Food, diet and body image are a minefield for teenagers and anyone who lives with one. We try hard in school to manage (the often harsh) expectations girls have of themselves but we acknowledge it’s an on-going battle to encourage young people to be at peace with their looks, their bodies and moreover, their social media image. In recent discussions with Sixth Formers about their PSHE provision, the subject of food and self-esteem loomed large.
Eleanor Braithwaite, in Year 13 had the following to say:
During my time here, I know numerous girls in all year groups who say they are 'on a diet', restrict their food, talk together about how 'fat' they are, participate in fad diets that are often endorsed by celebrities and feel guilty for not being 'thin' enough. It almost seems to have become an ordinary aspect of a teen girl’s life. Hardly a day goes by without someone talking about how many calories they have eaten or not eaten or how 'fat' they are. It becomes a competition, and is corrosive to one's self esteem, body image and healthy eating habits. I think that these topics are very important and should be part of the programme, especially as eating disorders, restrictive eating and low body esteem can damage both mind and body for a very long time.
She went on to talk about how girls are living in a world where photos are seemingly everything and it seems that many teen girls look up to (retouched) photos on apps or online as aspiration and inspiration/thinspiration. This means that many girls revere and aim to emulate fashion models instead of actual role models.
We are definitely living in the era of the selfie, where virtual image is all important and pictures of apparent perfection are only a swipe away at any time. Although it would be simplistic to say that the pressure to conform to the skinny norm leads directly to eating disorders, when girls (and boys too, of course) are faced with unattainable gorgeousness all the time, the negative impact on self-esteem, has to be acknowledged.
There are some welcome developments: the emergence of “real body shape” dolls for children, for instance, to replace the oddly unbalanced Barbie, and the Dove campaign for real beauty, to name but two. They are small steps in the right direction, of course, and we at school do what we can to encourage a healthy relationship with food and promote education about the links between good nutrition and positive mental health. PSHE lessons throughout the school focus on positive self-esteem and the link between physical and mental fitness. We look at how the media distorts body image and the pressure this puts us under to achieve the unachievable. We’ve introduced year group Zumba sessions – pictures attached – to release some great endorphins and help to celebrate the joy of a communal fitness activity. Mrs Oldale, Head of Food Technology, is something of an expert in the field of mental health and nutrition, and has put “Food and Mood” activities firmly on the agenda across the school. As ever, Matron Claire Joffe is always on hand to help advise and offer guidance wherever it’s needed. The school kitchens understand that an army marches on its stomach and food is plentiful and filling and girls have lots of choice.
Sometimes, however, the normal teenage preoccupation with looking good and getting the perfect selfie topples over into something more concerning and when this happens we engage parents as soon as possible to work with us for the benefit of the young person. We often see this in school as an expressed desire to “make healthy choices”, which can involve absenting oneself from the dining hall, reports from friends about over-exercising and starvation diets. When we suspect that these sorts of behaviours are starting, it’s essential that we work as a team, seeking appropriate medical and psychological help where necessary.
What we have understood through working with the girls in school who have struggled with full-blown eating disorders is that they are not on fad diets, seeking attention, nor are they trying to look like supermodels. They tend to be highly achieving, talented, sensitive to the needs of others and usually perfectionists. Their experience is summed up eloquently by Rebecca, survivor of anorexia and contributor to the eating disorder support site, B-eat, who says about herself and fellow anorexics:
We are not selfish, sly, manipulative people who want to look like models in magazines. We have not chosen this. We have become so focused on the happiness of others that we have begun to neglect ourselves. We try so hard to be faultless and not cause anybody distress that we hide our problems and using dangerous coping mechanisms to deal with them. I can’t tell you the ins and outs of everybody’s eating disorder, and I certainly can’t explain why anorexia is so fussy when choosing the most undeserving people to lure into its trap, but I can tell you that, if the world looked beyond the tired body and sad eyes of these people, they would see true beauty.
Please use the below links for information and guidance to support your daughter or simply to find out more about the issues surrounding disordered eating. The section of the B-eat site entitled “Worried about someone” is excellent, offering practical advice to anyone trying to broach difficult conversations with a loved one they are supporting. As ever, if you have any concern about your daughter, contact us, contact your GP and make sure your daughter knows we are working together for her benefit.
Mrs S Loftus Deputy Head (Pastoral)
Visit the b-eat-The UK's Eating Disorder Charity website