Over the past year, everyone has struggled to adapt to the “new normal” of a COVID–19 world—spending most workdays at home, attending classes and meetings virtually, and ordering a lot more take–out food than usual. Our algorithmic Instagram and TikTok feeds have suggested nearly a million ways for us to use our newfound “me time”—from weight loss routines to muscle building mania. Maybe you’ve taken advantage of the sudden influx in alone time; more likely, the maddening hours of isolation have taken advantage of you. 

As college students, COVID–19 isolation has honed in on our already egocentric insecurities. We have even more time to worry about our bodies, our appearances, our failed attempts of calorie counting, and just how lame we are in comparison to all the “thriving” social media influencers we see on the daily. Feel fat? Well, guess what, your friend from high school just lost thirty pounds and got a six pack after his quarantine transformation. Feeling lonely during this sad excuse of a freshman year? You should, because that girl you follow from French class spent spring break in New York City with all her new BFFs. But unlike friends and family back home, college students face their insecurities in isolation—the majority of their days spent in single dorm rooms, moving from the classroom to the mini fridge to the mirror in a matter of six steps.

One of the main issues when it comes to negative self image during the pandemic is the disparity between social media and reality. Because of restrictions, college isn’t exactly one big party anymore, but a series of anxiety–ridden six–feet–separated “gatherings” in 32 degree weather. Of course, there are normal gatherings going on below the radar that are flaunted for a moment on Snapchat stories before disappearing. Nowadays, a maskless photo with friends seems rebelliously sexy; it’s wrong, but boy, don’t you wish you were doing it right now? When did a picture of someone’s naked face in a bar suddenly feel as scandalous as seeing nudes? And now you feel like the loser who missed out on the reckless night out. Maybe you’ll have to finish the Half Baked Ben & Jerry’s in your freezer to make yourself feel better, only to wake up and send yourself in spirals after spending an unnecessary forty minutes critiquing your love handles in the mirror. 

The reality of this “new normal,” as opposed to what social media presents, is that a lot of people are struggling with anxiety, depression, body image, and eating disorders. Isolation isn’t healthy. According to The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “Psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture.” Directly relating to COVID–19 isolation, a UK study published in October found that lockdown has had “adverse consequences for people's mental health, including increases in maladaptive eating habits and body dissatisfaction.”

 The study also found that women more so than men were likely to “report increasing struggles with regulating eating, preoccupation with food and worsening body image.” Being confined to single–dorm cinder block rooms to eat, sleep, and attend class is not healthy. Dorm isolation means having too much time for social media. It means having too much time to binge eat and develop a skewed relationship with food. It means having too much time to pick yourself apart in the mirror. It means having too much time to overthink your words, your choices, your lack of socializing, and even the worthwhileness of your life. Having too much alone time, for many, is not a blessing, even when the entire Instagram universe is trying to convince you otherwise. 

In addition, the lack of socializing and faculty–student support leaves undergraduates feeling stranded and potentially worse off than before they set foot on campus. “It's kind of just on your own at this point,” Kaito Tsumita (C’24) says, regarding the current on–campus living situation. When asked if he felt whether Penn was doing a good job providing communication and resources for first years, Tsumita laughed.

“What? We got like a pillow case, you know? Thanks; now I can sleep, I guess.” Beyond the school dropping off welcoming pillow cases outside dorm rooms—after failing to offer first years much help navigating campus or moving into their dorms—Tsumita adds sardonically, “You can get bad food at Commons, but other than that, it doesn’t feel like they’re really doing anything for us.” 

Penn hasn’t made the transition back to school any easier this semester with their lack of communication. Like many other flustered freshmen at the start of this semester, I had little to no directive from the school about how to get food, pick up mail, or even access wifi from my cell phone. When it comes to students' wellbeing, communication, compassion, and resource accessibility could not be more crucial. These are essentials that our administration unfortunately dropped the ball on in the midst of COVID–19 chaos. For students struggling with body image, eating habits, and self confidence during this semester spent staring at screens, know you’re not alone and more importantly, know that Instagram is full of shit. 

For those seeking counseling and psychological services:

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) (215-898-7021