College and Body Image

student girls discussing College and Body ImageGoing off to college is a rite of passage, a teenager’s moment to leave the family nest and launch into semi-adulthood in the name of higher education. It’s exciting. It’s also scary and stressful. Expectations are high. Competition can be fierce, and emotionally, this emerging adulthood, college and body image, brings a whirlwind of new experiences.

How a student feels in his or her body is crucial during this time, but a positive body image may be difficult to maintain because of the comparison, stress, and lifestyle changes embedded in the college experience.

A Growth in Stress and Body Image Issues

Almost half of young people age 17-24 years old, so about 17 million, are enrolled in a college, university, or some kind of post-secondary educational program, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The number grows each year, as does the competition, comparison, and stress.

Body image in college students is of great concern because body dissatisfaction is “one of the most consistent and robust risk factors for eating disorders and as a significant predictor of low self-esteem, depression, and obesity.”1 Depression is a worry in the college-aged population, as suicide is one of the leading causes of death in college and university students, and about half of all college students have had suicidal thoughts2.

The Positives and Negatives of College Roommates

Attractive Mixed Race Girlfriends Talking about College and Body ImageWhen you get into a group living situation, like a dorm or sorority/fraternity house you’re going to hear people complain about their bodies. Grabbing muffin tops in the bathroom mirror or sucking in a gut that may or may not be there. Perhaps never have young people lived so intimately with each other than they do in college.

This can be a positive experience, forming lifetime bonds, but it can also create body comparison, which can begin to deflate one’s body image — because there always going be someone thinner or more beautiful. This occurs at a time when most people develop full-blown eating disorders (ages 18-21)3

Food Pressures in College During a Vulnerable Time

It’s also a time when eating behaviors are inevitably thrown for a loop. College freshmen come from home and the watchful eyes of mom and dad to an environment where any type of food is accessible, generally, around the clock. Eating behaviors can change and even become harmful.

This age group is already dealing with the acceptance of puberty and a changed, matured body; and when you throw in the additional food pressures of college life, body image becomes vulnerable, especially in women. College females, compared to college males, are more likely to place high importance on appearance and an ideal weight, as well as actively diet, oftentimes to the point of dangerous4.

Find Help on Campus

Colleges and universities have taken steps to address eating disorders among students by offering access to mental health professionals, specialized treatment programs, educational programs, and peer support groups.
online therapy session

Dieting in College

FriendsMany people can diet and never think twice of it, but 35% of normal dieters progress to pathological dieting, and of these pathological dieters, 20-25% develop a partial or full-blown eating disorder, accord to the NEDA study of college students.

About 30% of college women rated personal appearance as “traumatic or very difficult to handle” within the last year, according to the American College Health Association’s Spring 2014 National College Health Assessment.

The “Freshmen 15”

The notorious “Freshmen 15” doesn’t help matters. If you attended college, especially if you’re female, you were warned about the 15 pounds, give or take, people typically gain their freshman year. It’s the late-night study — and party — sessions, and snacking that inevitably goes with it, as well as the buffet-style dorm food and fast-food runs.

“Given our culture, which suffers from a pathological emphasis on weight as a measure of a woman’s worth, and given the conniving epidemic in our society of disordered eating, there are significant problems with the idea of the ‘Freshman 15,’” (Malinauskas, et al, 2006). The “Freshman 15” legend — college students, on average, gain about 5 pounds — may exacerbate disordered-eating behaviors; and it implies weight gain in college is inevitable and that girls must be thin to be successful, the researchers said.

Body Image Appears to be Getting Better

Cute teenage best friendsThere is great hope. One study found more than 80% of college women rated their body image as good to excellent5 And more college students who are struggling with body image or any other psychological issues, are seeking help.

Ninety-five percent of schools report an increase in students using mental health services, according to the NEDA report.

About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


  1. Grabe, S., Ward, L., & Hyde, J. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 460-476.
  2. Schwartz, A. J. (2006). College student suicide in the United States: 1990–1991 through 2003–2004. Journal of American College Health, 54(6), 341–352.
  3. Eating Disorders on the College Campus. (2013). National Eating Disorders Association.
  4. Malinauskas, B., Raedeke, T., Aeby, V., Smith, J., Dallas, M. (2006) Dieting practices, weight perceptions, and body composition: A comparison of normal weight, overweight, and obese college females. Nutrition Journal, 5(11), 1475-2891.
  5. Sachdeva, S., Sachdeva, R., & Goswami, S. (2012). Body image satisfaction among female college students. Industrial Psychiatry Journal 21(2), 168-172.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 1st, 2015
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