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21 Things We Wish Educators Knew About Eating Disorders

It can be difficult for people to understand the severity of an eating disorder if they have never been personally impacted. Sometimes, we can fail to see those who are really struggling right in front of us. Educators are often so much more than teachers: they are role models, confidants and support systems. If a student is struggling, it is our hope that educators will see that and help them. But, what if the educator doesn’t know what to look for, or even how to help? What if the lessons they are teaching about healthy living could actually be harmful to the student who sits in the front row every single day?

As we prepare to go back to school, we asked members of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) community what they wished educators knew about eating disorders.

Here is what they said:

1. “It’s not all ‘body image.’”

2. “Weight does not equal severity of illness.”

3. “They never go away — they’re just managed differently at times.”

4. “The illness and recovery are not linear. I might seem fine one day and struggle the next.”

5. “Eating disorders make it impossible to focus on anything else. If a student isn’t doing as well as they could, isn’t turning in assignments, or can’t focus in class, they’re not a bad student. They’re doing the best that they can given the circumstances they’re in. Be patient and willing to work with them. It makes a difference.”

6. “Knowing and understanding are not the same thing.”

7. “Be on the lookout for warning signs. Approach the student privately, and with empathy and concern. Depending on the rules regarding educators being mandated reporters, don’t approach the parents first — a lot of trust can be destroyed this way.”

8. “You are trapped in it. You can’t ‘just eat’ or ‘just focus.’”

9. “If a student comes forward, disclosing concern with weight, food, eating disorder behaviors/thoughts — listen. Just listen. Offer support. Gain trust.”

10. “Eating disorders often can’t be seen; they need to be heard by creating space for people to talk about their struggles in safe spaces.”

11. “Eating disorders have layers, and it’s about discovering each layer and working to the core. It’s never easy, it is the hardest part, but it’s worth it.”

12. “As a person in recovery as well as a current teacher, I wish they knew our current health curriculum needs to represent health at every size! It is possible to be overweight and healthy, underweight and healthy, and that heteronormative, ‘white, thin’ narratives aren’t all eating disorders!”

13. “Have patience. Time is the best medicine for everything. Do not rush someone who is racing themselves. No one ever wins. But be encouraging, teach how to accept their actions and move on. Many people who struggle with eating disorders also battle depression (and other mental illnesses) and eventually, food controls their happiness. Teach ways to meditate and accept yourself for the amazing person you can be!”

14. “Don’t talk negatively about yourself because your students will pick up on it. You are a role model for them and they will emulate your behavior.”

15. “What the textbooks say about eating disorders doesn’t even come close to what they actually are. That anyone can be suffering, and those [who] are did not ‘choose to be anorexic’ by any means. That even the student you are least likely to suspect having an eating disorder could very well be the one struggling the most. That even the tiniest bit of compassion can go quite a long way.”

16. “Just because you’re weight restored doesn’t mean your mind is. It takes years to recover from the thought process alone. Eating disorders are also not selfish or a way to lose a few pounds. Educators need to stop treating eating disorders as diets and more like the diseases they are.”

17. “Representation matters. Even if an educator has taken a course on diversity/attended a conference session, etc., you cannot understand the complexities of having an eating disorder while holding a marginalized identity (being a person of color, queer, trans, coming from a low socioeconomic background — to name a few) just by hearing one story of one person with that identity. I wish educators knew that even if they’ve heard the phrase ‘eating disorders are not always a white, middle class, teenage girl with anorexia’ that it takes a lot of work to embody that in their educational practice and that’s important.”

18. “I think empathy is hard to teach all around, but in these situations, it is most crucial to have educators who will assure you that it’ll be OK no matter what. To lose
control momentarily is OK. To feel like you’re falling is OK. To not be the best at everything is OK.”

19. “Looking back, I deeply appreciate the educators [who] noticed when my grades
dropped and asked me if there was some way to help. They had compassion and helped me get through the material. I want all educators to know that taking an interest in your students is powerful, even if it doesn’t seem to make a difference at that moment.”

20. “The people who need help the most are the least likely to talk about it.”

21.“Anorexia and bulimia aren’t the only eating disorders.”

The is a resource for educators, staff who work in a school setting or those who work with youth outside of school. For recovery resources and treatment options, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via recep-bg.