Emily Tufford ’21 looked at the correlation between positive body image and mental health among college students as part of her undergraduate research.
As a teenager, Emily Tufford ’21 remembers friends telling her they were unhappy with their bodies. They did not fit the image of beauty they saw on social media and other outlets. Even worse, Tufford started noticing this was taking a toll on her friends’ mental health and overall happiness.
At Elon, she decided to major in exercise science with minors in biology and neuroscience, and her interest in body image and mental health grew even more. “Well-being is extremely important on a college campus, and the issue of mental health has become even more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says, adding that college students are under pressure to be involved in multiple activities, excel in the classroom and have a lot of friends, all at the same time.
After completing a project on the subject as part of a physiology class during her junior year, Tufford decided to dig deeper. A search on the university’s website led her to Professor of Exercise Science Eric Hall. “I saw that his research interests were similar to mine, so I just emailed him to set up a meeting,” she says. “He helped me formulate my ideas into a research question and introduced me to my other research mentor, Dr. Caroline Ketcham.”
“It is my hope that through my research, students who are struggling with mental health will realize that they are not alone and that they will not be afraid to seek help if they need it.”
As part of her research, Tufford looked at the relationship between physical activity, body image and mental health in undergraduate students. Under the supervision of her mentors, she created a 15-minute online survey that asked students questions about body image, physical activity and various measures of mental health including well-being, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. “Eating healthy and exercising are critical to ensuring you are living a healthy lifestyle; that is what is pounded into our heads as we grow up,” she says. “However, from my research, I learned that physical health is not the only way to measure health. Mental health is just as important.”
The results of Tufford’s research showed a positive correlation between positive body image and mental health, suggesting that those with increased body image also have increased mental health, and vice versa. She also found that undergraduate males have a higher body image than undergraduate females. In April, she presented her results at Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. “It is important to be able to take a step back and focus on yourself and your mental health,” she says. “It is my hope that through my research, students who are struggling with mental health will realize that they are not alone and that they will not be afraid to seek help if they need it.”
Tufford is now in the process of applying to medical school. In the meantime, she is working as a medical scribe to ensure patients’ medical records are accurately recorded. She is thankful to Elon for allowing her to develop a research project around her own interests, and to her mentors for supporting her along the way. “I would not be where I am today without their support,” she says.
Learn more about “Theme 2: Thrive” of the Boldly Elon strategic plan.