What is body dissatisfaction and why we should pay attention to it among college students?

by Ya-Ke (Grace) Wu, PhD, RN

What is body dissatisfaction? Body dissatisfaction is defined as negative perceptions, evaluation, attitudes, or feelings an individual has towards their body weight, shape, or appearance.1-3 External factors such as media images of other’s or negative feedback about one’s appearance from family and friends can influence how we evaluate our bodies.4 For example, if we believe that a thinner body is equal to beauty, it may increase the risk of developing weight and shape concerns towards our body sizes as well as body dissatisfaction.5

Grace Blog Picture 2Body dissatisfaction is well-studied in the college student population. Previous studies showed that one out of every three college students is concerned about their weight and body shape, about 13% of female college students were dissatisfied with their body size, and female college students reported higher weight concern than male college students.6-8 In comparison with females, male college students wanted to have less body fat and desired more muscle mass.9 In addition, white female college students reported higher body dissatisfaction than Native American and Hispanic college women.10

Why might the issue of body dissatisfaction be coming up during college life? The college years represent a pivotal developmental time that students transition from teenagers to adulthood.11 In addition to facing the task of academic load and the challenge of greater personal responsibility, college students may also be exposed to group living situations such as living with roommates in dorms.12,13 This type of shared living experience may increase the risk for body dissatisfaction by body comparison and may lead to negative perceptions of one’s body image.13 College students may also use social media such as Instagram in order to establish new interpersonal relationships.14 Social media may have a negative influence on college students’ body image because students who use social media may be spending time carefully selecting the best images in order to promote themselves and to seek comments by others.14 Engaging in social media in this way may lead to increased stressors surrounding maintaining or achieving an ideal body and may lead to body dissatisfaction.15,16

Why is body dissatisfaction in college students important? College students are not only at higher risk for body dissatisfaction, but there is a significant association between body dissatisfaction and eating behavior. Body dissatisfaction has been identified as an important risk factor for disordered eating behaviors in college students, such as restrained eating, dieting, binge eating, and bulimia nervosa.17-21 Raising awareness of the link between body dissatisfaction and eating disturbances may be a first step in preventing eating disorders among college students. Health care providers can help college students change the way they see themselves by encouraging them to embrace their natural size with positive perceptions of their body images to improve physical and emotional health.

For a resource on body positivity, visit The Body Positive.


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