Monday kicked off National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, an annual opportunity to educate the public on disordered eating and providing resources to those who may be struggling. As a survivor of an eating disorder, this week has a special place in my heart, and I understand how important providing these resources can be to the young people who may be fighting disordered eating behaviors behind-the-scenes. I also have a keen understanding of how the messages we consume from our families, our friend groups, and schools can impact self-image and mental health.
As a larger kid in the Clark County School District, I was frequently made to feel that the space my body took up was wrong; that I needed to alter myself; that drastic measures should be taken to “fix” myself. And I was not alone in this struggle: According to the Polaris Teen Center, 50 percent of teenage girls and 30 percent of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors. Despite this statistic, however, at least one teacher in CCSD relied on outdated and harmful teaching tactics that would one day contribute to my years-long pattern of disordered eating, that persists to this day.
For an entire school year, I sat in a “health” class and watched The Biggest Loser, screened on the projector – being force-fed messages that being overweight was a moral failing, despicable, something that ought to be changed by any means necessary. I saw Jillian Michaels screaming in the face of contestants to workout harder, to eat less, to leave the show when they weren’t able to drop the most amount of weight in the shortest amount of time.
I watched as contestants were placed on very low-calorie diets and put through strenuous six-hour workouts on camera. In our classroom, a lackadaisical coach sat in the back of the classroom, reveling in the entertainment of the show and the fact that he had a reprieve from teaching, unaware that he was feeding me the very tools I would use to later use to propel myself deeper into the fog of disordered eating.
The adult responsible for educating our students on the subject of health and wellness, who I thought could be trusted on the topic as an educator, was implicitly endorsing these harmful behaviors, that have been criticized the world over. This televised abuse was a regular part of our curriculum, portrayed to our classroom as the pinnacle of fitness, despite the harm it was wreaking not only on its contestants, but also on the psyche of the young people watching.
Despite the National Institutes of Health recommending no more than one to two pounds of weight loss per week, we were taught that this show, which featured contestants dropping as much as 15 pounds per week, was an example of healthy living. What we weren’t told, and what I would go to find myself, is that losing weight too quickly can lead to significant heart problems, gallstones, and other health issues.
It’s no wonder that within a year, I would drop more than a quarter of my body weight over the course of four months and develop an eating disorder so debilitating that by the time I left CCSD for university, I would limit myself to a quarter of the calories I needed in a day and forfeit a normative college experience for the sake of running the stairs in my dorm, maintaining my dietary “self-control,” and suffering silently.
What I wish I had been taught in health class, and what I hope the students of CCSD are taught today, is that weight is NOT the sole indicator of health. Many studies over the years have confirmed that body weight is not an indicator for health. When I was in a smaller body than the one I currently occupy, I was unable to perform small tasks like walking across my college campus without feeling light-headed. I had trouble focusing and was victim to constant malnourished brain fog. But, the messages I was fed as an impressionable teenager permeated, and continue to permeate, my every thought about nutrition.
As we mark this National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I hope all health educators within CCSD will take a hard look at what they’re telling our students about weight and wellness, and recognize that the messages they tell our students today will stick with them for years to come. Rather than focusing on outdated versions of health, reliant solely upon weight loss and restriction, our health classes should include programming about mental health and wellness and ensure our students have the tools they need to thrive mentally and emotionally. The mental health crisis in CCSD is not going away without real action, and this is a crucial first step. Teaching our students what it means to be “healthy” and “well” is a harrowing responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly, or put in the hands of harmful television programming.