Eating Disorders Need To Be Addressed by the Education System

Illustration By Pyper Witt

Illustration By Pyper Witt

A class of middle schoolers of all shapes and sizes forms a single-file line in front of a scale in the center of a gymnasium. Some look eager, others ambivalent. A few seem fearful. As students take their turns, a teacher announces numbers as if the children are about to begin a boxing match. And for some, this declaration does foreshadow an upcoming battle. As conventionally thinner girls and boys confidently compare numbers, one bigger-bodied student hides away in the corner, fighting with her inner critic and hoping none of her classmates jump into the ring as well.

In middle schools across the country, this scene plays out almost ceremoniously. This is the Body Mass Index (BMI) testing protocol. While Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that the test intends to create a weight census and ensures privacy when collecting data, this is often not the case. As numbers are announced and peers generally praise each other for lower numbers, students are often left to look at their bodies in a critical way: potentially for the first time in their lives.

BMI assessments are just one example of how weight-centric and body-focused our culture is, propagating an emphasis on physical appearance with little consideration for effects on mental health or self-esteem. A 2005 study conducted by Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer of the University of Minnesota discovered that over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors that support the diagnosis of an eating disorder; these behaviors are highly attributed to social factors and are suggested to be combated by school intervention.

As of now, while the United States offers grants to its schools for obesity prevention programs and nutrition education, no grants exist for eating disorder-based education or prevention programs. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders affect roughly 30 million people yearly and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; it is unjustifiable that schools are not mandated to educate their students on these diseases. Equally shocking is the lack of available screening programs on school campuses designed to detect disordered behavior and offer treatment referrals.

There is an appalling level of misunderstanding surrounding eating disorders. Eating disorders are about more than just the food. Eating disorders are about more than just the body. Unfortunately, no major entity in society has taken on the role of educator to correct these misconceptions: including the education system itself.

According to research conducted by the John Hopkins Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Program, the most common age of eating disorder onset is between 12 and 25 years old. With this in mind, society would benefit from eating disorder-focused programs at all levels of education. Within elementary and middle schools, this form of education would ideally include body acceptance programs and the de-stigmatization of weight, as well as teach the signs of eating disorders and means of seeking help. At the college level, screening programs should be accessible to all students, and courses concerning bettering one’s perception of the body, rejecting diet culture and learning about the psychology of eating disorders should be offered.

Eating disorders can be triggered by a wide range of factors: genetics, trauma and sociocultural ideals, to name a few. Therefore, educational programs and screenings would allow those who experience disordered eating to more comfortably address their struggles. For those who may not necessarily have an eating disorder but enact disordered behaviors or hold negative body image, early educational involvement has the potential to alter these attitudes.

There are resources pertaining to diagnosis and care on Santa Monica College’s campus. The Health Services office has recently begun installing MindWise Innovations Kiosks on campus, a screening system for various addictions and disorders that will offer statistics about the diagnosis and resources to contact. The sole kiosk is currently located in the Health Services office, but there are plans to rotate other kiosks throughout different departments on campus. The Center for Wellness and Wellbeing offers psychological counseling and pamphlets for different outpatient and inpatient eating disorder recovery programs.

According to the Eating Disorders Coalition, every 62 minutes at least one person dies nationally as a direct result of an eating disorder. While education may not significantly reduce the rate of diagnosis, it could very well cause a decrease in the rate of death. And while everyone may not have an eating disorder, most people in society experience some degree of disordered eating or struggles with body acceptance. In order to develop a resiliency to a weight-obsessed, diet-enforcing culture, children must understand the consequences of striving to meet society’s unreachable expectations.