Counseling Service

Eating and Body Image Concerns

Description

Body image is the internalized sense of what we look like to others. It is common to sometimes feel negatively about our bodies, but when these feelings negatively affect self-esteem, relationships with others, and health functioning, professional help is recommended.

Negative body image becomes a problem when:
  • You avoid social situations or relationships because of the way you look.
  • You believe you can only feel confident or be happy by looking a certain way.
  • You worry excessively about your appearance and repeatedly check your appearance or look in mirrors.
  • You consistently use very heavy makeup or refuse to leave the house without wearing makeup.
  • Your social interactions frequently consist of conversations about being “fat” or the need to change your appearance.
  • You believe that your worth is defined solely (or mostly) by your appearance.

Negative body image may contribute to the desire to change eating behavior. Changes to our eating habits or attempts to “make up for” food eaten can result in disordered eating behaviors and/or the development of an eating disorder. It should be noted that disordered eating occurs for many reasons and negative body image is only one of them.

Many college students engage in disordered eating patterns, yet it is rarely discussed among students. Certain disordered behaviors around eating, food, and body image (e.g. dieting, fasting before a big night out) are normalized in society, often making it difficult to recognize when there is a problem. In other words, many habits that most people consider normal are actually symptoms of disordered eating. Even when disordered behaviors are not severe enough to be labeled an “eating disorder,” they are still serious and have the potential to be very harmful.

Signs of Disordered Eating
  • Eating alone or refusing to eat with others
  • Skipping meals
  • Eating a limited quantity of food, fasting, or avoiding specific foods/food groups (restricting)
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Exercising to “make up for” food eaten
  • Preoccupation with “healthy” eating to the point that it interferes in daily life
  • Rapidly consuming large amounts of food and feeling out of control while doing so
  • Feeling guilty about eating
  • Secretive eating
  • Over-exercising
  • Spending a disproportionate amount of time and/or energy on eating, restricting, counting calories, exercising, body-checking, planning for eating or restricting, etc.
  • Frequently comparing your eating habits and body size/shape to those around you
  • Defining your self-worth based on your eating and exercise behaviors
  • Turning to food, exercise, or obsessions about weight and eating to fix other issues
  • Yo-yo dieting and frequent calorie-counting
  • Isolating from friends for a long time after eating
  • Using laxatives, diuretics, or self-induced vomiting to lose weight or change body shape or size

If you recognize some of these signs in yourself, talking to someone about it can prevent more severe problems from forming. Please see the Services section for more information on how you can obtain professional assistance.

Coping Strategies

Strategies for Improving Body Image
  • Focus on what you like, rather than what you don’t like, about your body or face.
  • Express gratitude for the many things your body can do.
  • Ask loved ones to refrain from commenting on your appearance.
  • Pamper yourself. Treat your body with respect and kindness.
  • Choose to spend time with positive and supportive people who do not engage in critical, negative, or judgmental talk about themselves or others.
  • Use the time that you spend worrying about food, calories, and appearance to do something to help others.
  • Apply a critical eye to media messages about beauty (and notice ways in which they may be distorted).
  • When greeting someone, try commenting on something else about them besides their appearance (i.e. avoiding comments such as “have you lost weight?”)
  • Develop a list of positive statements about you made by yourself or others. Post them on your mirror.
  • Subscribe to social media outlets that promote body positivity.
  • Remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. No single shape is the right (or perfect) shape.
  • When interacting with others, see if you can avoid negative body talk.
  • Remind yourself that you are so much more than just your appearance.

Services

If you are concerned about your eating or exercise behaviors or having difficulty with your body image, you can schedule an intake appointment at the Counseling Center to discuss the nature of these concerns. Depending on the nature and severity of your concerns one (or more) of several options may be considered:

  • You may be referred off-campus for a higher level of care
  • You may be referred off-campus to an outpatient treatment team involving providers such as a therapist, psychiatrist, physician, and/or dietitian who specialize in eating and body image concerns
  • You may be assigned for brief individual counseling at the Counseling Center
  • You may be referred to the Counseling Center’s therapy group for women with eating and body image concerns called My Body Myself
  • There are several inpatient, residential, and day treatment programs for eating disorders in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area. For more information about these programs and whether they would be the right fit for you, please schedule an intake appointment at the Counseling Center.
  • The UMD Eating Disorder Task Force is a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals from the Counseling Center and Health Center who provide assessment, support, recommendations, and resources to UMD students struggling with eating and body image concerns

Resources

National Eating Disorders Association
Support for individuals and families affected by eating disorders 

10 Steps to Positive Body Image
Healthier ways of looking at yourself and your body 

10 “Will Powers” for Improving Body Image
Steps for developing and maintaining positive body image 

Self-Esteem Tips: Dealing with Body Image
5 tips for quieting troubling thoughts about your body 

Book List
A comprehensive list of books related to eating and body image concerns for professionals and for self-help

Health at Every Size
A community of inclusive support for individuals of every size and shape

Body Positive
Information and resources from the body positive movement

Eating Disorder Hope
Education, support, and inspiration for those suffering from eating disorders

Binge Eating Disorder Association
Information and support for individuals who struggle with Binge Eating Disorder

Support for Males with Eating Disorders
Specific resources for boys and men who experience disordered eating and body image

Additional Resources
The Renfrew Center’s webpage of resources for those who are struggling or know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder