Back to School and Eating Disorders: How do we prepare?


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By: Ashley Hemrich, M.A., Regional Director of Clinical Partnerships

It’s that time of the year again – Back to School, which means new clothes, new supplies, new grade, and maybe even a new school. While many of these things offer a positive experience, we often overlook the potential negatives that can occur within the first few weeks of the new school year.

According to Mental Health America, the average onset for an eating disorder is between the ages of 12 to 13, with a recent increase in cases as young as five or six years of age. It is highly important for loved ones and school personnel to be aware of the potential risk factors and symptoms of eating disorders to be able to address these issues efficiently and effectively.

What is the impact of social media?

As a way to easily exchange personal information through photos and common interest communities, social media sites have become quite controversial for those struggling with eating disorders, particularly anorexia. “Pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “Pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) websites have been in existence since the inception of the Internet; however, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr have provided a global platform to potentially glorify disordered eating patterns.  With the increase in “thinspriational” messages, such as “Pretty girls don’t have to eat; show some self-control” and “skip dinner, be thinner” along with hashtags, “#thighgap”, “#thinspo”, or “#bonespo”, just to name a few, it is often quite difficult to ignore the impact of these messages, especially to those suffering. Most recently, the “fitspo” and “fitspiration” movements, initially generated as more of an alternative to pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia content, have begun to overvalue and reinforce obsessive thoughts and behaviors when it comes to exercise and clean eating. With the constant stream of available comparisons, along with the drive for thinness, obsessive, and compulsive behaviors, it is quite simple to get caught up in the cycle of seeking and gaining approval through social media.

Now, social media is not all bad! When utilized more appropriately, social media sites can provide increased body positivity and self-compassion. Many body positivity advocates are using social media to change our culture and body perception. The Selah House Facebook and Instagram social media sites offer positive quotes, and helpful tips and articles to our readers. The Health at Every Size® principle embarks on respecting the diversity of our bodies by challenging social and cultural expectations and embracing self-compassion. Let’s face it, traditional dieting and dieting fads are not sustainable methods of health and wellness. Our bodies were created to be fueled by balanced forms of nutrients to maintain healthy physical and psychological functioning.

The Body Positive Movement has also become quite active through Instagram. Utilizing the hashtags, “#bodypositive,” and “#bodypositivity,” thousands of Instagram followers are sharing images to express their beauty in all shapes and sizes. This movement has begun to show followers that drive for thinness is not the ultimate way to inner happiness, but instead embracing yourself for exactly as you are, provides sustainable self-compassion.

With the increased use of social media, it is imperative that we understand the truth about eating disorders and that we are educated on the daily messages in which our younger generations experience.

How can a parent offer guidance?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, loved ones are recommended to utilize these tips if they suspect the presence of an Eating Disorder:

  • Notice: Look for warning signs of eating disorders, including changes in eating patterns, mood and body weight fluctuations, social media usage, and the differences surrounding food and body image conversations.
  • Listen: Actively, openly, and reflectively listen without judgement. Instead of providing immediate solutions, validate their feelings and ask how you can best support them during this time. All too often, we tend to move quickly to offer opinions, rather than listen.
  • Learn: Educate yourself on the signs, symptoms, risk factors, treatment options, facts, myths, etc. regarding eating disorders. It may also be helpful to talk with those who have had a loved one suffer from an eating disorder.
  • Support: Continually remind them that you are there for support and want what’s best for them. Focus on positive personality traits and psychological health and well-being versus food-related behaviors. Create a home environment free from judgment that promotes all foods in moderation.

Keep in mind that your loved one may deny they are experiencing an eating disorder. If this is the case, it is imperative for families to try not to engage in the following:

  • Judge: Never express judgment, make jokes, or be dismissive of their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors; this only adds to their confusion, shame, guilt, and frustration. The key is an open and judgment-free environment.
  • Argue: Let’s face it, watching someone that you love struggle with a life-threatening disorder is very painful. It is sometimes difficult to avoid expressing anger or frustration when there is continued denial of a problem, despite the warning signs and risk factors. However, confrontation will likely make communication and support more difficult for future opportunities and can only increase isolation. Try to remain calm and supportive always.
  • Lecture: Do not focus on giving suggestions on appearance or “why they shouldn’t feel this way.” An eating disorder is not a choice, but rather a life-threatening mental disorder. Providing a lecture may only continue to exacerbate the problem.
  • Ignore: Never dismiss the warning signs of an eating disorder as a “phase.” Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychological disorders and should never be ignored. There is immediate professional care available.

How can the school personnel offer support?

Just as loved ones, school personnel are also likely to observe signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Typically, the traits below are associated with the development of an eating disorder but keep in mind that these are generalized traits and can vary for each person. If observed, please discuss your observations with the student in a private, non-judgmental setting, while also indicating that their parent and/or guardian may need to be contacted for further discussion.

  • Perfectionism: The student may express very rigid thinking throughout a variety of academic subjects, eating patterns, appearance, social situations, etc. There may be a high intolerance for getting any grade below an “A;” constant comparison to others, and overvaluation of self-sufficiency. Signs in direct correlation to eating disorders, include the following:
    • Body image concerns/complaints
    • Inability to accept compliments from others
    • Drastic change in mood directly related to appearance
    • Constantly comparing self to others
    • Self-deprecating remarks
    • Striving for the “perfect image”
    • Seeking constant reassurance about looks
  • Isolation: They may appear to be withdrawn, socially isolated, as well as changes in mood and academics.
  • Changes in Food-Related Conversations: There may be an expression of rigid or obsessive thoughts about food, eating, dieting, exercise, etc. They may be inflexible when it comes to expanding to a variety of foods due labeling food as “good” or “bad” based upon perceived nutritional value, as well as their rigidity surrounding their exercise routine.
  • Mealtime Rituals: You may observe many different food rituals, such as skipping meals, counting calories, decreased portion sizes, eating small bites, eating slowly, smearing condiments or sauces, overusing or inappropriately utilizing condiments, eating large bites, eating quickly, water or caffeine loading to suppress appetite, hiding food, hoarding food, taking frequent trips to the bathroom around meal times, etc. When in doubt, be curious. Ask questions.
  • Mealtime Avoidance: The student may completely avoid the cafeteria, eat alone, or focus on different activities during mealtimes.

What is The Body Project?

The Body Project, developed by researchers at Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Oregon Research Institute is a group-based intervention for young women to confront unrealistic beauty ideals and engage in the development of healthy body image through verbal, written, and behavioral activities. With a goal to empower young women to speak out against societal body ideals and ultimately, decrease disordered eating behaviors, the Body Project trains facilitators in individual practices, organizations, and high schools.

For further information about The Body Project or to locate training in your area, please visit

As the number of those suffering from eating disorders in the younger generation continues to rise, it is crucial that we understand the signs, symptoms, and risk factors to provide the most appropriate care and support.


Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4

Take the First step for yourself or someone your love

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