Body Image and Disordered Eating

Body image is how you perceive yourself in your mind and how you see yourself reflected in the mirror. It’s how you feel about your height, shape, and weight; how you feel in your body. Not all body images are positive, and some can have significant impacts on your mood and behavior.

A healthy body image

An individual with a healthy body image thinks of him or herself as a whole person, considering character, friendliness, intelligence, skills and feelings. When trying to maintain a healthy body image, or retrain an unhealthy image:

  • Focus on goals and strengths that go beyond your appearance.
  • Refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight and calories.
  • Spend less time in front of mirrors.
  • Exercise for the joy of feeling your body move and grow stronger.
  • List your good qualities.
  • Get to know people beyond physical appearances. Admire unique qualities in individuals.
  • Surround yourself with people and things that make you feel good about yourself and your abilities.
  • Consider the media’s portrayal of beauty standards critically.
  • Celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape.
  • Admire parts of your body for their functions and how they make you feel.
  • Enjoy meals with friends or family members.

A healthy body image can also be created when an individual sets a goal to improve his or her health, energy, appearance and mood, instead of trying to maintain a certain size or shape. When adapting a body image to these new goals, it’s important to:

  • Recognize negative outside pressures: Advertisements can trick you into creating a negative body image to sell you products or services. Your friends and family may be buying into this commercial and pop culture and they may influence your thoughts and views.
  • Notice when you feel negative about your body: The first step is to notice your negative thoughts. Then, you can take further steps to challenge and modify those thoughts.
  • Accept your natural size: If you incorporate healthy eating habits and physical activity, your body can reach a healthy weight naturally.
  • Allow time for change: Developing a healthy body image takes time because body attitudes can be powerful and deep. Take time to appreciate your body one part at a time.
  • Use different measures: The scale and the size you wear are not always good ways to rate yourself. Instead, think of what your body does for you and the activities that you can do to feel and look healthy.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are extreme expressions of a range of weight and food issues experienced by both men and women. They include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating. All are serious emotional problems that can have life-threatening consequences. All eating disorders require professional help.

Eating disorders arise from a combination of psychological, interpersonal and social conditions. Feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and loneliness, as well as troubled family and personal relationships, may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Our culture, with its unrelenting idealization of thinness and the “perfect body,” is often a contributing factor. Sometimes, people try to cope with painful emotions and feelings of loss of control by dieting, bingeing and purging, but these behaviors undermine physical health, self-esteem, and a sense of competence and control.

Symptoms of eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Symptoms vary, but can include:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age and activity level.
  • Intense fear of weight gain and being “fat”
  • Feeling fat or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging. Symptoms can include:

  • Binge eating: eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time, accompanied by a sense of lack of control over one’s eating during the episode, and by eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness.
  • Purging: recurrent, inappropriate compensatory behavior in order to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas or other medications, fasting or excessive exercise
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Binge-eating disorder (also known as compulsive overeating) is characterized primarily by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets, and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate or severe obesity.

Other eating disorders can include some combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. While these behaviors may not be clinically diagnosed as a full-syndrome eating disorder, they can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining.

Warning signs that someone may have an eating disorder

    • A marked increase or decrease in weight not related to a medical condition.
    • The development of abnormal eating habits such as severe dieting, preference for strange foods, withdrawn or ritualized behavior at mealtime, or secretive bingeing.
    • An intense preoccupation with weight and body image.
    • Compulsive or excessive exercising.
    • Self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, or laxative, diet pill, or diuretic abuse.
    • Feelings of isolation, depression or irritability.

Treatments for Eating Disorders

When students first come to talk about eating and body image concerns, they usually meet with a member of the counseling staff. The counselor will help clarify the student’s concerns and may recommend that the student meet with other Habif staff members to receive more comprehensive care and support.

Our counselors can help students better understand the emotional and relational aspects of their eating and body image concerns, as well as the impact it has on their academic and social lives. If concerns about physical health arise, students may meet with a Habif physician. Students are often referred to a dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan. Finally, a psychiatrist can evaluate whether medication could help alleviate symptoms.

Students struggling with an eating disorder may also be referred to off campus providers if our counselors and/or medical professionals determine that to be the necessary step to ensure that the student’s treatment needs and goals can be met.


To make an appointment with a counselor, please schedule online through the Student Portal. The mental health coordinator will ask you some question in order to connect you with the appropriate professional for your first visit. Subsequent visits can be scheduled online.

Helping someone who may have an eating disorder

  • Set a time to talk: Set aside a time for a private, respectful meeting with your friend to discuss your concerns openly and honestly in a caring, supportive way. Make sure you will be away from distractions. Realize that you may be rejected; people with eating disorders often deny their problem. If this happens, don’t take it personally. Take your concern to a trusted adult or medical professional immediately.
  • Communicate your concerns: Share your memories of specific times when you felt concerned about your friend’s eating or exercise behaviors. Explain that you think these things may indicate that there could be a problem that needs professional attention.
  • Suggest professional help: Ask your friend to explore these concerns with a counselor, doctor, dietitian, or other health professional who is knowledgeable about eating issues. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer to help your friend make an appointment or accompany your friend on the first visit.
  • Avoid conflicts or a battle of the wills: If your friend refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem, or any reason for you to be concerned, restate your feelings and the reasons for them and leave yourself open and available as a supportive listener.
  • Avoid placing blame: Don’t place shame, blame, or guilt on your friend regarding their actions or attitudes. Do not use accusatory “you” statements like “you just need to eat” or “you are acting irresponsibly.” Instead, use “I” statements such as “I am concerned about you because you refuse to eat breakfast or lunch” or “it makes me afraid to hear you vomiting.”
  • Don’t reduce: Avoid giving simple solutions such as “If you’d just stop, then everything would be fine!”
  • Know your limits: Don’t take on the role of counselor or food monitor; it is important for you to maintain appropriate boundaries.
  • Come prepared with resources in case your friend is open to professional help: There are many resources available on campus including counseling through Habif, Uncle Joe’s, WashU Cares, and Let’s Talk.
  • Express your continued support: Remind your friend that you care and want your friend to be healthy and happy.

More eating disorder help
  • Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center has a 24-hour hotline at 314-935-5099. If you wish to speak with someone in person, their office is in the basement of Gregg Hall, 10 p.m.-1 a.m. nightly.
  • The National Eating Disorders Association provides information and resources about eating disorders.
  • Screening for Mental Health has information on self-evaluation for an eating disorder, as well as other mental health resources.