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Boarding School and Eating Disorders

On Saturday I watched a film called "Your Fat Friend," in which the author documents her life as she speaks out about being fat and the judgement she receives.

Her message was simple. Do not judge others for their size. You have no idea what is going on for them. It is not a choice.

She highlights the impact of the diet culture, how it is passed from one generation to the next and exposes how this has a huge part to play in people developing eating disorders. I agree.

Trauma is also a contributing factor as to why someone may develop an eating disorder. Children who go to boarding school have to process their feelings of abandonment. Overwhelmed and with an inability to process feelings and emotions alone, they may swallow them down and suppress them with food. If they have access to it.

On the other hand, controlling what goes in and out of their bodies may be the only thing they have autonomy over at school. Children are often in competition with one another, seeking validation. So, when that is placed in the context of society’s approval of being thin, many girls and boys go down this path at school.

“If I’m thin then… I will be popular, be attractive, be loved.”

I have heard stories of termly weigh ins and measurements being taken which caused huge amounts of humiliation for children. Children being put on school diets, in which they had to go to the infirmary to eat, separating them from their peers and highlighting their need to lose weight. The shame.

The Dining Hall itself being a place of anxiety. Sometimes a room full of 800 children, full of noise and sensory overload. Older children having control over what the younger children ate. Far from a relaxing experience. Younger children doing "trades" for the prefects and scoffing their leftover croissants and orange juice before they get noticed.

Tuck being a highly prized thing. Children may start the term with their tuck box full of treats, which they have to decide whether to eat all at once, risk it getting stolen or use it for currency with other pupils.

At my school the "Tuck Thief" was caught once. The housemaster put red dye over peoples tuck and then we were all taken into his study to show our hands and be inspected for red marks. The poor girl who was caught must have been reprimanded and felt so much shame. What if she was hungry, or desperately seeking comfort....

In my first year, a loaf of Mother's Pride white bread was divided up daily. 9 girls in my house on my year and we were given 6 pieces of bread to share between us. White toast with butter spread on it (without using knives) was the evening comfort food. Although, making toast was a privilege that wasn't allowed for the first year at school. We'd sneak our precious piece of bread into the toaster into the kitchen, run out and hide round a corner hoping nobody would catch us and we'd be punished. Often a senior girl might catch us and walk out eating our prized piece of white toast...

I can see clearly how a feast or famine situation was created. Many children recall being really hungry at school and many ex-boarders may still carry that fear that the food will be taken away, so they eat incredibly fast.

These are some of factors that may lead to the young person creating a strategy they believe will cause them to be thin and therefore happy and valued.

The problem is that it isn’t that easy. When you restrict your food, your body thinks it is going into starvation and will send out messages to crave foods loaded with fat to build up your stores.

When you don’t eat, you lack energy, and your body sends signals to you to crave sugar for energy bursts.

Ignoring those cravings can feel impossible. So, you eat and then the shame comes over you, berating yourself for not having the willpower and being greedy.

You start with the restriction again the next day. And it goes on…..and this can go on for years and years and years. The shame of having the eating disorder in the first place coupled with the shame of reaching out for help that many ex-boarders have can leave you trying to work this out on your own for years and years. You get stuck.

Unfortunately, often parents don’t notice the eating disorder beginning at school, literally not being there to notice what their child is eating or not eating. Even if aware, they may ignore the pain that is underneath the disorder only focusing on the weight gain or loss, again ignoring the pain that the child is unable to express in any other way.

If you find yourself currently in this cycle, please seek support.

I was bulimic for 8 years after school before calling an eating disorders helpline, believing each day I will sort it out on my own. From the day I made that call, everything changed for me and I began counselling. I discovered feelings I did not know I had and found other ways to manage those urges when they came. The first step is sharing it with somebody and lifting the shame. You found a way to cope and maybe it isn't serving you so well now.

I know how hard it is for an ex-boarder to ask for help, so making that call in the first place is such a huge step. You won’t regret it.

If you are interested in attending a workshop looking at Eating Disorders and Boarding School please drop me an email and I'll let you know when I will be doing it.

Resources below.

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