Tips For Maintaining A Healthy Body Image In College

Transitioning to college life and adulthood is as stressful as it is rewarding. Among the many physical, emotional, and mental changes college students go through is often a changing relationship with their appearance. For some, this sudden focus on the body and its shifting weight, shape, or size can stray into unhealthy territory without proper support. To maintain a healthy body image in college, it's important to understand not only why the body is changing but how to feel better about the inevitable changes.

Your personal relationship with your body and its appearance is influenced by a variety of sources — from social media influencers and celebrities to friends and family members. Diet culture and its idolization of thin bodies can also be a factor in how a person views themself, mentally trapping them into thinking a narrow margin of socially acceptable appearances is the only way to exist and belong.

"Negative body image beliefs are deeply entrenched for some people and changing these thoughts, for some, can be very challenging," Kristine Luce, Ph.D., tells Scope. "Body image is not static. Regardless of how we feel about it at any given moment, we can have a full and meaningful life in the bodies we have." Working to maintain a healthy body image in college is hard but vital work, which can be helped by using these expert tips.

The difference between positive and negative body image

Whether you have a positive or a negative body image is directly related to how you view your body mentally, in photos, or when you look at your reflection. When your perception of your physical appearance is negative, you may be unable to accept compliments on your appearance or be focused on comparing your weight, shape, or body size to unrealistic beauty standards. This can lead to disordered eating behaviors, excessive exercise, and drastic mood changes.

"Negative body image can result from brief and unpredictable moments like these, heightened anxiousness in social situations, or from a constant negative internal dialogue about your body that stays with you for most of the day," Emma Laing, Ph.D., RDN, explains to Verywell Fit. "A distorted body image can also lead to negative feelings about your body because you do not have a realistic view of your appearance." A negative body image is particularly dangerous because it can increase your risk of developing mental health conditions like depression or eating disorders, according to the U.S. Office on Women's Health.

A positive body image is where you feel comfortable in your body and are happy with the way it looks. "People who accept their bodies as they are tend to have a strong sense of worthiness, attractiveness, and strengths that are not tied to their outward appearance," Laing notes. Generally, a positive body image is associated with high self-esteem, strong self-confidence, and a sense of empowerment.

How is body image affected in college?

College is a time of incredible and exciting change, but also a period where your body image may undergo some challenging transitions. Young adults in college experience changes in the way they eat and the types of food that they eat. In addition to access to all-you-can-eat cafeteria-style dining halls, college students enjoy more processed snack foods during late-night hours and may drink alcohol. They also have stressful, challenging schedules that limit the opportunity for physical activity. College students undergo changes to their sleep schedules as a result of all-night studying, classes, and internships, which throw off the balance of hormones that make you feel hungry or full.

Students in this age bracket also feel a significant fear about gaining weight in college, largely thanks to the myth of the "freshman 15." This term is used to describe the arbitrary amount of weight new college students are said to gain as the result of these life changes. While studies have proven that the amount of weight a typical first-year college student gains is significantly less than 15 pounds, the pressure this narrative puts on students causes severe anxiety surrounding weight gain.

Aim for body neutrality

While aiming for a positive body image may seem like the right move, aiming for body neutrality may be more beneficial for college students working on a healthy body image. Introduced in 2015, body neutrality is a practice that doesn't assign positive or negative values to a person's body but, rather, focuses on what the body is capable of doing. "Most of us have very black-and-white, moralized ideas around what is wrong with our bodies," personal trainer Leanne Pedante tells the New York Times. "Body neutrality is the unlearning of those harmful myths, so that we can move toward new ways of thinking."

"Body neutrality places no value on the body, but there is an appreciation for what you are able to do and the practice of noticing the feelings with these situations," Kristen Bunich, MA, RD, LDN, tells CNET. "Body positivity is still a movement that emphasizes physical appearance as a part of your self-worth where neutrality sees the body, notices what it is doing, and feels what impact that has. While there may be aspects of your body you don't care for at times, you can still appreciate what your body can do."

There are many mental and physical health benefits associated with this practice that can help college students live happy, well-rounded lives. In addition to reducing how critical or judgmental you might be about your body, body neutrality lowers stress, reduces anxiety, and helps you find fulfillment in your body's functionality.

