Dental school takes a toll on body image

Body Image – noun a subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others.

According to the American Psychological Association the average millennial spends 6.5 hours each day with mass media and views approximately 3,000 advertisements. Often these images depict men and women as unnaturally flawless and have led to a beauty standard that is both unrealistic and unobtainable. What’s worse is that studies have proven that constant exposure to these beauty “ideals” cause internalization of damaging standards that could lead to eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

And what we would do to reach this ideal can be really scary. A 2011 survey from the Center for Appearance Research found that 26 percent of women would trade a promotion or extra salary to achieve an ideal weight and shape. Thirty percent said they would trade a year of their life.

So what does this have to do with dental students? I remember when I started school, I was relatively healthy (albeit a little chubby). My weight had fluctuated within 10 pounds throughout my undergraduate time, but I never really felt fat. Other than swing dancing twice a week, I wasn’t active, and I ate pretty much whatever I wanted. And even though no one in my life thought I was unhealthy or overweight (or at least they didn’t tell me if they did), I still disliked almost everything about my body. But I figured it was futile to fix anything and never made any tangible changes to my lifestyle or perception of myself.

But then the torture that is dental school hit me like a ton of bricks. I stopped dancing completely, ate whatever was most conveniently available (i.e. pizza from our lunch-n-learns) and pulled more all-nighters than I care to remember. In a year and a half I gained almost 50 pounds, felt constantly tired and hated myself more than ever. I tried to be optimistic and cheerful outwardly, but any time I thought about my appearance I’d have to fight off the anxiety. I began spiraling into some of the darkest months of my life.

Eventually, a family member noticed how often I was complaining of exhaustion and making underhanded comments about my weight gain. Instead of brushing it aside as a consequence of dental school, she urged me to seek help. I attended my first counseling session and began talking about my anxiety and body dysmorphia. It was only with the help of a professional that I was able to make healthier changes, both physically and mentally, and get myself onto a path towards a more positive body image.

Now, more than a year later, I am running a few times a week and continuing to try and love my body, no matter where I am on the scale. My focus has shifted to my happiness in reaching fitness goals, rather than other’s perception of me.

Mental health and body dysmorphia are heavily stigmatized by our culture. But the reality is that nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population experience negative body image on a daily basis. So if you struggle with loving yourself as you are, here are a few tips I’d suggest trying:

  1. Focus on being grateful for all the wonderful things your body can do. By being thankful for all the wonderful things your body can do, your mind evaluates what is right, rather than pointing out what’s wrong.
  2. Celebrate body diversity. When we observe the variety of shapes and sizes around us, we begin to realize that healthy bodies come in many forms. People like Frostine Shake are redefining what it means to be beautiful.
  3. Express your emotions. Whether it’s journaling or confiding in a close friend, studies show that the simple act of sharing your feelings helps us evaluate negative emotions and re-frame them into positive ones. Plus, you’ll be surprised how many people in your life struggle with the same insecurities as you.
  4. Make a small change. Today, just choose to change one thing. For me, I started wearing professional clothes and my white coat a few times a week. It made me feel confident and gave me something to look forward to.

We each have tremendous value that often gets overshadowed by our own self-doubt. If you think you might struggle with body dysmorphia or an eating disorder, please know that you aren’t alone. There are so many resources to help you. Getting help has hands-down been the best decision I ever made. I just wish I would have made it sooner. If you are interested in finding a therapist, use ASDA’s directory to contact the health center at your dental school (many services are free or deeply discounted). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also has a directory of specialists here.

~Paula Cohen, Florida ’17


Did you know that ASDA has a Wellness Initiative all about maintaining your personal well-being while in dental school? We focus on five dimensions of wellness–emotional, physical, intellectual, occupational, environmental–to help dental students be well. Visit our Wellness site here and take part in monthly wellness challenges. Be sure to hashtag your wellness efforts on social media with #BeWellASDA.

Paula Cohen

Paula is a fourth year at the University of Florida and she served as the 2015-2016 Speaker of the House. Her hobbies include card-crafting, Doctor Who, and baking!

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  1. Wow!! Thanks for discussing this important topic!! We all need to be more kind when we consider people and there personal battles. When 80% of those around us struggle with body dysmorhpia, a little more consideration can go a long way, especially in helping our dental practices grow! I believe our dental patients easily pick up on the way we as dentists treat them and feel about them. When we are kind and compassionate they will more likely want to keep coming back to see us.

  2. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability with us, Paula–which gives us all permission to be vulnerable ourselves. I love the idea of your dressing in professional clothes and wearing your so-richly-deserved white coat as a way to boost self-esteem. Your message inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for months: call my insurance company to ask about their services for nutritional coaching which, I think (hope!) are free. I’ll also express my appreciation to my body for getting me to and from during the business day. Thanks, legs!

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