Health Class Taught Me How To Have An Eating Disorder

People have accused "For the Love of Nancy" of encouraging eating disorders. In my case at least, they are right.

Oct 17, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Tracey Gold introduced me to eating disorders when her movie, "For the Love of Nancy," a story about overcoming anorexia, was screened in my ninth-grade health class.

Around me, in the semi-darkness of the classroom all of the girls watched, rapt, as she demonstrated how important it was for her to be skinny and to feel in control of her weight. When the movie showed people reacting in horror to Tracy’s thin frame we surreptitiously poked at our own stomachs and were for the first time disturbed by what we found there.

After the movie was finished and the lights came on our health teacher filled us in on the gritty details that the movie had left out. On the blackboard, she listed a menu of tantalizing options. You could be anorexic, or bulimic, or even a combination of the two. You could exercise compulsively and eat only onions dipped in yellow mustard or you could appear to be eating normally when in fact your were just chewing your food until your saliva ran with the flavor of it and then spitting it into a paper napkin. The possibilities were endless!

We were warned of the dangers of laxatives, amphetamines -- which apparently made you confident and skinny -- and ipecac syrup which none of us had ever heard of, but were suddenly fascinated with.

Lest we forget these valuable lessons, it turned out that "For the Love of Nancy" was only a primer to an entire eating disorder unit, which went on for months. Had one of us already been suffering from anorexia, this may have served as a much needed wake-up call and a reason to reach out for help. Unfortunately, for those of us who hadn't yet considered slimming down, the movie ended up serving not so much as a warning but an instruction manual on how to develop an unhealthy relationship with food.

The point of the movie may have been that her eating disorder was killing her, but you try explaining imminent death to a 14 -year-old. Plus, she got all that attention from it (something that seems like it might be fun when you are a kid and not already in the throes of illness). Even the inevitable hospital stay didn’t seem so bad to me. Who wouldn’t want an eating disorder the way it was presented in school? Tracey Gold had one for Chrissake, and she was a celebrity.

This was deep in the era of Calvin Klein and heroin chic. The healthy body was not “in” at the moment. Our teacher may have been saying this was bad for us, but she had unwittingly given us a taste of how to be cool and glamorous right here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

To make matters worse, Health class was right before lunch. My group of friends would trudge to the cafeteria, our minds still swimming with images of young women’s ribcages and vomit stored in Tupperware containers.

“What do you suppose it means, she grew hair all over her body?” we’d ask each other looking down at our own food, suddenly not hungry.

Among my group of friends, one girl’s food issues were by far the worst. Jen was loudly cultivating her own eating obsessions and she began to manage ours like it was her job. She shamed us when we ate.

“I can’t believe you can do that,” she’d say when one of us had a cookie.

Some days we went out for lunch.

“I feel fat,” Jen would announce as we trekked across the frozen tundra that was the upper classmen’s parking lot to get pizza.

We’d groan. “You’re not fat,” we’d reassure her.

But by the time we reached the pizza parlor, most of us would have already decided to order a side salad and bread sticks just in case we were. We began to watch each other at the lunch table, silently competing to see who could consume the fewest bites of food.

I started drinking Diet Coke --  a bad habit that I am still trying to kick. I would spend the last two hours of school weak and irritable from hunger. In our confused and now malnourished minds this obsession only grew. We taped photos of Kate Moss to our locker doors and did our own research at the library. We compared weights.

One day, as I picked at my bagel, my friend announced that she had tried, and failed, to throw up. This is dangerous, I remember thinking. But what is more appealing to a Midwestern teenager than a little danger? Besides, everybody was doing it.

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have even considered an eating disorder if it hadn’t been for that health class. I was an only child and my learning curve for things like that was very low. Maybe eventually I would have realized that people had them. But I think if Jen had just announced to me that she thought we should all lose weight, I would have told her she was crazy. Health class, without meaning to, had legitimized it and so had Tracey Gold, smiling on the cover of People saying she was a survivor at 94 pounds up from 80.

According to Divya Kakaiya, PhD, in her "Tips for School Personnel on Teaching Eating Disorders Curriculum "The majority of people with eating disorders will tell you that they learned their tricks on what to do from the movies. ... Most people who develop anorexia or bulimia will say they knew the purpose of the movie was to deter them from developing an eating disorder. They just left with a message that here was a brand new way to lose weight they had never thought of before."

I was never as disciplined as Nancy and eventually my issues with food were replaced -- lucky for me they were not exacerbated -- with problems involving men and jobs and friends. But it was a confusing time I will always partially blame on eating disorder education.

Is teaching kids so explicitly about eating disorders dangerous? And if so, what's the alternative?