Trigger Warning: talk of eating disorders and weight stigma.

When I hear at school that you want to prevent childhood obesity, I feel like you want to eliminate kids like me.”  -Anonymous Student

This statement has been rolling through my mind and pulling at my heart since I heard it yesterday. It’s a real comment, from a child discussing “wellness” education in his school’s curriculum. 

On Tuesday, I set aside an hour to join a NEDA (National Eating Disorder Awareness) webinar, entitled “Preventing Disordered Eating, Weight Stigma and Improving Mental Health in Schools.” It was informative and inspiring, and an emotional reminder of why Bold exists. 

The webinar began with an introduction to a new bipartisan bill, the Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act of 2020 (Eating Disorders PSA), by Representatives Alma Adams (D-NC-12) and Vicky Hartzler (R- MO-04). It is described below:

This Act would encourage schools to include eating disorders prevention within their Local School Wellness Policies—policies used to guide school districts to create supportive school nutrition and physical activity environments to help prevent disordered eating and eating disorders, and improve overall health outcomes of children. The bill would also ensure that mental health professionals are included in the development of Local School Wellness Policies.” 

(Source: https://adams.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/adams-introduces-bipartisan-bill-eating-disorders-schools)

A few striking statistics were offered:

* 30 million Americans will be affected by an eating disorder in their lifetime

* Eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate amongst mental health conditions (after opioid addiction)

* Each month, 1 million adolescents engage in weight control behaviors 

* 80% of individuals with an eating disorder are in an average or higher weight body

* Students receive less than eight hours a year of nutrition education a year 

(Source: EDPSA Infographic/ NEDA Preventing Disordered Eating, Weight Stigma and Improving Mental Health in Schools, September 29, 2020)

The subsequent discussion included experts and advocates, including Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, FAED, Founding Director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. Dr. Bulik focused on the effects of Covid-19, a factor that she explains has “precipitated a mental health pandemic.” She discussed the effects of social distancing/quarantine on food security/ food availability/ food choice, as well as body image (citing the relentless “Covid 15” weight gain  jokes and increase in exercise/diet discussions). She also explored the lack of adequate mental health resources in schools and the impact of their absence during the pandemic.

Dr. Lily O’Hara, MPH, PhD, Associate Professor of Public Health, Qatar University presented on School-based Prevention and Weight Inclusivity Within the Context of Overall Health Promotion. Her content included quotes from children, including the one previously noted. The “War on Obesity” language and approach have been questioned by many advocates and mental health professionals in recent years. It has been said that efforts which might have been well- intentioned have proven to be ineffective, as well as damaging. The sentiments of that young boy certainly support that assertion.. 

So what do we teach kids about their bodies and food? Dr. O’Hara explored specific measures, such as shifting from a weight- centered, weight control approach to a HAES (Health At Every Size) model. This would include integration of the five components of HAES: Weight Inclusivity, Health Enhancement, Weight Justice, Eating For Well-Being, and Life-Enhancing Movement. 

The webinar concluded with passionate messages from Athena Nair, Tufts University Student and Body Positivity Advocate, and Jameela Jamil, Activist and Founder of I Weigh. They gave their perspectives on the importance of empowerment and confrontation of size discrimination and bullying in all aspects of life, including education, social interactions, and healthcare. 

Ms. Nair shared a heartbreaking point (originally reported by the Huffington Post) about fears of being fat expressed by girls as young as three years old. When asked how to stay positive in the face of fatphobia, she emphasized the importance of finding one’s own community- and “curating your social media.”

Ms. Jamil also identified the power of social media in affecting one’s self-esteem. She condemned celebrity endorsements of dangerous products targeting body insecurity and reiterated that the impact of bullying is devastating. She observed that weight-based prejudice is rarely condemned in our society.

Those of us who live life in large bodies as adults know that bullying, discrimination and stereotypes don’t stop after we leave school. Some of us develop tools and supports to recognize fatphobia for what it is, and do our best to call it out. But the work is hard, repetitive, even traumatizing. 

Yet, we owe it to that young boy who has internalized the message that the world wants to “eliminate” him. May we keep fighting for him and every other child who has been damaged by a system that was supposed to empower, not erase.

Take Action! Contact your Member of Congress to tell them to cosponsor the Eating Disorders Prevention in Schools Act of 2020 (H.R. 6703) 

Head to: https://p2a.co/eC7fYlu

For more information, visit: 

https://adams.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/adams-introduces-bipartisan-bill-eating-disorders-schools
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