Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

The Dialect of Eating Disorders

by Amy Young

As teachers we are fluent in the language of our subjects, be they mathematics, physical education, or a foreign language. However, our subject is not the only language we need to speak in our classrooms. Although we do not need to know other “languages” fluently, we do need to be familiar with their dialects.

Today we’re going to explore the dialect of eating disorders. I want to start off by assuring you that you do not need to be an expert. Simply being aware will enable you to help your students.

Let’s start off with some basic terminology so we are on the same page.

Broadly speaking, eating disorders can be broken into three categories:

  • Anorexia Nervosa—an obsession with food and being thin, sometimes to the point of deadly self-starvation and extreme exercise.
  • Bulimia Nervosa—episodes of bingeing and purging. During these episodes, a person typically eats a large amount of food in a short duration and then tries to get rid of the extra calories through vomiting or excessive exercise. The person may be at a normal weight or even a bit overweight.
  • Binge Eating Disorder—eating excessive amounts of food (bingeing) but not trying to compensate with exercise or purging.

Here is a list of signs and symptoms for each of the three. One of the greatest mistakes a teacher can make is believing that eating disorders are only experienced by girl students. While it is true that females are more likely to experience an eating disorder, sadly, male students are more likely to go undetected because of the shame and stigma attached.

Let’s a take a closer look at the ways these eating disorders are different. Speaking in very broad terms, at its core, anorexia is about control. Most people who suffer from anorexia nervosa feel very out of control in one or more aspects of their life and the way they help to restore order is to control the one thing they can: their weight and relationship with food.

For example, one of your students may have a loved one facing a health or work crisis, leaving your student feeling overcome by helplessness. Or maybe a family member makes comments (whether true or not, it doesn’t matter) about your student’s weight or face or height. It is often through thoughtless comments that we make private vows NOT to be that person, leading us down very dark roads. Anorexia Nervosa would be one such road.

Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating, at their core, are different from Anorexia. If Anorexia is about control, Bulimia and Binge Eating are about feeling empty. There is a hole inside your students (in their hearts and emotions). They may think the profound emptiness they are feeling can be filled by eating food quickly, in private, and in large amounts.

In all cases of eating disorders, the problem is rarely about food, so the solutions are also not going to be about food. As the teacher, I know it’s easier to make comments about food—“Did you eat lunch today?”—than to ask about the deeper issues.

Today, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you can notice them in a student at the beginning stages. Here is a simple test you could share with a student if you think s/he has an eating disorder.

Practically speaking, what can you do?

1. Once a week walk around your classroom asking the Master Teacher to help you know each student, to see who might need help, and to open doors for discussions with students.

2. Look for warning signals. Ask yourself if you have any students who:

  • Start to lose weight at an alarming rate.
  • Only play with their food and find ways to either give or throw it away.
  • Spend breaks exercising obsessively.
  • Have front teeth that are changing color because the stomach acid from purging is beginning to eat away at their teeth.
  • Have parts of their lives that are out of control with health, work, or financial strain.
  • Seem to have an emptiness about them.

3. Talk to the counselors at your school and find out what you should do if you suspect a student of having an eating disorder. Also find out what sort of support and resources are available. It might surprise you what is available.

The Master Teacher gave a famous talk where He called many people blessed. If He were talking to you, I believe He’d say: Blessed are the teachers who notice their students and help them, for they are true teachers.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • What is your experience with students with eating disorders?
  • What resources have you found to be helpful?
  • What question do you have for Amy about eating disorders?

Post Author

Amy’s first classroom was filled with two students who did not want to be there, seeing as they were her younger sisters. Thankfully, things have looked up for her when it comes to teaching! She’s taught junior highers all the way up to visiting scholars from China. She has masters in both TESL and counseling and sees strong connections between the two disciplines.  She blogs at the Messy Middle.



Photo Credit: afloden via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2015 by in Amy Young, communicating with students, students with eating disorders.

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