It’s common for students to feel uncomfortable with different aspects of their bodies. However, sometimes this dissatisfaction can take a toll on their mental and physical health. Here are some tips to help your student or someone you know with negative body image.
What is body image?
Body image refers to the way we view our physical appearance and how we imagine our bodies look to others. People with positive body image generally feel comfortable and confident in their bodies, while people with negative body image may feel anxious, awkward or ashamed about their bodies. It’s also important to keep in mind that we may view our bodies in a distorted or inaccurate way that may not always align with reality.
Someone who is struggling with negative body image may:
- Make negative comments about their size, shape or appearance.
- Weigh themselves often and/or get upset by small fluctuations in weight.
- Obsess over their appearance or nitpick different aspects of their body.
- Try to conceal their body with loose or baggy clothing.
- Avoid social events or other activities that require a certain dress code (e.g. swimming).
- Make ongoing efforts to lose weight, often through extreme dieting or intense exercise.
Keep in mind that negative body image can impact anyone, regardless of their identity, age, gender or body size.
How can I support my student with negative body image?
Depending on how intensely someone experiences negative body image, it can be a difficult issue to overcome. Here are some ways you can support a friend who may be experiencing negative body image.
Be open and honest about your concerns
If you’re concerned about your student’s behavior, let them know privately. Try to provide specific examples of times when you felt worried or concerned about them (e.g. they avoided an event or occasion because of food or body concerns, they were particularly critical of themselves, their eating or exercise habits changed, etc.). Be sure to use “I” statements when expressing your concerns. Here are a few examples you can use:
- “I feel sad when I hear you speak critically about yourself and your body.”
- “I feel concerned when I see you skip meals.”
- “I feel worried when you weigh yourself repeatedly.”
Allow your student time to process and respond to conversations you have around body image, especially when sharing your concerns. Approaching your student with compassion can go a long way. It’s also important to avoid trying to diagnose or label your student’s habits or experiences.
Set an example
People may engage in negative self-talk without even realizing it. Commenting on our appearance, physical activity or eating habits can be commonplace in some relationships. If your student is struggling with negative body image, sometimes the best thing we can do is set a positive example. Practicing self-acceptance and self-compassion allows us to hold space not only for ourselves, but for our students as well.
Here are some examples of things to avoid when setting a positive example:
- Making comments about your own body or others’.
- Criticizing yourself or others’ based on appearance.
- Attempting to convince someone to participate in dieting behaviors.
- Openly counting calories or restricting different types of food.
- Making comparisons between yourself (or your friend) and other people.
Build them up
Remind your student that you love them for who they are, not what they look like. While there is nothing wrong with complimenting your student on their appearance, keep compliments focused on something other than their body shape or size, as you may unintentionally cause harm. Instead, focus on things other than their body like how much you like their hair color, their new outfit or their new shoes. It can also be helpful to compliment your student on things that are completely unrelated to appearance. For instance, you may let your student know how funny they are, how brave they are, how smart they are or how great of a person they are. Focusing on inner qualities can help shift attention away from someone’s appearance and let them know they are valued as a person.
This can also be helpful if your student encounters a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable about their body. For instance, if someone in their class makes a negative comment about their appearance, remind them that the people who really matter in their life care about them regardless of their appearance.
Unfollow accounts on social media
Social media can impact our self-esteem, even if it’s not obvious. If your student follows accounts that impact their body image, self-esteem, self-worth or are negatively impacting their mental health: encourage them to unfollow those accounts. Encourage your student to take some time to seek out accounts that promote body positivity, body neutrality and self-love. For instance, it can be helpful to look for accounts that promote Health at Every Size (HAES).
If you’re concerned your student might be experiencing negative body image or is engaging in concerning or harmful behaviors, check out the resources below for additional information and support.
Support for students
Each year the Recreation Center hosts free events and activities throughout February in honor of Body Image Awareness Month. This year’s events will include nutrition talks, body image workshops, free fitness classes and more.
Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) provides free drop-in services through Let’s Talk. Counselors are available in person and online to help provide insight, solutions and information about additional resources related to anxiety, body image, relationships and more.
This monthly program allows students to participate in mindfulness exercises and activities that can help students become more in-tune with their bodies. This program also offers sessions specific to mindful eating and physical wellness.
Meet with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) at Wardenburg to address food and/or body related concerns. Our RDNs can help answer questions and address concerns related to disordered eating, eating disorders, intuitive eating, nourishing your body and more.
The CUCRC provides community, support and connection for students, faculty and staff in recovery or seeking recovery from a wide range of behaviors, including substance use, eating concerns, self-harm and more.
For 24/7 support, information on treatment options and other services related to eating disorders, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website.