What you need to know about the eating disorder crisis hitting schools
Trigger warning: This article discusses disordered eating, anxiety and depression. Please read at your discretion. Teenagers have ruled things as “uncool” since cringing at leg warmers and neon headbands (and probably way before that, too). But a more sinister trend is currently sweeping Australian schools, where students are shaming eating.
Disordered eating behaviours are at an all time high at Australian schools, and educators are worried.
The Butterfly Foundation, a national charity focusing on eating disorders and body image among Australians, has come out with some pretty gnarly numbers on the health of young people. There’s been a nerve-wracking spike in educators reporting concerns about students not eating, hiding or throwing away food or being bullied for their food choices.
The charity has released statistics saying that 90% of young people have some kind of body concern and over a third of young people are reporting disordered eating behaviours. Eight in ten young people believe that their school needs to do more about this.
Why is there a body image crisis?
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1. Social Media and TikTok
The classic modern-day culprit of body image issues is, of course, social media. It’s taken the not-so-subtly edited bodies plastered on magazines to a space packed with copious content, aesthetic obsessions, and a craving to keep scrolling.
TikTok’s been called out as the heaviest wave yet, with trends that have lifted toxic body perception to a new height. The serotonin-striking “For You Page” (FYP) has been described by psychologists as “detrimental” to body image.
Content like “What I eat in a day” videos, extreme workout routines and “thinspiration” (thin-inspiration) trends swirl into a sinister image of what bodies should look like.
A 2022 study by Australia’s Griffith University found that just seven minutes of watching “beauty content” on TikTok and Instagram instigated significant feelings of shame and anxiety about the user’s appearance. Speaking to ABC news, Dr Veya Seekis from Griffith University said, “the problem with TikTok is they’re just one-minute videos, so they’re really quick. You can consume quite a few in 15 minutes. [Young people] have got all of this content in the palm of their hand, and they can do this at any time of the day for as long as they wish.”
Endless exposure to these traps of body hyperfixation and idealised beauty then manifests as food shaming at lunch, sparse salads and saying that someone’s cinnamon scroll “looks so good but I just couldn’t, you know?”
That doesn’t mean “all social media is evil,” (that sort of liminal thinking doesn’t get us far), because there are heaps of body positive accounts and content out there. But it’s not always likely teens will find that content or subscribe to it. Culture is still in an attention tug-of-war between toxic aesthetics and diversity empowerment.
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2. Mental health crisis
We can’t talk about the body image crisis without seeing its connection to the mental health crisis. After all, eating disorders are mental health conditions, and usually present alongside other mental illnesses.
Research reveals that high levels of anxiety and emotional sensitivity are commonly interconnected with eating disorders. In fact, about half of individuals with eating disorders also have a pre-exisisting anxiety disorder.
Depression also often co-occurs with eating disorders, and the two typically share similar symptoms. Both mental health conditions manifest as mood changes (irritability, anxiety, low-esteem and shame), and appetite changes or disordered eating patterns.
The already budding mental health crisis facing Australia (and the world) was aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Current statistics reflect that 1 in 5 Australians have experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months, with 1 in 7 young people aged 4-17 also having a mental illness in that time.
So, without effectively addressing Australia’s mental health crisis, eating disorders in young people will continue to snowball.
3. Lack of school support
Last year, an Aussie primary school was slammed for forcing students to weigh themselves in front of their peers in order to “address obesity concerns.” They ranked each student based on their weight and then encouraged the “heavier” kids to change their eating habits.
The Butterfly Foundation reported that the child judged as the heaviest student has developed disordered eating habits “in an attempt to no longer be the heaviest child in the class.”
It’d be a mistake to see this as an outlier.
To put it plainly, schools are where this stuff festers. Whether in class, lunchtimes, or extracurricular activities, there are constant opportunities for either healthy or unhealthy eating standards to be portrayed.
Currently, research shows that schools have serious shortcomings when it comes to training staff on eating disorder prevention and intervention. They also fail to empower students on how to develop positive eating habits and body image. Most Australian schools lump sport and health into a single subject, and fail to give mental health disorders the deep attention they need.
Just squeezing in a module on nutrition doesn’t make the cut in an eating disorder crisis.
What can schools do?
Helen Bird, the foundation’s Manager of Education Services says, “although nutrition education and what to eat is an important part of the primary and secondary curriculum, less emphasis has been placed on how to eat and how to develop a positive and balanced relationship with food and eating”.
Emphasis needs to be placed on students’ relationship with food. Dissembling the shame and guilt associated with mealtimes is key, just like busting myths around food needing to be “earned” or “worked out.” Promoting food as a source of fuel and pleasure, now that’s where it’s at.
The Butterfly Foundation has prevention programs for schools, which can provide presentations for students, seminars for parents, and prevention and early intervention training for staff on eating disorders. There’s also a range of free materials on their website.
By making use of available resources, training staff, and educating students on how to grow a healthy relationship with food, schools can make a tangible difference in the health of teenagers.
Because they shouldn’t have to deal with this alone.
Signs of eating disorders
We don’t want to drop this bomb on you and run. Bearing in mind all of the aforementioned information, here are some ways to tell if your child might be developing disordered eating behaviour.
Dieting – they could be carolie counting, skipping meals, not finishing food, or making negative comments about food. Some young people avoid family meals or ask to eat in their room. Picking at their food or showing concern for what’s in the meal or how it was made could be other red flags.
Excessive exercise – your child suddenly becomes interested in exercising more frequently and more intensely, and might talk about “working” food off.
Binge eating – if there’s hoarding of food or food disappearing, it could indicate binge eating.
Physical changes – rapid weight loss or extreme weight fluctuations are typical. Stomach pains, exhaustion or dizziness could also happen.
Emotional changes – as we mentioned, eating disorders often go side-by-side with mental health issues. Your child might be more anxious, irritable, depressed, ashamed, angry or have intense mood swings.
If you are worried about your child, or if any of the symptoms sound familiar, reach out to your GP, therapist or an eating disorder specialist for support. You can also access resources, support and information from the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline on 1800 33 4673, or email [email protected].
And if this article has raised anything for you, please don’t hesitate to contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Lise Bosch Follow +
Lise is a South African born and Aussie raised writer who recently upgraded from the fairy-tales she wrote when she was little to stuff with a little more “oomph.” With a journalism degree and experience in the beauty industry, she has a passion for family and lifestyle content. On her days off, she’s finding the latest and greatest brunch spots and trying to work...
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