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Pursuit of perfection: addressing eating disorders and body dysmorphia in college

“Skinny legend.” “What’s the workout plan?” “I’m not eating today.” These harmful comments that flood social media posts highlight a dangerous culture of thinness obsession among young adults. Tik Tok, Snapchat and Instagram, platforms peers use to express themselves and share content, possess a dark and concerning side, one that promotes unrealistic beauty standards and amplifies weight and body image disorders. 

These apps are commonly used by college students to socialize, but they often reflect the eating disorders, diet culture and overall body image problems that many college students struggle with. Eating disorders typically begin between 18 and 21 years of age. Between 10 and 20% of women and 4 to 10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder, and rates are on the rise,” reports the Child Mind Institute.  These disorders are only exacerbated by social media.

Moving to college is a stressful and uncertain transition period. On their own and introduced to a new set of social pressures, many students succumb to unhealthy eating practices and lowered self esteems. In order to cope with the academic and social demands of college, students often control their eating and exercise habits in a way that can eventually manifest into eating and body image disorders. Even worse, those struggling are often praised for the physical changes that evolve from these behaviors. Not eating is normalized, and working out obsessively is commended. 

The constant desire to be thin isn’t the only beauty ideal that plagues college campuses. It’s less apparent—hiding under the guise of healthy living lies a pervasive toxic gym culture. Students struggle with body dysmorphia that often arises from workout obsession. Slamming caffeine-filled pre-workout and pushing constantly for “gains,” the pursuit of attaining a perfect body can quickly evolve into a harmful obsession. Working out and eating healthy is important, but it’s often over glorified to the point where it’s simply masking concerning eating and body image disorders. 

A less commonly known eating disorder that often develops from toxic gym culture is orthorexia nervosa. “Orthorexia is an unhealthy focus on eating in a healthy way. Eating nutritious food is good, but if you have orthorexia, you obsess about it to a degree that can damage your overall well-being,” WebMD defines. Since it’s hard to distinguish between these disorders and “healthy living,” there’s often little emotional and physical support offered to those battling them.  

It is important to clarify that being thin or fit is not the problem or by any means unattractive or unnatural. Bodies come in infinite shapes and sizes, and no particular one is more beautiful or inherently healthy than the other. The issue is glamorizing one particular beauty standard and the unhealthy means that are needed to achieve it. 

The prevalence of negative body image and eating disorders in college needs to be addressed so that those affected can seek the help they need. Additionally, we need to stop contributing to the harmful narrative that any one particular body ideal equates to self worth or beauty. Part of this stems from changing the way we communicate about body image as a whole. 

An easy way to start is by never commenting on someone’s body. Ever. If you find yourself wanting to tell someone “Wow, you’re so skinny!” reevaluate why you are saying this and what message you could possibly be sending to the recipient. You never know what stage of a body image journey someone is in. The common saying goes, if someone can’t change what you’re commenting on in a few minutes, don’t comment on it at all. Compliment someone’s style or their makeup, not their weight. 

Additionally, check in on your friends. Offer support to those around you and educate yourself on the different eating and body image disorders. Avoid commenting on anyone’s weight, eating or exercise habits and if you find someone physically critiquing you it’s okay to say, “Please don’t comment on my body.” Change only comes when we challenge this harmful rhetoric and strive for an inclusive, body positive college atmosphere.  


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