Updated: Jul 3
TW: mentions of eating disorders, negative body image and common eating disordered behaviours. Sensitive content follows, with reader discretion advised.
Written by Anais McColl
I'm a fifteen year old girl, a normal teenager by most standards: I play sport, go out with my friends, I complain about homework and school and boys.
But something that does separate me, is that I have overcome an eating disorder.
Fuelled by the toxic ideals of health preached to me at school, I developed Anorexia Nervosa, and in the span of a year became consumed by my eating disorder. Thankfully, I have since recovered.
I have the lived experience that is extremely rare among people my age, and yes, that experience does allow me insight and wisdom, but it also means that finding a voice to represent my people is hard. Most people who have recovered are in - minimally - their twenties, and no longer have to endure the toxicity of high school. I have had no choice but to try and change the curriculum on my own, fighting against teachers who really just don't care. Who is listening to the voice of the students?
Schools - particularly within the health classroom - are in my opinion, breeding grounds for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. The age-old narrative of ‘eating a healthy diet and exercising daily’ pushed in Physical Education classrooms is harmful and damaging - especially when directed towards the adolescent age group. Teenagers are of the ripe age for eating disorders; the emotional vulnerability, pressure to fit in and belong, as well as hormonal and physical changes in the body are all very valid factors that can - and will -contribute to an eating disorder and/or body dissatisfaction. Statistics will only support my argument, the Butterfly Foundation highlighting that one in four adolescents have body image issues, while statistics from the Eating Disorders Victoria Organisation reveal that 75% of individuals diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa were aged 12 - 25 years.
My question here is such: with all this said, why is our schooling system and nation-wide curriculum not taking this into account?
It is ridiculously naive to believe that 'Health' classes and the atmosphere they create are not harmful and damaging to the students forced to sit through them. Speaking from a student’s perspective, but also as someone who has struggled with an eating disorder and negative body image, I can confidently say that my experience learning about health in school was a large contributor to my eating disorder - and continues to provide a source for anxiety even today. Health classes provided nothing but a triggering environment that I was forced to endure every week, transported back to when I would indulge in harmful behaviours that are routinely glorified by my teachers.
And that is no exaggeration.
Some of the things my teachers have encouraged my classmates and I to do include tracking foods we ate and how we exercised in a day, scrutinise and critique others' intake, as well as viewing weight-loss as a strictly beneficial activity. And after I gathered the courage to speak up about it, challenge the thinking of my teachers, they would reply with the same statement every time: we're just following the curriculum.
This curriculum is allowing groups of impressionable teenagers to be taught about behaviours directly correlated with eating disorders. It has made restricted eating, scrutinising your body and strictly monitoring movement something that's acceptable and encouraged. I cannot speak for any of my classmates, however I can say with absolute certainty that more than one person came away from those lessons with a disordered mindset.
Because if my teachers think that it’s okay, it must be - right?
The toxic environment that schools have created and continue to maintain has the potential to push students over the edge. Our health and physical education curriculum is in dire need of reformation…or abolition entirely. Out with the old to make way for a new and inclusive curriculum that acknowledges the sensitive subject for what it is. Someone needs to be looking out for students with an eating disorder.
This is an issue that must be addressed - the health of future generations depends on it.
Eating Disorder Statistics & Key Research | Eating Disorders Victoria 2021, Eating Disorders Victoria, viewed 3 October 2022, <https://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/eating-disorders-a-z/eating-disorder-statistics-and-key-research/>.
Body image concerns need national response for young Australians 2020, Butterfly Foundation, viewed 3 October 2022, <https://butterfly.org.au/news/body-image-concerns-need-national-response-for-young-australians/>.