Move your body

Although college can be a difficult time to find a balance between what you eat and how you exercise, moving your body in ways that feel good is necessary for a healthy body image. The trick is to find physical movement you enjoy and to engage in it, not as a way to punish yourself for eating that third piece of pizza or to force yourself to look a certain way but to reap the physical and mental benefits associated with joyful exercise. "Movement is medicine," Kevin Gilliland, PsyD tells Insider. "Exercise activates regions of our brain and releases hormones and brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are often associated with improved mood." Physical activity can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, support healthier eating habits, and improve memory, sleep, and energy levels.

It doesn't matter what type of exercise you do, as long as you enjoy it and can see yourself making it a habit. "Often I hear people want to start right away with a boot camp type class," exercise specialist Lisa Milbrandt tells UWHealth. "While for some it might be motivating to go to class and work hard, it is important to evaluate what your body is ready for, and what will help you commit to a lifestyle change." If you are new to exercise, consider a beginner yoga class or a daily walk after dinner. Experiment with strength training, HIIT, or fun cardio dance classes like Zumba to figure out what serves you best.

Avoid fad diets

Fad diets, or diets that promote quick fixes and dramatic results, are tempting for college students who are feeling anxious about their weight or body image. Though appealing in theory, the reality is that fad diets are damaging to both the physical body and mental health. "Avoid them [fad diets], because they don't work and can even be counter-productive," professor of psychology Charlotte Markey tells the American Heart Association. "They [fad diets] can even lead to weight gain, not weight loss."

Fad diets are proven to be harmful to an individual's long-term health. In addition to calorie restriction and food elimination, which can cause a negative association with food and lead to eating disorders, fad diets lead to greater body dissatisfaction and an obsession with thinness (per Oklahoma State University). College students are particularly vulnerable to the "fast results" messaging coming from fad diet marketing teams. "We want to believe that if we lose weight, our entire lives will improve and that's often the message in the marketing," Markey explains. "It's a very simplified look at the world. Any time the message is oversimplified and sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Instead of deprivation or restriction, look to achieve balance in the foods you eat. Aim for nourishing fruits, veggies, and protein, but don't feel like you have to skip out on the foods you love. 

Practice intuitive eating

College students can work to establish a healthy relationship with food by practicing intuitive eating. Intuitive eating rejects the mentality of traditional diets and focuses on eating when hungry, eating for satisfaction, and honoring fullness. "We're all born with the ability to know when to eat and when to stop eating, and we also know what is pleasurable and satisfying," registered dietician Rhonda Krick tells Cedars-Sinai. "However, most of us start to become more disconnected and less trusting of our own internal wisdom with the influence of family, friends, media, and diet culture."

Intuitive eating helps students make informed decisions about the foods they eat and creates a balance without forcing labels like "good" or "bad" onto the food they eat. "All foods are allowable," registered dietician Paula Quatromoni informs The Brink, "but part of the intuitive eating model means being informed. So, if I'm celebrating my friend's birthday, of course I'm going to have chocolate cake. Is that a food I eat everyday? No. I need information about what foods will nourish my body daily."

That lack of restriction and punishment for eating creates better associations with weight and body image. One 2021 study published in the Current Developments in Nutrition found that 61% of college students who identified as intuitive eaters reported less desire to change their weight than non-intuitive eaters. These students also reported feeling healthier, having more energy, and having a healthier BMI.

Don't skimp on sleep

Sleep is both precious and hard to come by in a college student's busy schedule. On average, most students only get between 6 to 6.9 hours of sleep per night, significantly impacting their memory, academic performance, and yes, even their body image. "It's not surprising that studies show that college students often fall short in the sleep department," clinical associate professor of nutrition and health sciences Joan Salge Blake tells BU Today. "Insufficient sleep can cause an increase in the hunger-promoting hormone ghrelin and a decrease in the hunger-suppressing hormone leptin." The imbalance of these hormones can lead to snacking or consistent cravings for processed foods that can contribute to a poor body image.

Conversely, a person's body image can cause a lack of sleep. Negative body image can be a powerful psychological stressor, leading to anxiety and negative emotions that ultimately make it difficult to obtain quality sleep. It's essential that college students do the best they can to make sleep a priority, especially if maintaining a healthy body image is their goal. Practicing good sleep hygiene will help achieve the necessary 7 to 9 hours of sleep.

