Two Student Health and Counseling Services counselors weigh in on quarantine’s effect on students’ perception of their bodies
Disclaimer: This article discusses eating disorders, a topic that may be sensitive to some readers. For more information and resources about eating disorders visit https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/health-topic/eating-disorders.
With more time spent at home during the COVID-19 lockdowns, social media consumption has greatly increased. This spike in social media usage and lack of fulfilling in-person activities can cause students to spend more time comparing their appearance to others’. Two counselors at Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) who specialize in eating disorders—Meghan Jones, a counseling services postdoctoral resident, and Katie Silbiger, a health psychology doctoral intern—discussed how quarantine has impacted students’ body image and how they can overcome negative thoughts about their bodies.
Jones pointed out that students are regularly staring at their own face and classmates’ faces during Zoom meetings. This puts a lot of focus on appearance and makes it easy for them to compare their own looks to others’. In addition, Silbiger noted that the pandemic has limited access to some things that bring balance and richness to many students’ lives, such as friends, family, activities that have been canceled and places that have been closed.
“When your world gets very small, it’s easy to forget that you have many different identities and that you are more than a student and definitely more than just a body,” Silbiger said.
This focus on appearance can be further heightened by social media. As students are more restricted from seeing peers in person, many have resorted to social media as a replacement for social activities and as a way to keep up with friends.
“It seems like students have been using social media more to stay connected and are comparing themselves a lot to others, especially ‘influencers,’ since quarantine,” Jones said. “It can be easy to think that what we see on social media is the expectation and is how our own body ‘should’ look.”
Early in the pandemic, there were a lot of messages circulating social media about engaging in “self-improvement” while being at home. While this could encourage students to take up new hobbies and make the most of their time in lockdown, it could also increase the pressure to fit a certain image, according to Silbiger.
“When ‘self-improvement’ turns into a mandate that you need to look a certain way or stick to a rigid set of rules to be okay with yourself, that can create a problem,” Silbiger said.
Jones stated that while having more focus on the body is not necessarily a bad thing, research suggests that a person’s mood impacts their perception. For example, if someone is in a more negative mood because of everything that has happened this past year, they could be more likely to perceive their body negatively. Furthermore, when a student becomes highly fixated on their body, it can affect their eating habits and daily routine.
“Having so much focus on the body also takes up a lot of brain space and can lead to difficulties focusing on other things like academics, hobbies and even social life,” Jones said.
While students may struggle with their body image because of these factors, there are ways that they can overcome these negative thoughts. For example, instead of engaging in negative self-talk, Jones recommends talking to oneself using the same positive language as one would use with a friend.
“For example, I would never look at a friend and say ‘You’re so ugly,’ so why is it okay for me to look in the mirror and say that to myself?” Jones said. “To a friend, I would probably say, ‘I love that shirt, you’re glowing,’ or maybe, ‘You’re having a great hair day.’ So practicing talking to ourselves in that positive way can be really life-changing.”
According to Jones, this strategy can be used for body image, academics, sports or any area of life in which there can be negative self-talk. Students can also focus on non-body-related goals or interests instead. This can help them practice body neutrality, the idea of adopting a neutral perspective toward one’s body.
“It can be hard to fully love your physical body 100% of the time, so it can be pretty freeing to remove that expectation of yourself,” Silbiger said.
Students can also curate their social media feed to avoid content that makes them view themselves in a negative light.
“If seeing posts from a certain person always makes you feel like garbage, go ahead and unfollow or hide them,” Silbiger said. “Maybe you’re following someone for inspiration, but when you look at their posts, you actually feel inadequate, rather than inspired—unfollow. You can replace those things by following content creators with content that actually makes you feel good instead.”
In addition, Jones recommends diversifying one’s social media feed with things unrelated to people or bodies, which can help deemphasize looks.
“There is so much amazing photography of landscapes, animals, art and other stuff on social media,” Jones said. “There are also a lot of cool informative videos about social justice, cooking and new hobbies that can be fun to see more of.”
Resources on campus can help students facilitate a healthy relationship with their body, Jones said. SHCS has two groups for students with eating concerns, Heal and Nourish. Heal covers skills and strategies for managing difficulties with eating and body image, and Nourish is an open discussion group where students with past or current eating disorders can share their experiences and struggles. Both groups accept new members at the beginning of each quarter and are free for any enrolled students.
Anyone interested in joining one of these groups can call counseling services and ask to be placed on the waiting list for the following quarter. SHCS hosts an information session to help students identify which group may be the best fit.
“I would suggest that students try to give themsel[ves] some self-compassion and understanding that poor body image doesn’t develop overnight,” Jones said. “There are many reasons why this is a struggle, and it will likely take some time to change those negative thoughts and find body acceptance.”
There are also individual therapists who specialize in eating disorders and brief therapy (5-6 sessions), which are also free to all enrolled students. To discuss body image concerns, students can make an appointment with an eating disorder specialist or any therapist.
“It’s also okay to make an appointment if you aren’t sure you have ‘enough’ of a concern to talk about,” Silbiger said. “First sessions are called ‘initial consultations’ because the therapist is there to listen to what’s going on and help you decide what kind of support would be best for you. Whatever it is that you’re dealing with, we are here to listen.”
To make an appointment with SHCS or for after hours crisis consultation call 530-752-2349
The following links can be used to learn more about eating disorders and find counseling or recovery services:
Sutter Center for Psychiatry 24-Hour Crisis Line: 916-386-3620