CW: This article discusses eating disorders. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
With the pervasiveness of social media in our daily lives and overexposure to fabricated body standards, negative body image has become increasingly prevalent among young people.
Around 30% of undergraduate college women described the act of dealing with their personal appearance as “traumatic or very difficult to handle” within the last year, and 50% of teens reported feeling self-conscious about their body image.
Although body image at first may appear to be a personal and isolating hardship, it is a community-wide struggle on college campuses like Georgetown University. This struggle is rooted in the core of the university’s culture, as individuals’ constant comparison to their peers, combined with neglect of their physical health, ultimately result in heightened body awareness and pervasive pressure to meet certain body standards.
The effort to combat negative body image on campus should engage all levels of our community, involving mental health resources to support struggling students — and a school attitude centered on acceptance over comparison.
With heavy workloads, nonstop socialization and loosely structured daily lives, attending Georgetown leads Hoyas to incorporating unhealthy behaviors in their routines. It is not abnormal to stay up until 3 a.m. writing an essay — nor is it frowned upon to skip a few meals in order to maximize the amount of time available for doing homework.
The desire to maintain a healthy lifestyle despite near unattainability contributes to negative body image, as it makes students increasingly conscious of their own failures to take care of themselves.
This struggle to adjust to adulthood and college life has resulted in a worrying trend: eating disorders predominantly start in college students between the ages of 18 and 21 years old. The normalization of unhealthy habits leads to a perpetual cycle of guilt and self-punishment, as college students become hyperaware of their body’s physical changes amid an overwhelming environment that discourages self-care.
Unhealthy habits also facilitate unhealthy conversations.
Think about how flippantly some Georgetown students discuss the “freshman 15,” the stigma that they will gain 15 pounds during their first year of college. There is nothing wrong with open conversations about personal struggles with body image in safe and supportive spaces, but these exchanges fuel insecurities by implying that there is something inherently wrong with gaining weight or changing shape.
The conversations surrounding body image and appearance seem unavoidable in an environment as competitive as Georgetown, where the idea of nonstop engagement — that students should always be contributing to the community, extracurriculars and academic life — is implicitly enforced among the student body.
Georgetown’s overwhelming culture of comparison leads us to perceive ourselves only in relation to those who we view as better than us. This type of thinking can quickly devolve into insecurities and reflect onto our body image.
Students look at those with “more attractive” bodies and wonder why they cannot reach standards that are, indeed, unattainable. Students thus begin to reduce their self-worth to appearances and believe they are inadequate.
The frequent comparison to other students is exacerbated by the blurring line between social media falsities and reality.
There are many people on campus that students only interact with through social media. While this can be a convenient way to connect with our peers, it also grants us the unlimited power to present ourselves however we please.
With social media, students are both victims and perpetrators of the culture that reduces people to just their appearances. Around 88% of women and 65% of men compare themselves to what they see on social media, creating pressure to constantly present oneself a certain way in their own posts and conform them to widely held beauty standards.
These platforms also create the mere illusion of connection.
This is especially true for fitness or “body inspiration” accounts, which thrive off of the narrative that anyone can attain the socially ideal body type. These accounts fuel insecurities to keep viewers coming back for more, wondering why simple diet changes or abdomen workouts did not cure their insecurities.
Georgetown must provide additional and expanded mental health resources to students. This should include improvements to Counseling and Psychiatric Service and additional support services for first-year students adjusting to the college lifestyle.
Many find Georgetown’s mental health services slow and inaccessible. Reaching out to counselors should not create more stress; mental health support should be further integrated into student life so that every Hoya is aware of and engages with resources available.
Furthermore, student organizations and the administration must facilitate honest discussions of body positivity through information initiatives and research. It is integral that Georgetown understands the scale of this prevalent issue and works to educate students on its universality.
It is incredibly difficult at Georgetown to balance physical health, academics and extracurriculars. In turn, it can be that much more difficult to meet the pressures students impose on themselves and on each other.
The reality is that the stressful, nonstop pace of college — and the drastic lifestyle changes students endure — will inevitably test their physical health, often leading to natural changes in their bodies.
Students should approach the changes of our bodies as natural, rather than punishing themselves for conditions that are often outside their control. While negative body image is an isolating experience, it is an issue that impacts the entire community on a systemic level.
To combat the harmful culture of comparison that perpetuates body image issues, it is essential to collectively correct damaging conversations surrounding physical appearance and uplift everyone for their individual successes, rather than in comparison to other students.
Alaina McGill is a first-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-6985); additional off-campus resources include the National Eating Disorders Helpline (800-931-2237, or text ‘NEDA’ to 741741).
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