Be kind to yourself

Stress seemingly comes with the territory of pursuing higher education. From the occasional bad midterm grade to figuring out how to balance a social life alongside the demands of a full-time undergraduate curriculum, college students often find themselves suffering from high levels of stress. Students experiencing stress are more likely to deprioritize self-care and treat themselves more harshly for small mistakes than they normally might. Self-compassion and kindness are necessary wellness tools for students navigating their college years.

Self-compassion, which includes mindfulness, self-kindness, and a recognition that humans all share similar experiences that connect them rather than isolate them, is a way to offer yourself kindness and support. The idea behind this simple practice is to quiet the judgmental and critical inner voice that gets loud when you fall short of your goals or make a mistake. This practice is especially important in relation to achieving a healthy body image. Instead of calling yourself names or punishing yourself with starvation and rigorous exercise if you gain a couple of pounds, be gentle and understanding. Learning to embrace the fact that all people gain weight now and again and practicing gratitude for a healthy body will help improve your relationship with your body by making it a friend rather than your enemy.

Surround yourself with positive friends

If you notice that your body image is suffering, take a look at the people you surround yourself with. Your closest friends can have a profound effect on how you think and feel about your body. "Body dissatisfaction is ubiquitous and can take a huge toll on our mood, self-esteem, relationships, and even the activities we pursue," psychology professor Allison Kelly tells BestLife. "It's important to realize that the people we spend time with actually influence our body image. If we are able to spend more time with people who are not preoccupied with their bodies, we can actually feel much better about our own bodies."

Positive female friendships that don't share a fixation on appearances, weight loss, or dieting are a major influence on a person's self-esteem, body image, and eating habits. One 2019 study published in Body Image followed 92 female college students for a week. The study found that regular exposure to people who weren't focused on their bodies produced less dietary restraint and greater appreciation for their own bodies in students. Those that did interact with people who were body-conscious were more influenced to think negatively about their own bodies in response. In addition to all of the positive benefits that good friendship can bring, surrounding yourself with kind, supportive, and loving people that aren't obsessed with diet culture can have a major impact on your own self-image.

Curate your social media to showcase diverse bodies

Image-based social media apps, with their focus on white, cisgendered, heterosexual influencers, "fitspo" and perfect lifestyle posts, and carefully edited images, are thought to correlate with body image concerns and disordered eating. "People are comparing their appearance to people in Instagram images, or whatever platform they're on, and they often judge themselves to be worse off," postdoctoral researcher Jasmine Fardouly tells BBC.

A surefire cure for this constant, ineffectual comparison is to quit social media, but that isn't realistic for most. Instead, focus on curating your social media feed to showcase diverse bodies with a focus on body positivity and body neutrality. "Look at your social media feed and notice what makes you feel anything that you don't want to, whether that's sad, depressed, jealous, or something else," social media expert Rhea Freeman tells "These are the accounts to mute or snooze, or unfollow completely." Then, start looking for content that brings you joy by following specific hashtags or accounts with positive body image messaging. Follow content creators from diverse backgrounds and with diverse body types.

You can also choose to focus your attention on accounts that don't have anything to do with food or body image, such as animals, plants, books, history, or science. Social media doesn't have to be a negative force in your life contributing to feelings of negative body image, especially if you take charge of the algorithm and interact with content that brings you joy.

Expect your body to change

Weight and body changes during college are normal, and you should expect them. According to one study, roughly 66% of students gain between 2 to 3 pounds in their first year of college, most of which occurs in the fall semester. Women are also more likely to gain weight than their male counterparts due to natural biological factors. While lifestyle changes associated with attending college are certainly contributing factors, some body changes are simply the result of growing up. "For each [woman] it is different and dependent on many factors," Renee Pabst tells Her Campus. "During puberty, a [woman] may gain 15 or more pounds in a year when puberty starts–this is normal and necessary for proper growth and development. [Women] can still gain some of this puberty weight in her late teenage years... [a.k.a the] first few years of college."

Even though your body will likely change in college, you can develop a healthy body image by staying active and taking a balanced, informed approach to the foods you eat. Prioritizing sleep and self-care is important for establishing a healthy relationship with your body, but so is focusing your attention on hobbies, grades, friendships, family, and things that have nothing to do with your appearance. When you notice your body changing, stay away from critical self-talk and negative thoughts, and choose kindness and self-compassion instead.