One’s college years are jam-packed with life lessons, rapid development and questions of self-identity, all of which can become overwhelming and confusing for the person experiencing it. Body weight changes during college years — though completely normal — can be tough to deal with. Body dissatisfaction among college students is common and often dismissed as customary. In an effort to cope with these sometimes unwelcome changes, some become hyper focused on food and their body to try and grapple with the constant development. It doesn’t have to be this way. 


There is a better way to to think about and care for your body that isn’t punitive, and with the right resources, you can begin building a better relationship with your body and food. Fortunately, here on the University of Michigan campus, there are providers passionate about recovery from disordered eating and exercise habits — broadly speaking — as well as poor body image. 

Kellie Carbone, M.A., is an Eating Disorder Prevention and Body Image Health Educator with Wolverine Wellness and the University Health Service at the University of Michigan. Before getting into the nitty gritty of why negative body image takes a strong hold over some and what we can do about it, Carbone broke down to the Daily what she does at Wolverine Wellness and UHS: “At UHS, my primary focus is holistic well-being in general, but I do a lot of work with students around intuitive eating. So, helping them unhook from diet culture and really find a way back to a more attuned relationship (with food), separate from cultural messages or outside experts or things like that.” This entails discrediting the many messages we get about nutrition, fitness and bodies that arise from the thin ideal

When I asked Carbone about the main concerns that students who come to her have regarding food, body and exercise, she said many who see her have a history of eating disorders prior to college. Now that they’re in a new, stressful environment, past disordered thoughts and behaviors are resurfacing. Additionally, she works with many students who “have trouble dealing with body changes that were going to happen anyway because of maturation.” She works hard to help students see that nothing is wrong with them and their bodies are not in need of “fixing.” Rather, she rightly frames it as bodies doing what they’re naturally meant to do. 

While the majority of students Carbone sees have historically been young women, over the last few years, she’s had more interactions with men who have become more willing to talk about their own negative body image. The barrier that was preventing them from coming forward — and which still suppresses many — is the differing cultural messages for men and women. 

“So, women get the message of, pretty and thin and toned,” she said. “And for guys it’s sometimes more about muscularity or masculinity. So we have to frame the conversation a little bit differently too.” With growing rates of body dissatisfaction in young men, it is vital that we create inclusive spaces where they can also feel seen and heard. 

You probably already knew that negative body image is widespread and have likely experienced it yourself at some point. But we have to question why it comes up as a chronic condition in some people — one that interferes with everyday life. Carbone provided insight into why negative body image occurs, prefacing with the fact that many intersecting factors are at play. Nevertheless, the persistence of diet culture at large in our society undoubtedly plays a major role by idealizing a certain body type for women and men. Carbone agrees this culture is the foundational factor, and combined with other individual factors, is likely resulting in some students having persistent negative body image. 

Complex emotions, insecurities and perceived shortcomings in other areas of one’s life are also often projected onto their body. This is most clearly embodied by the phrase, “I feel fat.” Carbone firmly stated that fat is not a feeling. It is something that has been stigmatized to mean unwell, uncomfortable or disappointed, and is widely misused.

“What I have seen in my work is that, for a lot of people with negative body image, it’s sort of like they put all of their insecurity, all of their worry, all of their doubt that they feel, globally, into their body,” Carbone stated. “So a lot of times when people are having negative body image moments or days, it can sometimes be because they’re having a lot of difficult feelings that they don’t know how to handle, that they’ve been told to sort of collapse under the label of ‘fat.’” 

On Carbone’s point that it is easy to project any complex negative emotions onto our bodies, there is some comfort that ensues from understanding our shortcomings in the context of our physical appearance, saying, “It’s a safe place for people to retreat to that, ‘if my body were perfect, all these other problems would not be issues.’”

The many negative feelings and emotions that hide behind the word “fat” is one phenomenon that has contributed to the continuation of body dissatisfaction. Another is the culture of self-inflicted body dissatisfaction. This refers to the practice of girls, starting at a very young age, bonding over their dislike for their body and comforting each other by bashing on themselves. Carbone shared her thoughts on the sense of camaraderie when girls come together and bond over what they dislike about their physiques. “The contagion,” she started, “and I hate to call it that, but … it has become this oddly safe space where women know, ‘We can critique ourselves really harshly, ideally our friends will join in a little bit, but then pull us out of the morass,’ but I think it’s a hard cycle to break.” 

As Carbone said, it is most certainly a hard cycle to break because of this culture. If this culture persists, and young girls continue to be socialized into it, opting out of it can be a lonely experience. She validated these feelings of isolation that can and do take place and added that group-based practices are needed for this very reason: “You need people who are talking about this too, so that you don’t feel isolated and so that you can build your confidence in what you believe.” Having a place to go where others also feel the same pressure you do will be crucial for breaking the isolation and building healthier bonds. 

In addition to highlighting the importance of having others to lean on as you work toward body acceptance, Carbone shared some helpful tips on how to combat negative body image and reframe your outlook on life. First, we must make peace with the process of changing. It sounds obvious, but when our bodies change as we continuously age, it’s easy for people to get trapped in the allure of products and programs that claim to mitigate these very normal processes. “The danger of thinking that we can control one component of it is that we start thinking we can control all of it,” she said, also pointing to anti-aging creams and hair dyes as examples all rooted in a pursuit for the ever-moving target of perfection. 

Social media is another beast entirely. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the many beneficial but many more harmful ways it influences our daily lives. Overflowing with photoshopped images that falsely tell us that our bodies aren’t up-to-par — not to mention unsanctioned and potentially harmful nutrition advice — these platforms play a considerable role in ingraining unrealistic standards. Fortunately, if you’re selective about who you follow, social media can serve as an asset in your recovery from negative body image. Numerous anti-diet, pro-intuitive eating and body accepting accounts exist nowadays — I recommend you include them in your feed. 

Finally, Carbone stressed the importance of setting boundaries with people in your life around what will not be tolerated in regard to your body. Though doing so can be extremely difficult, especially at the start, Carbone provided short and simple phrases you can respond with, such as “my weight is the least important thing about me,” or “I’m not comfortable with this conversation; if it keeps going, I’m going to leave.” 

“I think over time, we get a little more sophisticated in how we can set those boundaries,” she elaborated. “We’ll also know who deserves to hear our reasoning, because for some people it’s just, ‘Shut up, you can’t say that, that’s not your place.’ For others who we have relationships with, it can be more like, ‘I’ve been working on this, I’ve been trying to change the ways I think about food, I found this way that helps me feel much more at peace with myself and accepting of myself, and I hope that you can support me in that.’”

If true support still doesn’t come from close family and friends, there are great places you can find it here on campus — starting with Carbone at Wolverine Wellness and UHS, as well as other clinicians who are rooted in an anti-diet and intuitive eating framework. Wellness coaching rooted in an intuitive eating framework is available in a group setting and one-on-one. Additionally, there are clinicians with Counseling and Psychological Services who specialize in body image issues and/or disordered eating and offer an Eating and Body Image Skills Group.

Nyla Booras can be reached at

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