Striking a healthy balance

Kristina suffered from orthorexia, a disorder that makes one obsessed with only eating foods they believe to be healthy. On days when she ate less than 800 calories, she considered it something to be proud of. “In my mind I came up with my own definitions of what I perceived to be healthy,” she said. “What I’d do is I’d restrict myself to foods that I considered healthy and only in small amounts.” This restricted diet entailed completely avoiding starch-based carbohydrates and only allowing herself to eat fruits and vegetables.

Following her recovery from orthorexia, Kristina has taken an advisory role upon herself for some of her friends who also struggle in their relationships with food. “I did a lot of research when I had an eating disorder about counting calories and proteins and general health so I know good things about it, not things that fuel an eating disorder,” she said.

Health and Wellness Teacher Joy Marchese shares Kristina’s opinion that education on nutrition is of paramount importance. Marchese’s Health and Wellness course does not focus specifically on eating disorders at any point, but nutrition is heavily discussed. “I think focusing on the positive of nutrition is much more helpful than focusing on the negative of eating disorders,” Marchese said.

As some students try to be healthy, they turn towards group motivation, often in the form of friends, to achieve their goals. Kristina notices a trend that the girls in the senior class make a group effort each year to lose weight. “I know last year the senior girls said ‘Ok we’re not going to eat together, we’re going to become anorexic together’.”

While dieting with friends provides motivation, Kristina saw that the diet “pact” was more detrimental than it was positive for their health. “I’ve noticed people at Bottom Orange with no food at lunch time and they’d be going to these intense workout classes after school together,” she said.

Diana* (’16) does not believe that there are many things she can regulate. Due to this perceived lack of control in her life, she holds onto that which she is able to take charge of – food is one of these things. “It helps that there is something [food] I can control rather than things like my school and work and sleep, things that I can’t control myself,” she said.

Diana believes that she is “a very controlling person and the fact that I can control something so big in my life like food is really important to me.”

Though she does not believe she has ever suffered from an eating disorder, she does admit that ostensibly she could be perceived to have unhealthy eating habits. “To someone else they may think that I deprive myself because I don’t eat as much as the average 15-year-old should or does,” she said.

Diana explains that while she does eat, she only eats enough so she can function. “There have been days where I have less energy, or I’m tired a lot of the time because I haven’t given myself what I need,” she said.

As Carla* (’16) continued to grow up, she found herself trying to find ways to be able to continue her love for food as she became increasingly worried about how it would have an effect on her body.

Carla took the matter in her own hands when she decided to irregularly make herself throw up as “an easy way to get rid of the fat I’ve eaten,” she said.

Carla believes that her infrequent habit of throwing up partially stems from her reluctance to commit to other weight loss regimes. “I think the idea came from that I felt too lazy to starve myself or go on any of these diets, and then it just kind of stuck with me,” she said.

Carla believes that typical eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are not the only prevalent types of unhealthy relationships with food in the school. “If you’re not someone who struggles with food, sometimes people will think you’re unhealthy, even though you just have a healthy relationship about food,” she said.

For Carla and her friends, she sees their interest in each other’s health as sometimes being more detrimental than helpful due to the pressure to restrict certain foods from their diets. “I know a lot of friends of mine, we always send each other pictures of food, we encourage each other to lose weight and starve ourselves basically and say ‘its bad to eat these things,’ and ‘we should only eat vegetables or fruit.’”

Through Carla’s experience with food, she isn’t sure that there is one perfect model for people to follow with regards to their own health. “Everyone’s relationship with food is different. I don’t know if anyone’s relationship with food is healthy,” she said. Due to the discrepancy in people’s health, it is difficult to have friends unite in the effort to maintain this aspect of their lives, she believes.

Carla explains that a large amount of how people interact with food is how they feel around others. “There’s slut shaming, and then there’s fat shaming where people make you feel bad about how much you eat,” she said.

The phenomena of “fat shaming” describes a societal prejudice toward overweight people, and then people’s eating habits as a whole. The stigmatization of weight and the constant attention paid to people’s eating habits leads to a judgemental environment in Kristina’s opinion.

The phrase ‘fat shaming’ is not new to Marchese, though its presence within the school is. “I think fat shaming happens in society, so it doesn’t surprise me that it takes place in the school. It really saddens me that people would be so cruel,” she said.

Marchese believes that as well as judgement, a lot of damage is done by subconscious messages that are sent to people, particularly girls, with regards to their self image. “I have to be careful about only complimenting girls on what they’re wearing, rather than their personality or intelligence,” she said. “Sometimes girls are almost trained to only focus on their looks because they only receive comments about their looks.”

Carla believes that being extremely thin is not necessarily better than being heavier. “I think we recognize overweight much more than underweight, there are a lot of people at our school who are underweight but we don’t recognize it because we think that being overweight is the bad thing,” she said.

Kristina also identifies a problem in people’s approach to losing weight and living healthily. “People don’t remember that they need to be healthy for themselves rather than satisfy other people,” she said. “I have friends who have these habits only for other people; to make themselves look good for other people, instead of trying to feel good themselves.”

People’s thoughts on where the root of the problem lies differ: Some, like Kristina, attribute it to a judgemental environment; others, like Marchese, see a lack of education at fault; the existence of the problem, as certain individuals in the community would attest, is undeniable though.

Kristina believes that eating disorders should be at the forefront of the school’s discussion. “I don’t think the administration does enough to combat the problem. I think when we have grade meetings, they could send out an email to all of the girls in each grade. They could have all-girl meetings where they talk about eating disorders and just extend their support to girls,” she said.