Back to School: Supporting A Healthy Mind and Healthy Body Image

Published: August 19, 2013

It’s that time of year again! Summer has flown by, class schedules have been determined and back to school shopping has begun. Although the start of the school year can be an exciting time of new beginnings, it can also feel hectic and stressful. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the seemingly endless list of new demands.  Students in the back to school season often find that they are worrying about myriad new topics such as coursework, grades, friends, and trying out for sports teams. Major developmental milestones, like moving away from parents and loved ones to attend college and dormitory living, can add additional stress.

For individuals struggling with disordered eating or body dissatisfaction, periods of stress can be times of increased vulnerability. To make matters more complicated, the first days of a new school year are often chock-full of conversation about the latest fashion trends with a great deal of emphasis placed on physical appearance. Comments about peers’ changes in appearance over the summer—from new haircuts to new clothes, to changes in weight—are also common. These types of comments can feel overwhelming and unhelpful and may trigger concerns about dieting, shape, and weight for many individuals, regardless of whether they struggle with disordered eating.

Below are tips for keeping yourself healthy, managing stress, and maintaining a positive body image during the back to school season.

Cut out fat talk and body snarking: Resist the urge to comment about your own or others’ weight and shape. Instead, make a point to focus on the nonphysical attributes of your friends and peers that you value, respect, or admire.  Tell them that you have missed them over the summer and why! When you find yourself surrounded by others commenting on weight or shape, it’s okay to ask politely to change the subject.

Look for healthy role models: Use the back to school season to really consider who it is you admire and who your role models are. What type of person do you aspire to be? What qualities do you value in others that you hope to emulate? Make a decision to actively seek out role models in your day-to-day life instead of passively accepting those that the media bombard us with (celebrities, models, and so forth).

 Don’t compare: Don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on identifying qualities about yourself that make you unique and special. Focus on identifying non-achievement based strengths as well, such as being a good friend, caring about others, or your sense of humor. Affirm your own intrinsic beauty and self-worth. Also, remember that no matter how perfect things may look on the surface, others are likely to have their own internal struggles.

 Engage in self-care: During periods of high stress it is important to make self-care a priority. For different individuals this means different things. Examples include taking a walk with a friend, attending a yoga class, getting extra sleep, or cooking and sharing a delicious meal. Commit to engaging in self-care activities for a set amount of time each week regardless of how hectic your schedule gets. It may feel like a sacrifice at the time; however, the long-term benefits far outweigh the costs by keeping you relaxed, focused, and feeling your best.

 Seek support: Know where your campus resources are. Most schools (particularity colleges) have resources for students including both medical and mental health services. Many college campuses also offer courses or free consultations on topics such as nutrition, sexual health, and general wellness. Find out what resources exist and take advantage of them! It is also important to seek out the support of friends and peers. It’s also OK to call home for support! Let someone know what’s going on with you. Invite a new friend for coffee or dinner to get to know each other better.

Resources at UNC Chapel Hill
Campus Health Services
James A. Taylor Building CB#7470
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
*Campus Health Services includes Student Wellness and Counseling and Psychological Services

UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders
Neurosciences Hospital
101 Manning Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27514