Note: Because this is a sensitive topic, I mostly found these interviewees through my own personal connections, which is why they are all female. Eating disorders affect males as well, and it is important not to label disordered eating as a woman’s issue.
Although Charlotte T. ’21* struggled with body image issues for a while, last year those thoughts manifested into an eating disorder. “Out of the blue,” she said, voice shaking slightly, “I just felt like I had eaten way too much for one meal. I remember, I had dumplings that one day. And I felt like I had to figure out a way to get rid of that.” She thought self-induced vomiting, or purging, once would make her feel better. But then, “it quickly evolved into something I had no control over.” At her worst moments, Charlotte purged often: “It felt like the only way I could feel at ease with eating, in a way. And ever since then, I’ve had a pretty tense relationship with what I eat, when I eat, how much I eat.” She paused. “It was awful.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, over 50% of adolescent girls experiment with weight control methods, such as dieting or skipping meals, and 35 to 57% of teenage girls will try purging, laxatives, or fasting. As our counselor, Dr. Sjoberg, explains, eating disorders differ slightly from disordered eating, only in that eating disorders have a clear list of symptoms, whereas disordered eating is more of a spectrum. Because we live in a culture that promotes weight loss, Dr. Sjoberg said, “most of us have at least some form of disordered eating.”
Both disordered eating and eating disorders can be devastating. “My body’s definitely felt damage,” Charlotte said. Similarly, after her diagnosis with anorexia, Diana W.* ’21 dealt with an irregular heartbeat and electrolyte levels, on top of new thoughts around food: “I’m making the choice of, ‘Oh, am I going to eat lunch today?’ And so far, I’ve always made that choice; I always make the right choice. Because I know that’s what best for me, and I know that’s what I need to do with my life. But I wouldn’t say that I’m in a place where I don’t think about it anymore.” Even though it’s been four years since her struggle with anorexia, Courtney P. ’20* agreed: “I don’t think those feelings ever really go away. I’m always conscious of what I’m eating or how much I weigh.”
Developing an Eating Disorder
Unrealistic body image often contributes to eating disorders: “I mean, America in general, our relationship with food is pretty messed up,” Diana said. “There are unrealistic body standards.” With social media influencers promoting weight loss and diet pills, it can be easy to normalize unhealthy eating and promote thinness. “Sometimes I would go to church functions and people would be like, ‘Wow, you look really good,’” Bella R. ’20* said. She has struggled with anorexia since her sophomore year. If you tell someone, after they have lost a significant amount of weight, that they look good, she added, “that implies that they didn’t look good before.”
But body image isn’t the only factor. Perfectionism may play into the development of eating disorders, and the need to maintain straight As could translate to restricting food intake. Most of the time, Diana said, eating disorders aren’t really about food, but “about trying to feel better.” Freshman Julie W.* agrees. Her anorexia wasn’t really about her body: “It was more about having something I could control.” When she developed an eating disorder, Julie was new to Lakeside and having friend trouble, so she focused on her food intake to cope: “When everything seemed like it was crashing around me, this was almost like a stabilizer. Which was very unhealthy for me.”
Another influence on eating disorders is athletics, especially weight-based or endurance sports. Bella, who participates in a sport with weight cutoffs, initially found herself losing weight because of her team’s intense workouts. After the season ended, however, she continued to cut calories. In her mind, “it was for the sport, and I wanted to be in good shape and be strong.” Over the course of the next eight months, she lost a significant amount of weight. Although formally diagnosed a month and a half ago, she is currently in the sports season and balances recovery with maintaining a certain weight in order to be competitive. Similarly, Diana also found her sport blocked her from practicing healthy eating: “I’m an endurance athlete. And eating disorders in endurance athletes are a really big problem that people don’t talk about.” In endurance sports, athletes often feel pressure from coaches and teammates to maintain an ideal racing weight. However, racing weight is not healthy to maintain for long periods of time. For Diana, this is a club team issue; she doesn’t play a sport at Lakeside. But it is still a problem for the school to be aware of.
Cultural ideas around beauty also play a role, dispelling the myth that eating disorders are a thin white woman’s problem. Serious eating disorders appear across many cultures, both western and non-western, from Latin America to Europe to Russia. Lydia D. ’21*, an East Asian student, feels parental pressure to maintain a certain weight: “I have a scale in my bathroom that my mom bought for me. Like, she placed it in the bathroom and said, ‘This is your scale. Use it.’” Although this obsession with weight comes from a place of love, Lydia said, it also stems from her background. K-pop stars, for instance, can only debut as an artist once they reach a certain weight level, perpetuating unrealistic standards of thinness for others. Holly C. ’22*, a muscular swimmer, struggled with the beauty standards from her culture as well. Like Lydia, Holly’s mom gave her a scale: “She would weigh me. And she would be like, ‘You’ve added weight, so you should stop eating this.’” Because Holly didn’t fit the cultural ideal of beauty, she began binge eating and purging. Outwardly, however, she didn’t appear to be struggling: “I had an eating disorder, and I was in no way the picture of an eating disorder.” She added, “You don’t need to look a certain way to have this issue. At all.”
The Difficulty with Diagnosis
Like the individuals who suffer from them, eating disorders vary. While anorexia nervosa and bulimia are the most well-known eating disorders, “even if you don’t fall into one of those categories, you don’t not have an eating disorder,” said Charlotte. She restricted her food intake, characteristic of anorexia, and also purged, a sign of bulimia. As her symptoms didn’t clearly fit one disorder, she told herself she wasn’t suffering and didn’t seek help for months. Upon diagnosis, Charlotte found she struggled with a lesser-known eating disorder called purging disorder. (Other lesser-known disorders include binge eating disorder, eating large quantities of food in a short period of time; or orthorexia, obsessively eating only “healthy” or “pure” foods.)
