For many school-aged kids (preschool through senior year in high school), “back to school” shopping is fun. They love buying new outfits and shoes and backpacks and school supplies. With every item they buy, they get more excited to get back to school. They happily try on their new clothes. They stuff their new backpacks with all the pens, pencils, notebooks, and planners. The night before school starts, they feel a mixture of excitement, anticipation and a little anxiety. The first days back to school, they put their new outfits on, head out to school, and experience all the first days activities. They may have ups and downs. They may like some teachers, and dislike others. They may have difficulty figuring out where to sit in the classroom, or in the lunch room. They may be a little anxious about finding their classrooms or getting there on time. They also may be excited to reacquaint with friends. This is all normal.
For those school-aged kids with eating disorders, a different experience is felt altogether. Although there are no universal experiences, I’ve seen enough eating disordered kids to know there is an element of difficulty that accompanies the “back to school” transition. They may experience all the same activities as non-disordered kids, but they also may experience a multitude of inner thoughts and heightened anxieties that non-disordered kids don’t experience. Many of these thoughts are negative and distorted. Many of them are body related.
Shopping for clothes to go back to school in can be a very upsetting endeavor. When one’s body has changed, there can be both physical and emotional discomfort. Looking for sizes, trying on multiple articles of clothing in various sizes, experiencing physical sensations associated with the way clothes fit, and standing in front of mirrors in the dressing room can trigger all sorts of thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings can taint the experience, and can trigger urges to use eating disordered behaviors. It is always best for the individual to shop with a compassionate friend or family member who understands the sensitivity of the individual and can offer support if needed.
If the eating disordered student’s body has changed over the summer, due to recovery related goals or as a result of the eating disorder itself, he/she has tremendous fear that others will comment about his/her body. “Wow! You look so much better than you did last year!” “You gained weight. You look great!” “You lost weight. I wish I was as skinny as you!” “Did you put on a few pounds over the summer?”
Any comments regarding one’s body can trigger someone with an eating disorder. Comments can be well-intentioned but may still be perceived as triggering. I tell my clients over and over that they cannot control the comments made by others. All they can control is their reaction to the comments. Comments about one’s body also exacerbate the body image distortion that the person already feels because they draw unwanted attention to the body. I usually advise my clients to either change the subject or try to walk away from the conversation. Then, they need to talk to a good friend to get the support and distraction they need, in order to move on with their day.
Getting dressed in the morning before school is also challenging. When someone has an eating disorder, he/she is uncomfortable in his/her own body. He/she experiences it in a distorted way. He/she does not necessarily have the ability to see him/herself objectively.
Below is an example of what someone with an eating disorder may experience in the morning, before the school day begins:
Allyson has set out her clothes the night before the school day. She wakes up in the morning already a little anxious for the school day ahead. She’s worried about a test she has to take, and she’s overwhelmed by the amount of school work she faces in her AP classes. She puts on the clothes she had picked out, but they just don’t feel “right”. They feel tight this morning. They didn’t feel tight when she tried them on yesterday. But this morning, she feels like she will burst at the seams. She begins to feel more anxious than she felt when she woke up. She convinces herself that she absolutely cannot wear the outfit. She tears it off and throws it on the floor of her room. She urgently searches through her closet and pulls out another pair of jeans and another top. These jeans feel too tight and the shirt looks “ugly”. Off they go, onto the pile of clothes that are on the floor. She grabs a skirt, tries it on, and doesn’t like the way her legs look in the mirror. It goes onto the pile. Her anxiety escalates. The amount of time she is taking to pick out something to wear is cutting into the time she needs to devote to the rest of the morning activities, including eating breakfast. Her mother reminds her that she will be late if she doesn’t hurry up. Her anxiety is mounting. She grabs a dress out of her closet. She doesn’t like the way her arms look. She throws a sweater on over it. It just doesn’t feel or look the way she wants it to. She throws it on the top of the heap of clothes. Her time to get ready is significantly dwindling. She digs through the clothes and finds the original pair of jeans. She puts them on, pulls them up, buttons them, and throws a sweatshirt on. She feels “gross” and defeated. She heads to the kitchen where she has to figure out what to eat. Due to her anxiety and subsequent loss of appetite, as well as her “gross feeling”, she has urges to skip breakfast altogether. Her mother is watching though, so she eats part of her breakfast and promises her mother she will make up for it later. The school bus comes and she races out. On the way to school, she can’t get her body off her mind. She still feels “gross” in her body and she’s worried about the test and all the other stresses of the day ahead. From the outside, Allyson appears “fine”. She’s friendly but a little quieter than usual. On the inside, she’s suffering. She’s worried. She’s conflicted. She wants to be “in recovery”, but at the same time, she’s desperate to use eating disordered behaviors to make herself “feel better.” The best strategy for her to follow to “get out of her head”, is to distract herself with friends or find a friend to voice her struggle to. Communication of her feelings may lessen the power they have over her. Also, if she shares her feelings, her friends may help to “normalize” them. If she has a treatment team, she might want to discuss this with them during her next session to help strategize for these types of situations, as well as to get help gain a more positive perspective on recovery.
The experiences outlined above are only a few examples of the types of situations that may trigger a student with an eating disorder. Situations that intensify negative body image are challenging but do not have to derail recovery! It is his/her responsibility to work through these difficulties using the coping mechanisms he/she has learned and practiced so that he/she does not use any type of eating disordered behavior. Using his/her voice to express feelings is a key coping mechanism. Having an understanding circle of friends and family is also essential.
It is important to remember that negative or distorted body image is a byproduct of low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, negative feelings, life experiences, messages from others, distorted beliefs that are exacerbated by the media, societal pressures and other personal issues. Distorted body image is NOT about the weight, size, or shape of one’s body.
If you or a loved one experiences distorted negative body image issues, the National Eating Disorders Association says it best when they say “We all may have our days when we feel awkward or uncomfortable in our bodies, but the key to developing positive body image is to recognize and respect our natural shape and learn to overpower those negative thoughts and feelings with positive, affirming, and accepting ones.” It is also vital for recovery to learn to separate your feelings from your body, and take care of your body as best you can through satisfying balanced eating and the types of pleasurable movement that energize and strengthen your body.Share on Facebook