Disordered Eating At Poly

In the Poly Prep community, there are students who just eat apples for lunch… or nothing at all. There are students as young as 10 learning that, at Poly, it is embarrassing to get two servings of lunch and are ashamed of eating three meals a day. There are endless conversations about weight—how a fellow student “became skinny” over the summer, how a student-athlete just “didn’t have time to eat today.” Our self-worth is diminished to a number on a scale. Eating disorders have plagued Poly culture for too long, affecting sports, academics, and overall mood. It is time to address the issue.

While disordered eating is a societal issue, Poly students have become uniquely susceptible. Starting with tracking daily food intake in Middle School health class, Poly students are raised insulated in a culture obsessed with keeping tabs on food. In previous years of freshman health, students covered the topic by watching a documentary detailing the stories of ill and fragile women struggling to recover in a treatment center. It’s deeply unsettling, depicting the most grim moments of their struggles from restriction, to purging, to weight on the scale—extreme starvation and all. The ending highlights that most women were readmitted to the hospital just to die a few months later. While likely intended to scare students away from disordered eating, it’s an ineffective approach towards combating a mental illness. Not only does the movie teach students disordered practices, but it also gives students the impression that you have to be on death’s door to have a problem. 

Dieting as a teenager is certainly a problem and is further exacerbated by the lack of adequate eating opportunities throughout the day. A 30-minute lunch forces a difficult tradeoff between doing homework, meeting with teachers, or eating; it’s barely enough time for students to choke down a serving and certainly not enough time for students who struggle to eat in the first place. Furthermore, the shutdown of vending machines and long after-school snack lines pose a challenge for those rushing off to sports practices. The promotion of exercise and peak physical shape, relating athleticism to self-worth, only makes it worse. Working out for two-plus hours a day is not healthy or sustainable, yet many students who read this would probably disagree as exercise culture at Poly feeds them the idea that free time should be spent on a treadmill. When students finally return home, they often do not have time to eat and complete homework. This generates the vicious cycle of skipping meals, overeating, and prioritizing everything over the health of our bodies.

Poly must realize the seriousness and pervasiveness of disordered eating at our school. It needs to be treated as the urgent disease it is, not as a choice to waste food, as suggested at a recent assembly concerning students throwing out whole sandwiches. Students should leave Poly with the skills to develop a healthy relationship with food and an understanding that an eating disorder doesn’t always look like the skeleton stereotype. Peers and adults need to reach out and offer mental health support to those struggling. Lunch time needs to be longer, meal options must continue to have variety (let’s not result back to the caesar salad and educational snacks every day phase), and the vending machines need to be restocked with bags of chips, not 70-calorie diet brownies. The 70-minute periods should be reconsidered. While athletics and academics are important, coincidentally, it is athletics and academics that directly bear the impacts of eating disorders and their detriment to these students’ mental health.

All this being said, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for change. Sarah Zuercher, Poly’s director of health and wellness, has redesigned, alongside other faculty, the freshman health curriculum to include a more holistic and effective approach towards preventing and combating these potentially deadly illnesses. This year, freshmen will learn the impact of social media on body image and diet culture. They will discuss disordered eating, what symptoms are, how COVID-19 has contributed to an increase in eating disorders among adolescents, and how to help a friend. This is a great step forward, but this does not make up for all those who have suffered. Too many have suffered for years without support. While Poly preaches “mind, body, character,” our minds should never come second to achieving the “perfect” bodies.