Coping with ‘Bad Body Image Days’

Nearly half of a group of college women used eating to cope with body image concerns.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
January/February 2012 Volume 23, Number 1
©2012 Gürze Books

Results of a recent study of first-year college women has revealed new information about coping mechanisms college women use to deal with concerns about body image. One finding was that college women with body image concerns react in two distinct ways: either with a self-defeatist attitude or by adopting self-improvement strategies, including setting healthy exercise and eating goals (Body Image 2011; 8:335).

Dr. TeriSue Smith-Jackson and colleagues at Utah Valley University, the University of Utah, and Brigham Young University used several semi-structured interviews with 30 first-year female college students to uncover the women’s strategies for dealing with “bad body image days.” The researchers initially surveyed 235 first-year students about the issue of body image. They then conducted a semi-structured interview with 30 women who had body image concerns. The women’s identities were kept confidential. The women in the study group had an average body mass index (BMI, kg/m2) of 24 (range: 18.4 to 39.3 kg/m2). Of the 30 women, 43% indicated that they wanted to lose weight, while 37% said they were not doing anything about their weight. No participants were trying to gain weight.

Each woman participated in a 45- to 75-minute semi-structured face-to-face interview about body image experiences. For the coping section of the interview, the interviewer led the discussion by saying, “Sometimes girls can get down or discouraged because they do not like their appearance, weight, or body shape/size. You may or may not have experienced this.” Participants were then asked what they do to help themselves feel better when they don’t feel good about how they look. Each participant was then measured for height and weight, so the researchers could compare them to other university populations. Each participant was also provided information about campus resources for body image concerns and eating disorders and a $50 gift card to the university bookstore.

Modes of coping

When asked what they do when they don’t feel good about themselves, many of the girls responded with what other women do in that situation. Talking in the third person was very common throughout the interviews, according to the authors, who think that the participants felt more comfortable talking about an uncomfortable subject in this way.

The women used a variety of coping mechanisms, including: exercise and healthy eating, changing their appearance or going shopping, socially interacting, turning to spirituality or religion, getting out of their apartments, or, in a few cases (3 women), isolating themselves at home. For 43% of the women, exercise made them feel better about themselves. Four women (13%) also mentioned that their eating habits improved when they were exercising regularly. The next most common approach was to use more makeup or re-do their hair when they felt bad about themselves. Others talked to friends and family members (23%) or went on Facebook to see how many messages showed that friends cared about them. Only one student explicitly described how she accepted herself rather than coping with pressures of or conforming to societal norms. She described standing before the mirror for periods such as 20 minutes and eventually getting used to the image before her“This is who I am,” she would say, “Nothing is going to change. This is who I am.”

The authors also found that there was a self-perpetuating cyclical relationship between eating and feeling bad. That is, when the women felt bad about themselves, they ate, which made them feel worse about themselves. Forty-three percent of the women mentioned eating to cope with body image concerns. About 10% of the girls mentioned restricting eating and other psychological problems. Eating then led to negative feelings about themselves, and the cycle continued. A common outcome was being depressed or frustrated. One woman described her frustration as, “staring deeper into the hole.” In contrast, 30% of the women talked about braking this cycle by self-improvement, such as eating better, exercising or changing their appearance.

The authors think that their findings shed light on and hopefully will prompt additional investigation into methods of coping with varying degrees of body image dissatisfaction among women.

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