Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Most young adults—both male and female—struggle with their body image. Body image can influence your perception of almost every aspect of your life, from what you wear to what you eat to how you interact with others and your general sense of well-being. With almost 15,000 students at the University of Toronto Mississauga and the novel technological aspect of university life, it is common to fall into the draining habit of trying new diets, keeping up with the latest social media workout (ahem, Chloe Ting), and fighting with the inherent feeling that whatever you’re doing for your physical appearance, regardless of how strenuous, just may not be enough.
There exists a common misconception that only women struggle with body image issues. However, a study from the 2019 National College Health Assessment conducted at UTM found that almost half of all students—made up of 49 per cent female and 42 per cent male—were trying to lose weight, even though half of the students who took the same survey—53 per cent female and 45 per cent male—felt that they were at the right weight for their age.
But how do students at UTM feel about their body image? Jane, a fourth-year student at UTM studying criminology, notes that her body image changed drastically after she left home. “I’ve always been an active person, and I was dependent on my parents to make decisions for me,” she says. “When I came to university, I felt like I had no real knowledge on how to feed myself, and I stopped playing sports, so I ended up gaining a lot of weight and being unhappy.”
Faizah, another fourth-year student in the CCIT and criminology, law, and society programs, says that she always struggled with her body image, stating that, “Losing weight was my way of thinking that I had control over something when I didn’t really feel in control.”
Social media also plays a significant role in how individuals perceive their body image in relation to others. A study at the University of Akron found that the average university student is on social media an average of seven hours a day and that the usual portrayal of the male physique on social media is generally lean and muscular, while the ideal body for women portrayed on social media is 15 per cent lower than the national weight average for each height and age.
It is important to note that this data does not holistically capture the feelings of transgender and non-binary students at UTM. UTM’s Health & Counselling Centre (HCC) acknowledges that these are issues these students struggle with and are unfortunately less likely to seek help with. The HCC shared a source with The Medium that stated the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on body image has been detrimental, partially due to increased screen time, reduced support, and greater social isolation.
Sam, a second-year student studying political science, never doubted her body image until the start of the pandemic. “I realized I was spending most of my time reading and doing schoolwork. Every time I went on Instagram, someone was doing another backyard workout or talking about a new meal plan, and I felt a little lazy that I wasn’t utilizing my time in the same way,” says Sam.
“I started to diet really aggressively and was really restrictive,” Jane recalls. “But even though I lost all the weight, I got really sick. I had a cold and sore throat for months, and I felt like my body couldn’t heal itself.”
Faizah credits her family as one of the causes of her poor self-image. “[My family] always made comments about my weight, and over time, I just internalized those things. I wasn’t losing weight in a healthy way though, and I think that reframing my thinking about myself and setting boundaries with my family about how I would like them to address topics about my physical appearance helped me a lot.”
A study on PubMed looking at Canadian university students identified that information-based education on health, body image, and eating disorders is the least effective form of awareness. Other approaches, such as media-literacy and dissonance-based educational approaches, as well as physical activities that focus on self-esteem, are more effective.
The University of Toronto has set up resources for students looking to repair their self-image. The HCC offers virtual and in-person counseling services, as well as health and nutrition information to all students. In addition, UTM’s Recreation, Athletics and Wellness Centre (RAWC) hosts numerous virtual fitness classes for on and off-campus participants.
For Jane, the RAWC was helpful in her journey to regaining confidence in her body image. “The RAWC was really accessible and welcoming, even during the time I didn’t live on campus,” she notes. The HCC has also announced that in February 2021, it will be launching a virtual workshop tackling issues of body image led by staff counselor Lauren Drouillard and dietician Kimberly Green.
Students struggling with their body image should continuously prioritize their mental and emotional well-being over their physical appearance. “I was listening to a podcast, and I heard them say ‘Blessed I am to live in such a beautiful temple.’ And it made me think about how truly lucky I am to have a body that allows me to do everything that I want to do,” says Faizah, stressing the importance of verbal affirmations. “It feels weird to be saying it at first, but it’s really important to get into the habit of loving yourself out loud.”
Sam, an avid hiker, echoes Faizah’s sentiments, saying that her body image issues improved when she started appreciating her body for what it could do and not what it looked like. “I can walk and run and dance. As long as I remember that my opinion about my body is what matters, and I appreciate it for what it can do, my body image will always be in good standing.”
Although the pandemic has brought on novel stressors that have affected us both mentally and physically, the new year gives us a chance to shift the focus from our unfortunate circumstances to our own well-being. Amid these uncertain times, self-care and self-love have never been more important.