Societal standards push students towards the normalization of dangerous eating behaviors

Shravani Page | Staff Writer

Della Johnson | Staff Writer

 When students attempt to match body ideals set by society, they can be pushed to dangerous limits.

Eating disorders are known to be secretive and dangerous–especially among the student population. With about 20 million women and 10 million men developing eating disorders in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders have become extremely prevalent. Some examples of common eating disorders include, but aren’t limited to, Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-Eating Disorder. 

These disorders are linked to many fatalities and can be chronic. It is best to seek help in these situations (see the bottom of this page for resources). Eating disorders in the current age have become known for getting concealed by their owner– a tendency that is becoming increasingly normal. 

Warning Signs and Unnoticed Behaviors

Eating disorder-like behavior, both in and out of the classroom, has evolved into actions and habits we now consider to be normal. Teenagers find themselves resorting to unhealthy and extreme behaviors to achieve a set goal, and they often do not realize the effects of their actions. Images in the media and day-to-day life cultivate a stigma around body image and eating — a stigma that juniors Ava Franke, Caitlyn O’Connor, and Aradana Nair work towards eliminating every day. 

“I hear a lot of talk about having to earn food,” O’Connor said. “So you have to ‘earn’ a ‘bad’ food. There’s even the idea of people labeling foods as good or bad. That is a toxic mindset. Everyone deserves food, just for being born and being alive. That idea can really be enforced in triggering a mindset and eating disorder thoughts.”

There is no strict, one-size-fits-all definition for an eating disorder. It can manifest itself in a variety of different ways. Franke described how disordered thoughts and eating vary from person to person.

“Disordered eating can look like many different things,” Franke said. “It can be skipping meals, it can be buying a certain food, it can be avoiding going out to dinner with your friends because you’re scared of what you’re going to get or how many calories you’re going to eat. Disordered eating is thinking about food very often — what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat it, how it’s gonna make your body feel.”

These thoughts and actions can be commonly linked to perception of a ‘perfect body’ among teenagers. Even with these types of standards, Nair said that everyone’s goals are different for themselves and their bodies, so any sort of communication stemming from these standards can be seriously damaging.

“We all have different body goals,” Nair said. “Someone might want to gain weight and someone [else] might want to lose weight. But saying things like’ you’re so skinny’, or ‘you look like you’ve gained a few pounds’ can be discouraging. Why can’t we just say you look great, or you look so beautiful?”

The Power of Media: the Good and the Ugly

Nair and O’Connor argue that media, particularly social media, can act as a perpetrator when it comes to the normalization of eating disorder behaviors. From ‘what I eat in a day’ TikToks to videos telling you to go workout, there can be a multitude of triggers for teenagers. 

“Society and Hollywood glamorize a certain body type,” O’Connor said. “It’s really difficult; even in my own experience, I’ve always linked food to my body. So, how I look equals what food I deserve. When people don’t have the exact body type as what is being portrayed in Hollywood and on social media it can be triggering. People can start blaming their perception on food.”

Nair called the influence from these forces a “painted picture of what you need to like.” And this picture is sometimes a facade — or one held up with great strain. Profiles on social media that adhere to beauty or body ideals are often associated with personal satisfaction. Nair believes, however, that those on social media “put on a face” meaning they may appear happy or put together to fit in when in reality the people behind these profiles may be “struggling deep down inside.”

Social media, though sometimes a contributor to the pressure of diet culture, has a positive influence as well. Influencers such as Britanni Lancaster and Clara Guillem use their platforms to help their followers accept themselves. For Franke, it was body positivity influencer Victoria Garrick, who has garnered over 500 thousand followers on TikTok, who taught her valuable lessons about accepting herself for how she looks.

“You’re always going to have insecurities about your body, there’s always going to be something you want to change,” Franke said. “Victoria Garrick was talking about body neutrality the other day. It’s just having respect for your body, for what your body does, for you how it moves for you. It doesn’t mean you have to love it or love the way you look. It means you respect it enough to keep it healthy and, eventually, you’ll learn to love it. I like Victoria Garrick a lot.”

Securing Health and Safety

Although school can present a tough environment for those struggling, Mason High School offers many choices for students who are struggling. Mason’s Mental Health Team from Cincinnati Children’s does not offer services in correlation to eating disorders, but MHS Guidance Counselor Sally Clark helps provide students with ample resources to help them begin their recovery. 

To begin the process, Clark said the school would initially contact the child’s parents if it is his/her first time reaching out to somebody. From there, they discuss health insurance coverage and help assure the parents. They then provide parents with resources and help give references. Clark says a team of doctors and medical professionals are of great importance when it comes to recovering. 

From an in-school standpoint, Clark emphasized the school’s flexibility. A student who may be under certain circumstances, such as inpatient or outpatient treatment, has options. Students can work with their counselors and teachers to help create a balance between life and school such as moving to online learning to only coming in on certain days.

“We’ll be happy to assist if things fall behind, even if we need to look at changing schedules,” Clark said. “Our main number one priority is that the student feels safe, and gets healthy. Whatever we can do in that process is what we would do.”

The high school environment can pose the development of an inferiority complex among students. Clark says that there is usually an “entity that sets off a trigger.” This trigger can lead to the start of these behaviors. According to Clark, this trigger can be associated with the idea that there is some type of control the student is looking for. Clark encourages students to reach out and seek help if they believe they are struggling with an eating disorder or even disordered eating. She believes a vital step in recovery is speaking up about the issue to a trusted adult. 

“The moment you speak it, you own it,” Clark said. “A lot of eating disorders are secret because there’s a lot of shame attached to eating disorders. But once a student can get strong enough to speak it, and tell someone, that’s the first sign of recovering.”

Nair, O’Connor, and Franke, while finding peace with their own selves, are pushing for a future where people are educated at a young age on how to care for and nourish themselves properly. From emphasizing the need to fuel your body, to having open conversations about the subject, they feel that there is a lot of change that needs to be worked toward. 

“Moving away from disordered eating means teaching people how to listen to their hunger and fullness cues,” Franke said. “Teaching people how to eat in moderation. Getting away from those numerical values like calories and weight and really trusting your body’s instincts. Because if you listen to your body, it’ll keep you at an equilibrium.”

Moving forward, Nair, O’Connor, and Franke are working towards a mindset of encouragement and work to not only encourage themselves but also the people around them. They continue the public campaign to eliminate the stigma of a “perfect” body and the personal effort to accept themselves for who they are. 

“There’s so much more than the way you look,” O’Connor said. “It’s important to remember that no one is judging you more than you judge yourself. You are your worst critic.”