It’s that time of the year when kids say goodbye to summer and return to school. While the current state of the world is posing unprecedented challenges to students, that transition—even under more normal circumstances—was always difficult for me. Whether it was in eighth grade when I rapidly spiraled into an eating disorder days after the school year began or my first hospital admission in the fall of ninth grade or having to medically withdraw from college last year after only one month, going back to school consistently caused quite a few problems.
So you can imagine how much of a relief it is that all that is behind me! I’ve graduated high school, am enrolled in an entirely online college, and am doing well in recovery. But even though my life is generally pretty good, the bad memories continue to haunt me. With fall quickly approaching, I can’t help but think about those dark times and reflect on the role school played in the onset of my mental health struggles.
I attribute one of the contributing factors of my eating disorder to my seventh-grade health class when we spent an entire unit learning how to calculate BMI, watching documentaries on the dangers of obesity, and listening to the teacher tell us again and again that fats are bad. This disastrous unit concluded with a rushed final project where we had to choose a type of disordered eating and research it using a scant collection of library books and the inherently toxic internet. Like most of the girls in my class, I chose anorexia nervosa.
But as harmless as the assignment might have seemed to that teacher, researching anorexia on my own when I was in such a vulnerable and self-conscious place in my life was a recipe for disaster. Instead of being repulsed by the unpleasant side-effects and emaciated bodies, I was curious, even a little fascinated. In my misguided research, I stumbled upon a pro-ana forum, where users posted tips and tricks on how to get away with not eating and basically promoted a life-threatening mental illness as a glamorous lifestyle.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that this was around the time when I went on my first diet, even if there were other factors concurrently contributing to my building insecurities. I was on a health-kick for months, eating enough to maintain a slightly-below-average weight but lacking in most of the basic food groups. In eighth grade, as my life was starting to spiral out of control, I was subjected to another misinformed health teacher who once had us write up what we ate in a day and actually praised my low-carb, low-fat, low-everything diet.
When I was admitted to an outpatient eating disorder program in November of eighth grade, I was quickly exempt from health class. It turns out that my experience wasn’t rare and that health class triggering disordered eating was a common occurrence. In fact, over the years, I’ve met many people who had similar stories and many ED experts—including my current therapist and nutritionist—who criticized the nutrition curriculum in schools.
I do think that it’s important to learn about nutrition. That said, telling insecure teenagers to watch what they eat isn’t an effective approach. Encouraging balance and moderation is better, but even then it must be done sensitively and knowledgeably. To teachers, administrators, parents, and any adult with the power to influence a young person, I ask you to please be aware of the impact your words have. Educate, don’t assume; inform, don’t criticize; most importantly, listen.
I’m sharing my story so that other students hopefully won’t have to go through what I did. Life is already hard enough as it is. The last thing a young person needs is to feel guilted or judged by the same adults who are supposed to be there for them no matter what.