Other students dislike labeling their behavior as disordered eating or an eating disorder. Melissa P. ’21* explained, “I don’t like putting myself in the box of someone who has an eating disorder, because something I value about myself is that I think, ‘I’m capable,’ and I think, ‘I’m high-functioning,’ so I don’t want to let myself think that I have a problem.” Because students don’t feel that their eating habits are dangerous, they can continue unhealthy behavior. For Courtney, “as soon as you admit to yourself that you have a problem, it’s not realistic, what you’re doing.” She recalled the excitement she felt when she hit her lowest weight. After she was diagnosed, she said, “It was like, ‘Ugh, this milestone or this excitement that I felt, isn’t real. And now they’re calling what I feel like I’ve achieved a problem.’”
None of my interviewees initially realized they had an eating disorder: “When I saw what was happening, I didn’t view it as unhealthy,” Julie W. ’23 said. “Your whole perception of yourself is clouded, and when you’re not eating, it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels like the right thing to do.” Especially at Lakeside, a school characterized by intense competition, unhealthy eating can actually seem powerful. “It’s the same way as if you said ‘Oh I got so few hours of sleep,’” Melissa said. Saying you only ate one item today can make you seem strong. “Then that creates a culture where you value being sick,” Melissa added, “which is awful.”
Support for Students
All of the interviewees believed that, while Lakeside supported those with eating disorders, more could be done to raise awareness. Students suggested discussing body image in TBH talks or through anonymous stories at assembly to allow Lakeside to learn more about the issue: “I think if we had more conversations as a school about this,” Courtney said, “other people might think more before they speak.” Unconscious comments about needing to exercise to wear a Winter Ball dress; someone’s weight, even if you call someone “thin” or “skinny”; or the health of your meal choices can influence the thoughts of students affected by eating disorders. Even not labeling free periods as lunch can have a huge impact: “A lot of times, when I’m looking at my schedule, it just says ‘free, free, free,’” Melissa said. Without a lunch period, instead of eating, she thinks, “‘Okay, I guess I’ll just study,’ or ‘I guess I’ll just take a nap,’ or ‘I guess I’ll just go home and then not eat at home.’”
Interviewees proposed some changes for sports teams as well. In her club swim team, Holly participated in conversations about using food as necessary fuel. She’d like to see those discussions replicated for Lakeside teams as well. Soon, they will be: Antonio Gudiño, the Head Athletics Trainer, said, “Most programs have a nutritionist coming and talking to their own specific programs.” And if there isn’t a nutritionist, Mr. Guidiño makes an effort to talk about healthy eating. However, it’s only his second year, so the nutrition speakers are currently “a work in progress.” In the interim, students should always talk to him or ask for a referral to a nutritionist if they have questions. He’s also working with the wrestling, crew, and cross-country teams (three teams most at-risk for eating disorders) to support students, and he’s spoken with Bella to look into ways for athletes in weight-based sports to lose their weight-oriented mentality outside of the sports season.
Along with sports, Wellness classes can be improved–specifically, with the elimination of calorie counters. “I remember sitting in that classroom,” Diana said, “and people being like, ‘I can’t believe I ate so much.’ And I was like, ‘No! This is so unnecessary. We don’t have to do this; there are other ways to learn about nutrition.’” Counting calories can lead to obsessive behaviors around food and trigger disordered eating. Instead, as Ms. Long, a Wellness teacher, instructs, students should eat by listening to their bodies rather than eating a certain amount of calories per day, a system called intuitive eating. Unfortunately, the curriculum isn’t regulated between sections, meaning other Wellness teachers still use old-school systems.
Finally, students can help. If you believe your friend is suffering from an eating disorder, pull them aside and talk to them confidentially about the patterns you see. “Definitely don’t bring food and be like, ‘eat this,’” Julie said. “Just say, ‘I notice you haven’t been eating as much lately and this makes me worried. Just talk about how you feel and how you’re concerned for them. And if they open up about it just have empathy for them.” Above all, always be there for them. If Holly wasn’t eating, she explained, her friends would try “checking in later and dropping a granola bar by, saying, ‘Hey, I noticed you weren’t really eating your lunch.” Holly’s friends didn’t put pressure on her to eat, and, “that was really helpful.” But if you are concerned, Julie said, “don’t be afraid to talk to the counselors about it, because your friend is more important than your friendship. This could escalate so quickly; it’s really dangerous if they don’t get any help.”
Recovery from eating disorders isn’t easy: “you can’t just say ‘I’m going to eat more,’” Julie said. Especially if you don’t initially recognize your disordered eating, the cycle is hard to break without first changing your mindset. Holly continually reminds herself, “My body is strong enough to maintain me throughout the day; it’s strong enough to keep me going; it doesn’t need to look perfect.” Other students recover by reducing school stress; managing other mental health issues, like anxiety or OCD; or surrounding themselves with a positive support group.
Charlotte currently works with her therapist to manage her negative thoughts around eating. Sometimes, she does succumb to eating disorder behaviors. But now, she understands the source of her disordered eating: “Purging is what I used as a coping mechanism for stress, stress at school, if I feel guilty about my body,” she said. Now, when she recognizes unhealthy eating patterns, she can catch herself: “I try to just, when I try to get into the spiral of criticizing myself, or thinking that I’m not enough or anything, I just sit down and take a break.” She also practices meditation, which she finds useful. She added, “I’ve definitely found that that’s helped, just in terms of keeping me above water, and not letting me drown back to where I was.”
* All names have been changed.