There are numerous factors in how a person feels about their body. Some of these include:
In American culture there is a great deal of emphasis placed on body weight, size, and appearance. Children are beaten up and ridiculed for being fat. Fat people are discriminated against in job selection and overlooked for promotions. We are conditioned at an early age to believe that self-worth is derived by these external characteristics. Thinness is often associated with being hard-working, successful, popular, beautiful, strong, and self-disciplined. On the other hand, being fat is often associated with being lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking will-power. These stereotypes are common in our society. As a result, we often unfairly judge others and label them based on their size alone. We often believe that if we can just be thinner, we can be happier, more successful, and more accepted by society.
The media sets unrealistic standards for what body weight and appearance is considered “normal.” These body ideals are reinforced every day on TV shows, movies, magazines, and even video games. The media’s portrayal of what is “normal” keeps getting thinner and thinner for women and more muscular for men. Twenty-five years ago, the average female model weighed 8% less than the average American woman. Currently, the average female model weighs 23% below her average weight. Similar trends are seen with men. With these images and body ideals, it’s little wonder that women and men feel inadequate, ashamed, and dissatisfied with how they look. The images of men and women in the media are intended to sell products. They are selling us dissatisfaction with our bodies in order to make a profit.
In college, you may feel great pressure to be thin or muscular in order to be accepted by your peers and to be attractive to potential romantic partners. If you’re living with a lot of other students in a sorority/fraternity house or residence hall, the pressure may be even greater. You may be surrounded by negative body talk from everyone. These comments can make you start worrying and feeling self-conscious about your own body. Body- and self-criticism are well-practiced rituals for a large number of college women. We bond over dieting together, comparing pinched inches of fat, and put ourselves and our appearance down. In this way, we reinforce each other’s insecurities about our bodies. If you’re an athlete, you may feel tremendous pressure to lose weight or body fat so you can make a specific weight class, be faster, or look more attractive to judges or an audience. The pressure may come from you, your teammates, your coach, and/or your parents. In any case, the message is clear, “you need to have a certain body to perform well and be considered a good athlete.”
Your weight is usually recorded at health clinics. This will result in the assignment of a label, like obese. Your doctor may suggest weight loss based on this number and label. They have good intentions. They are taught in their medical training about all of the perils of the “obesity epidemic”. While weight may reflect bad eating habits, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor health and fitness, they don’t always. There are large, “overweight” (but fit) people who eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and enjoy excellent health. If you have been a victim of this type of weight prejudice by the medical community, it’s understandable that your body image and self-esteem would suffer. You are being told by one of the most powerful and respected members of society that you are “diseased.” The guilt, shame, and self-loathing associated with such a label does nothing to support healthy eating, physical activity, and good health. In many cases, it can do just the opposite.
Poor body image affects both men and women. One body-image study found that 45% of men were dissatisfied with their physiques; women were only slightly less satisfied at 55%. Both sexes experience low self-esteem and the development of eating disorders. Poor body image has been linked to anabolic steroid use in men, causing concern to public health researchers. It is alarming to find that almost. half of normal weight 3rd to 6th grade girls say they want to be thinner, a third have already restricted their eating to lose weight, and 78% say they are “very afraid of becoming fat.” Middle school boys search the internet for muscle building additives and worry that they do not have a “six-pack.”
During college we are taught to analyze and scrutinize everything we read and see. We also apply these newly honed skills to ourselves. Looking inside ourselves and dealing with difficult issues is often rewarding and helpful but is also very hard work. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on how we look than what is within. College gives one the opportunity to “reinvent” themselves. We look to ideals for guidance about whom and what we should be. The ideals we find are often distorted. We continually find ourselves in situations in which appearance is important: We’re busy making first impressions, rushing sororities or fraternities, interviewing for jobs and internships, trying to impress professors and mentors, and looking for love.
Feeling inadequate, unsexy, embarrassed, self-conscious, or uncomfortable because you fail to resemble an unattainable social ideal is time poorly spent. There is never a good reason to hate or feel ashamed of your body, and your weight is not a measure of your success or worthiness.
Have something to say? Feel free to add comments or additional information.