Short shares disordered eating facts


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“We have a lot of students who are perfectionistic,” Upper School counselor Susanna Short said. “I don’t want to say that the [St. Paul Academy and Summit School culture] promotes [eating disorders], but maybe it is an environment where at times they can thrive,” she said.

At SPA, eating disorders are a significant issue, but not one that members of the school community is comfortable dealingwith. Nationally, eating disorders are increasing steadily in adolescents, especially in boys and younger girls. “I think that’s reflected at SPA as well,” Short said.

Eating disorders are complicated diseases which have innumerable root causes. “I think eating disorders are almost always a very complicated mixture of some genetic predisposition, some occurrence of depression and anxiety, stress and/or trauma, and then a real internalization of societal messages about body type, weight, thinness, and value,” Short said.

While it’s important to discern and address the environmental factors which undoubtedly contribute to eating disorders, one must remember that there are more pieces to the puzzle, pieces which are often impossible to find because they are specific to an individual’s life and emotional makeup. Nonetheless, the conscious and subconscious impact of SPA’s social and emotional climate on it’s students is worth investigating.

Disordered eating and poor body image at SPA can be caused, in part, by the small cross section of body types represented in the SPA community. Because SPA is so small, male and female students may understandably mistake the shapes and eating habits of their peers for national or even global averages.

On the other hand, SPA’s small and intimate environment can also work as a supportive force in the lives of students who struggled with eating and body image. Students typically sense or know what’s going on with other students, eliminating the secrecy which almost always accompanies eating disorder.

“There are a lot of eyes on students, and students do care deeply for each other,” Short said. Not only do students care about each other, but in classes such as Wellness and Fitness for Life, the faculty tries to remind students that there is always someone they can talk to.

Often times, the care which SPA students have for each other struggles to breach the language barrier and take on a more communicative nature. It can be difficult to find the right combination of words to use when faced with a friend who is struggling with an eating disorder. “What’s not helpful is when people try to become the food police,” Short said. In the dining hall, Short frequently sees students size up and judge what their friends are eating for lunch.

In some cases, she even observes friendships built of off eating disorders: “‘I can eat less than you can,’ ‘Let’s make a bet, tomorrow let’s only eat “x” amount of calories.’ That’s not friendship,” Short said. “That’s mutual destruction.”

The best way Short sees to help a friend who is struggling with an eating disorder is just to talk to them. “I to talk to their friend in a quiet, safe space [and] to be open and non judgemental,” Short said. “Friends aren’t in a position to diagnose and when they try to, that often makes people defensive, so I would encourage people to reflect back what they see, what they’re concerned about, and then say ‘I need to know that you’re going to talk to an adult.’”

If a student comes to a staff member for help, their family will almost never receive an immediate call home. “There’s really a range of responses, because it depends on the severity,” Short said. If a student is reporting signs of disordered eating, Short will work with them to find healthy resources. However, if the student reports what she deems to be life threatening, she and the student will have a conversation about the best way to get help, often a route involving the support of parents.

Eating disorders, when left unaddressed, can be life threatening mental illnesses. Short wants students at SPA to know that healing is completely within the realm of possibility and support is available to anyone who needs it.

However, to support and actualize this belief within the SPA community at large, Short feels a shift in dialogue concerning food and body image is imperative.

The conversations that take place in the SPA community need to change: “I think we need to shift the conversations in our school to friendship and art and music and politics and science and learning and all kinds of amazing things,” Short said. “[We need to] not have food and weight and body not be so central to what students talk to each other about.”