This three-part series dives into the reality of eating disorders in high school, and how the curriculum of high schools needs to adapt in order to provide a stronger education about eating disorders for teens.
When I was in fifth grade, my bedroom had two full-length mirrors in it. They were attached to the insides of my closet doors, so when I opened the doors and stood between them I could see the front and back of myself at the same time. And for a while it seemed fun. Kind of like a little game. I would stand in front of the mirrors for hours and spin around and watch both of my reflections copy me. First it was something like a hobby but it manifested into something like an obsession, and by sixth grade I started looking in the mirror not to play, but to look in the mirror. I started to analyze what I saw, first critiquing it and eventually hating it. I was convinced that my reflection was not pretty enough or thin enough. It went on for so long that I started to think that was normal. Unfortunately, many other people told me it was normal. I was told that every girl hates her body, that every girl does what I do, and every girl is just as miserable as I am. I believed it because that was all I knew.
It took me fourteen years to realize how dangerous and wrong that philosophy is. Even if every girl feels that way, it is not something that we should just accept. It is something we should try to change, because it is an awful thing to feel.
Imagine my horror when the world did not seem to agree. Nobody wants to talk about eating disorders. People actively dismiss them by saying things like, “you look fine,” or “stop worrying so much”–phrases that seem nice on the surface, but are really just responses that make it harder for people to feel that their issues are valid and that they are a victim of a serious disease.
For four years, I refused to eat lunch at school. I told my friends that I wasn’t hungry when they asked me why I didn’t have any food with me. After school, I went to cross country or track practice for two hours. I will never forget how shaky I felt on some of my runs. I struggled to improve as an athlete, and I became constantly irritable. In my freshman year of high school, I downloaded a calorie counter app. I told myself that if I could just restrict my daily intake to 400 calories, I would be happy.
I didn’t realize that I had a problem because I did not look like the stereotypical image society has created of girls with eating disorders or body dysmorphia. I was not incredibly skinny, and I was not a cutter (a person who deliberately cuts herself). The danger of an unhealthy body image is that it often disguises itself, sneaks into your life, and goes unnoticed for years.
Every student at my high school has to take health class in order to graduate. Health class is supposed to teach students about leading positive lifestyles and to offer good education on mental health. Here’s how they teach us about mental health: We read a few passages about it, maybe one including something about depression, anxiety, and stress, but body dysmorphia is largely overlooked.
In health class, they don’t tell you that an unhealthy body image sneaks up on you and takes over your life. Instead, they give you a few basic facts about why you hate your body and what the definition of an eating disorder is, and then move right along to the next topics, like smoking, abstinence, or pregnancy. My class spent one day learning about body image, and around three weeks learning about pregnancy. We learned how the baby grows in the womb and when it gets fingernails, but none of us cared, for one very simple reason: No one in that class was pregnant or planning to be pregnant anytime soon. What does it matter when the fetus grows bigger than your thumb, or when it even has a thumb? By the time we are actually having children, we will have forgotten all of this. The things we won’t forget learning about are the things that apply to us right as we are taught them.
50 percent of teenage girls and 30 percent of teenage boys struggle with body image and cope with these struggles using unhealthy behaviors, such as skipping meals or vomiting after them. With these overwhelming statistics, why do we only spend a single class period learning about this issue? How is it fair to us to be denied the opportunity to properly understand our own minds and how they are affecting our bodies and our health? The answer is that it isn’t. Health class curriculum needs to be rewritten so that it becomes directly relevant to teen lives today. Students need to read out of a textbook that contains at least one unit of powerful information about the dangers of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and how to recognize symptoms of these mental illnesses in themselves and in others. One page, or even one chapter, will not suffice any longer.
Coming up next: Part two continues with a look at the reality of eating disorders in high school.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this Opinion Column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any staff member, contribution writer or the Lyons Recorder.