Body Image

Our culture seems to be obsessed with physical appearance. Beauty in our society is narrowly defined. Societal and cultural norms and mass media marketing impact our concepts of what beauty looks like. These external influences are so widely accepted that most of us never stop to challenge them or ask how they came to be.
- Is "skinny" on a woman really beautiful?
- Are "big bulky muscles" on guys really attractive?

The media uses the accepted cultural values of thinness and fitness for monetary gain. Americans spend billions of dollars trying to achieve an unrealistic ideal. Both men and women are given the unspoken message that they should look like a model, but only one in 40,000 persons naturally have a model's body type!

When you look in the mirror, how do you see yourself? Body image is our personal view and interpretation of our body. Some signs and symptoms of a distorted body image include:

- Thinking or talking about the flaws in your body.
- Spending a lot of time in front of a mirror, obsessing about specific body parts.
- Weighing yourself frequently and judging yourself by the number on the scale.
- Refraining from enjoyable activities because you are ashamed or self-conscious about your body.
- Obsessing about food, weight, and fitness level in private and/or in public.

Distorted body image and dieting are thought to contribute to eating disorders. Learning to accept the body that you have, see through media messages, and to practice healthy lifestyle behaviors are the keys to staying healthy.

Ways to Feel Good About Your Body:

  1. When you find yourself being critical of your appearance, tell yourself to stop. It does no good to be unkind to yourself.
  2. Remind yourself of what you like about your appearance. This may take some time and practice.
  3. Break the habit of comparing yourself to others in terms of appearance.
  4. Don't criticize or comment on other people's weight or appearance.
  5. Strive to value yourself for other strengths besides appearance: are you intelligent, witty, kind, a good listener, artistic, etc.?
  6. Pay attention to the way the media influences your self-image, and stay away from media that causes you to feel badly about your body.
  7. Compliment others for things besides their physical appearance.
  8. Focus on developing skills and abilities that have nothing to do with appearance.
Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are psychological illnesses in which persons become obsessed with food and with their body weight. People with eating disorders have an extremely distorted body image; they feel fat and see themselves as overweight regardless of whether they are at a normal weight or are emaciated. Food becomes a ruling passion in their lives. At the same time, eating disorders aren't really about food. Food is the mechanism used to help cope with underlying difficulties.

People do not consciously choose to have an eating disorder

They are not due to a failure of willpower. Rather, the maladaptive eating patterns begin to take on a life of their own. Eating disorders are thought to be caused by a multitude of factors, such as family problems, history of abuse, distorted body image, perfectionist tendencies, and biochemical imbalances, to name a few. The stress of college life, as well as the isolation some students feel after leaving home, also contributes to the problem.

Research shows that eating disorders among college students continue to be on the rise. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that "10 percent of college-age women have a clinical or near clinical eating disorder." Commonly recognized eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and chronic dieting. A description of each follows:

  • Anorexia afflicts an estimated 0.5 to 3.7% of females. Those with anorexia weigh at least 15% less than normal weight. They develop all the symptoms of starvation, menstrual periods stop and the body starts to lose calcium from the bones. If anorexia becomes severe, victims may die from cardiac arrest as a result of malnutrition, while still others commit suicide.
  • Bulimia nervosa may accompany anorexia, or it may occur by itself. It is estimated to occur in 1.1 to 4.2% of females. Persons with bulimia frequently experience extreme eating binges and purge by vomiting or taking a laxative or diuretic. Bulimia nervosa can lead to severe tooth decay, intestinal and kidney problems, muscle cramps, heart problems, ruptured stomach or esophagus, and death.
  • Binge-eating disorder afflicts both men and women. Similar to bulimia, people with binge-eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating. The main difference is that individuals with binge-eating disorder do not purge their bodies of excess calories.
  • Someone who continually tries to lose weight by dieting is a chronic dieter. Because dieting lowers body metabolism, a return to normal eating often causes more weight to be regained. This leads to a sense of failure and the start of another diet. Using diet pills is also a potentially dangerous method of weight control. Daily use of diet pills can lead to rebound fatigue and overeating, insomnia, mood changes, irritability, and in extremely large doses, psychosis.

It is important to note that eating disorders are also on the rise among men.

  • More males are thought to suffer in silence than females because eating problems are often not talked about among men.
  • Eating disorders are complex illnesses that require intensive treatment.
  • People suffering from eating disorders have an excellent chance for recovery. The sooner these disorders are recognized and treated, the better the outcomes are likely to be. Unfortunately, many of these cases go unreported.
  • People with eating disorders may avoid telling someone for fear that they will be judged negatively or people will think they are crazy.  

What are some of the signs of an eating disorder?

These are just a few:

  1. Preoccupation with food, weight, nutrition, or dieting
  2. Frequent changes in weight or severe weight loss
  3. Wears baggy, loose fitting clothes
  4. Complains frequently of the cold
  5. Faints, blacks out, has dizzy spells, difficulty concentrating
  6. Fine downy hair growth
  7. Isolates self; or seems sad, irritable, angry
  8. Skips meals, cuts food into small pieces, or eats large quantities of food
  9. Steals food
  10. Makes frequent trips to the bathroom

Realize that there are a high number of college students suffering from these disorders, and seeking help from someone that knows and understands how you feel is a great step toward recovery. If you think you or someone you know might have an eating disorder, come see one of the professionals in the Counseling Center (447-5441). Recognizing this problem is the first step towards getting better, and we can help.

For further information, check out the following sites:

National Eating Disorders
Something Fishy

In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Approximately 25 million more are struggling with binge eating disorder (Crowther et al., 1992; Fairburn et al., 1993; Gordon, 1990; Hoek, 1995; Shisslak et al., 1995).

The Prevalence of Eating Disorders

Because of the secretiveness and shame associated with eating disorders, many cases are probably not reported. In addition, many individuals struggle with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. For example, it has been shown that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance (Smolak, 1996). 

The Drive for Thinness

  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991).
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).
  • The average American woman is 5'4" tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5'11" tall and weighs 117 pounds.
  • Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women (Smolak, 1996). 


  • 51% of 9 and 10 year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet (Mellin et al., 1991).
  • 46% of 9-11 year-olds are "sometimes" or "very often" on diets, and 82% of their families are "sometimes" or "very often" on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992).
  • 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, 22% dieted "often" or "always"(Kurth et al., 1995).
  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (Grodstein, 1996).
  • 35% of "normal dieters" progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders (Shisslak & Crago, 1995).
  • 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day (Smolak, 1996).
  • Americans spend over $40 billion on dieting and diet-related products each year (Smolak, 1996) 

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