Eating disorders at school

February 19, 2020

One hundred and nineteen percent. 

In less than a decade, the rate of children under 12 being admitted to hospitals for eating disorders rose an alarming 119%, according to the ERC.

Some believe that this growing epidemic of eating disorders should be addressed at a young age through the education system. 

Others view school as a potential source of the problem.

For Carlmont High School P.E. teacher Irene Oliveira, her main priority is to keep students healthy and informed. With 19 years of experience under her belt, Oliveira guarantees that all of her students are well equipped to make proper decisions about exercise and nutrition later in life. 

The only aspect of her job that Oliveira disagrees with is the annual body mass index (BMI) exam, a part of the state-mandated California Physical Fitness Test (PFT). Unfortunately, she is forced to administer it year after year.

The BMI, a number based on the age, weight, height, and gender of an individual, is one of the most common methods of screening for obesity. For high school students, however, such a test can be problematic as teenagers experience growth spurts at different rates.

Oliveira, who views the BMI as a very inaccurate measurement of one’s health, has opposed giving students data about their BMI’s from the beginning, as she believes that giving students information about their BMI has directly led to eating disorders in both female and male high schoolers.

“When you give teenagers, many of whom already suffer from body identity issues, a statistic about whether or not they fit into a tiny box, it creates anxiety. Everyone telling you to be within these strict guidelines, especially when your body is changing so much, can absolutely lead to eating disorders,” Oliveira said.

To address this issue, she has several practical solutions including higher dietary standards for school lunches and a permanent school nutritionist to help students.

“Nutrition is everything. The state needs to create legislation to protect the students and provide them a healthy school environment,” Oliveira said.

Carlmont High School student James Smith*, a junior, also voiced his views on the BMI. 

To substantiate Oliveira’s theory that releasing BMI information results directly in the emergence of eating disorders, Smith confirmed that in the past, the exam has negatively impacted his and other students’ eating patterns.

“I hate the BMI [test]. It makes students feel super insecure. If the state needs the test for data, at least don’t show students their scores afterward,” Smith said.

Smith, who personally has bulimia, is part of the Students Offering Support (SOS) group at Carlmont. SOS serves as an outlet of support at Carlmont and gives regular presentations to students about difficult topics such as eating disorders.

During these presentations, Smith has had the opportunity to describe life under the constant shadow of an eating disorder. 

For him, as well as many other bulimics, the urge to vomit after eating creates never-ending stress, not to mention the damaging health effects it can accentuate. Repeated vomiting can result in stomach acids tearing the esophagus and cause life-threatening bleeding.

Fortunately, Smith is currently taking steps to avoid a similar fate. 

With persistent work, he has progressed to eating breakfast and dinner regularly. Although he still skips lunch and finds it difficult to explain this to his friends, Smith is proud of his progress. His message to others currently suffering from an eating disorder is one of hope and positivity.

“Throw your scale away. You’re perfect and beautiful. You don’t need to fit into a certain category because you are your own category,” Smith said.

*Due to the sensitive nature of the content, this name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the source.

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