This blog post has been a long time coming after my Story of the Un-Fit Kid back in May of 2015. It has taken months to gather up the courage to finally write this “second chapter” and years to overcome (to a large extent, although, never completely) the consequences of the issue I’d like to discuss.
The topic of today’s conversation is eating disorders – specifically, Anorexia Nervosa – which laid a powerful and deadly trap for me during early teen years. Even as I was working on this post, warily and with a good deal of doubt, I came across an article on CNN about an anorexia battle recently fought and won by an amazingly strong and brave teenager – Maris Degener (you can check it out at “Teen overcomes anorexia through yoga”). While this young lady’s triumph over the eating disorder was utterly inspiring, the article also convinced me that it was the right time to publish my post – and start the conversation about what we could do to help kids and teens to avoid this terrible and potentially lethal trap.
Eating disorders are scary – like an ongoing, real-life nightmare that is truly destructive. Even if they don’t kill, they are bound to leave ugly mental, emotional, and physical scars. I became anorexic at 13, and my condition continued to deteriorate until the age of 16, when an extreme change in circumstances and surroundings forcibly kick-started my recovery. While my personal experience (thankfully!) may not have been as extreme as that of Ms. Degener and many others, I believe that it can offer enough of the back story and insider’s perspective to help us understand how kids become vulnerable and what we can do to help them.
As you may remember from the Story of the Un-Fit Kid, at the age of 12, I acquired some basic fitness knowledge and learned to balance the energy in/energy out equation, which transformed my life. For a time, my new-found healthy weight and active lifestyle brought confidence, success, and plentiful affirmation from peers, dance coaches, and people around me. As any other kid, I thrived on all the positive reinforcement and attention the “new me” and my dance accomplishments were generating. Unfortunately, I started to associate positive changes in my life and success in my dance career directly with my decreased weight. With no solid nutrition knowledge, no healthy eating habits, and no real understanding of what my growing body needed, I lacked the most essential tools that would have allowed me to maintain and further improve my health and fitness. Instead, I focused on doing the only thing I knew how: decreasing the “energy in,” i.e. my food intake, and increasing the “energy out,” i.e. the time, intensity, and frequency of my exercise. Inadvertently, I started spiraling: my hair began to thin rapidly; my energy levels and certain bodily functions declined sharply; my mood became all but intolerable (being perpetually hungry, tired, and cold doesn’t make one into a particularly nice person); and my relationships deteriorated – almost to the point of no return. There was nothing my parents or friends could do to help, because I simply wouldn’t (and couldn’t) listen to them – I was too afraid of turning into that overweight, unfit, and unsuccessful kid again.
You will ask – what is my point in bringing all of this to light? It is simple: to illustrate how easy it can be for children and teens to fall into the trap of eating disorders – and how important it is for us to prevent them from doing so. We have a much better chance of protecting a child’s healthy future if we can stop him or her from falling victim to an eating disorder early on. Once fallen into the trap, full recovery and return to health are never easy or guaranteed. Eating disorders change one’s life forever, and the damage they do to a young person’s body and mind often lasts a lifetime in one form or another.
So how can we protect kids? I truly believe that the first, and most important, step is to provide them with a well-rounded education and a healthy perspective – one that’s based on solid nutrition knowledge and the building of healthy eating habits. And in this, the role of teachers is paramount. As much as parents, friends, and social media affect the kids, nothing can quite compare with the power of a teacher – one, who students look up to; one, who can gently guide, influence, and inspire them. Many times, teachers can be there at exactly the right place and at the right time: they can be the first ones to notice dangerous behaviors and the first ones to intervene – thus changing the ultimate outcomes and the lives of students for the better. This, of course, is never easy: how does one determine whether he/she has the right knowledge, training, and ability to teach kids about things that may be new and uncomfortable, unfamiliar and not a strong suit personally? Many teachers feel this way about nutrition and healthy eating – all in all, they didn’t go to school to become dietitians… However, I believe that we must remember that one of the most important and precious roles that we play throughout our lives is that of a Teacher – delivering knowledge and guidance wherever it is most needed – and learning ourselves along the way. As Arne Duncan put it in his July LinkedIn post Why Teaching is the Most Important Profession, “Teachers are our nation builders—the strength of every profession in our country grows out of the knowledge and skills that teachers help to instill in our children.” Let’s use our power wisely!