Trigger warning: This editorial explores social problems that contribute to eating disorders, symptoms and treatment, and ways to shift the culture that contributes to this illness.
Society boils health down to being small. Social media preaches skinniness through sponsored posts about diet teas, pills, and the latest fad. Hallway conversations about celebrity lifestyles, clothing stores, and trendy diets fill the murmur of daily life. Yet, in sophomore Wellness class, there is only a day or two devoted to eating disorders, a term that has become all too familiar for most students: whether they struggle or know someone that does. While the number of students with an eating disorder fluctuates every year, at least a few seniors share their recovery stories during senior speeches. What is it about our culture that causes people’s struggles with eating disorders in the first place?
When you think of eating disorders, a specific idea may come to mind, but ED is not one size fits all. In most cases, the illness is diagnosed as an “eating disorder, not otherwise specified.” Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are a few ways ED can present at different times. The thing that remains the same for all EDs is that they disconnect the person from their body and affect every aspect of life. There are biological, psychological, and social components that make some people more susceptible.
- Biological influences. Research suggests that eating disorders run in families and can be inherited. The way the brain’s hypothalamus, a brain structure responsible for regulating eating behaviors, develops can also be a significant factor.
- Psychological markers. Anxiety, depression, OCD, and trauma can all be underlying causes of an ED, but it is also possible to have none of these and still develop an eating disorder.
- Social messaging that comes from communities assists in setting unrealistic standards and cultivating symptoms.
With an eating disorder, a desire to establish a feeling of control is often a central issue, but not everything has to, or can, be perfectly controlled. Whether it’s what we eat or when we eat, restricting food can go unseen or even be rewarded as it may present as a healthy lifestyle change. Some turn to binge eating as a form of comfort to distract from the feeling of being imperfect.
While most friends and families wouldn’t knowingly let a loved one go down an unhealthy path, often those struggling hide what’s going on because of the shame they feel. But those who struggle with eating disorders are far from alone: in a group of 100 teens aged 16-19, four females and one male will be diagnosed with an eating disorder. The numbers are higher at independent schools like SPA. Being challenged in a community of college-bound high-achievers puts pressure on everyone to be flawless. Being high-achieving does not have to be equivalent to being independent and competitive.
Because SPA is a small community, we have the potential to do an excellent job of looking out for each other. Positive relationships with faculty, trusted connections with counselors and administrators, and friends who support each other are key to creating a culture that doesn’t promote eating disorders. It is a group effort and involves community care and destigmatizing support. Seeking help and prioritizing mental and physical health is high-achieving. Feed positive messages about biology and psychology and create a space where everyone belongs, no matter their appearance or identity.
We all need different things for a healthy life, but if you see something troubling, start a conversation. Don’t assume that someone struggles from an eating disorder, but if you think they might, tell them the behaviors that you notice and offer to help them get help.
In terms of personal choice, shift the culture: unfollow the “perfect” accounts on social media, wear clothes that feel good, and eat food that nourishes your body and mind. Switch the conversations you engage in to reflect these habits.
A person’s purpose in life is not to be small. The goal should be happiness and true health.