For as long as she can remember, Chloe* has experienced issues when it comes to her body image. “I have a hard time loving my body when my family members make me feel really insecure about it … I wish that one day I feel confident [enough] in myself that I will not feel the need to work out every time I eat a brownie,” said Chloe.
Unhealthy eating habits are not limited to widely known diseases such as anorexia and bulimia. Many other actions constitute dangerous eating behaviors, but may not necessarily be categorized as a generic eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders are classified as “extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.” For example, simply skipping lunch to see a teacher could become a difficult pattern to break and lead to something more severe. Body dysmorphic disorder is when one perceives something about him/herself one way, but others see it differently. People with this disorder might believe that they are overweight, when in reality, they are of average weight.
Body dysmorphic disorder differs from an eating disorder. “Typically, if you have an eating disorder, you have body dysmorphic disorder, but you can have body dysmorphic disorder without having an eating disorder,” explained SHS health teacher Jessica Levenberg. While eating disorders usually constitute continual behavior in relation to poor eating habits, “people might do what I refer to as a ‘distorted eating behavior’ where you do unhealthy things either to maintain or lose weight, but it may not meet the criteria for an eating disorder,” stated Levenberg.
Many cultural aspects of living in Scarsdale also contribute to abnormal eating patterns. Scarsdale is infamous for encouraging students to fulfill unrealistic expectations; whether that’s in regards to grades or physical appearance, students feel an immense amount of pressure to embody a certain level of perfection. “I think for me, the obsession with attainment and achievement that Scarsdale High School promotes has been the largest contributor to my body image,” said Zoe*. Since her freshman year, Zoe couldn’t help but compare herself to her friends and other classmates. Everyone seemed to be developing much slower than she was and, from early on, she felt different. “I derived some strange satisfaction in succeeding in altering my body—it was the kind of instant gratification and achievement that people find in any other kind of unhealthy addiction.” noted Zoe.
Zoe quickly discovered that it’s easy to be self conscious when you stand out. “I felt uncomfortable in my skin. And as time moved on, I dreamed of being the girl who remained childlike and thin through the years,” remembered Zoe. She especially started to notice the intense atmosphere of Scarsdale High School during her junior year when many of her friends used studying as an excuse to stop eating. The abundance of stress led students to become dependent on their unhealthy eating habits. Zoe has been out of recovery for a year and a half, but when she was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, she was very insistent on not sharing this news with her friends at school for fear of her ‘perfect’ image being shattered. Today she still struggles with the unrealistic ideals Scarsdale sets,“I have to tell myself to ignore the value placed on achievement. And that is especially difficult, since everything in this town is made tangible through achievement,” noted Zoe.
Another factor that can lead to SHS students developing body insecurities is the lack of diversity present when it comes to body type in Scarsdale. “So if everyone has straight hair or is very thin, or if everyone is muscular for a boy, then you may feel pressure to look that way,” shared Lauren Pomerantz. The “common” look of Scarsdale students often forces others who look different to feel that the way they appear isn’t good enough. “Sometimes it just feels like everyone is skinny except you, you know? Like you look at someone else and then look at yourself and you’re just like, ‘Wow. I really should start dieting again.’” said Ava*, who feels that the similar ‘look’ of people in Scarsdale has a negative effect on body image.
Zoe and Chloe are not the only people who have noticed students being overly concerned with their weight. “With the constant push to ‘be thin or be a size 2,’ [it’s easy] to compare yourself to the Victoria Secret model on your TV screen,” remarked Harper*. The society and media exposure students face is often a component of what drives the unhealthy relationship with body image and can sometimes lead to a more serious disorder.
Zoe, amongst others, feels that “…access to gyms, personal trainers, fashion culture in NYC, and the endless money that funds these causes exacerbates our susceptibility to negative body image.” The combination of striving for perfection and availability of costly “diet food” intensifies the vulnerability of Scarsdale students to participate in an unhealthy relationship with their bodies. Due to Scarsdale being an affluent community, emphasis is often put on annual social events such as our weekend long Halloween celebration, involving two or three costume changes, the extravagant Senior Spring break trip to the Bahamas, and, of course, prom.
Caroline* first began feeling the pressure to lose weight right before embarking on her trip to the Bahamas with her friends. She and her friends went on extreme diets, sometimes eating fewer than two meals a day, both of which consisted mostly of salad. She and her friends also exercised obsessively in the weeks leading up to their trip. Caroline and her friends didn’t find this sudden change in behavior troubling, “Everyone did it. We were just trying to be skinny so we could be ‘Baha ready,’” stated Caroline. This unhealthy “binge” dieting has become the norm in Scarsdale, especially in terms of preparation for such social events.“There is a range of unhealthy eating and disordered thinking that might not qualify as an eating disorder, and I think that many students fall into that category. It’s more of an unhealthy relationship with your body image,” noted SHS youth outreach worker Lauren Pomerantz.
Living in the competitive environment of Scarsdale, students often feel pressured by their parents to not only do well in school, but also to maintain a specific body type. Parents categorically want the best for their children, but the desire to achieve a perfect life can become convoluted and translate into a harsh, negative outcome for their children. Chloe revealed that the fear of body shaming, which has been instilled by her parents for as long as she can remember, pushes her to dedicate her time to exercising. In addition to exercising, from an early age she was taught to watch what she ate and be aware of how she looked. “My mom always makes sure that there is space between my thighs and that I only have one chin,” reflected Chloe. Chloe is expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps by working out excessively and leading an overly healthy lifestyle. Chloe says that sometimes, her mother pressures her to go on a run twice in one day. The pressure that is put on Chloe by her mom to look a certain way does not motivate her to remain healthy, but forces her to look at her body negatively.
Although Zoe never felt direct pressure from her family to maintain a specific weight, their habits and interests had a long lasting effect on her health choices. “When my dad casually mentioned that he wanted to lose weight, and my brother started choosing the foods he wanted to eat to increase muscle mass, I was undeniably impacted,” noted Zoe. Her family always wanted the best for her, but they were unaware that their own words were encouraging her to question her body and to partake in dangerous eating habits.
“Generally, parents want their kids to be happy, but there are parents whose own interests or feelings about their own body could transfer onto students,” said Lauren Pomerantz. But sometimes these intentions can go awry, as experienced by SHS alumni, Amanda*. She felt that her Mom was constantly comparing her appearance to her friends’ in order to drive her to look more like them, thus forcing Amanda to have negative feelings about her body. “I’ve gotten over it with time and I’m more accepting of myself now but it used to be pretty bad and I was really self conscious for a while.” noted Amanda. Parents who engage in “body shaming” towards their child often do not realize that although they want the best for their child, what they are doing is harmful, and it may physically and emotionally impact their child in the long run. “My mom … asks me to come to Soul Cycle with her and says it’s for ‘mother daughter bonding’, but I know she just wants me to work out,” remembered Amanda. She grew up listening to her mother ask, “are you sure you want to eat that?” every time she picked up something unhealthy. Amanda feels less pressure from her mother to maintain a specific weight now that she’s in college. “I always tell her to stop trying to control me because she makes me really upset, but she just says she wants me to be healthy,” said Amanda.
Amanda’s mother, Kim*, tells a different story. Kim shared that she does not know of any moms who put pressure on their children, but that they just want their kids to stay in good shape. “I never tried to make Amanda feel self conscious about herself. It never really seemed like a big problem with her, but if it did, of course I would talk to her about it,” said Kim. She understands why her children wanted to diet in preparation for social events, “It makes sense that they want to look their best.” Kim doesn’t think that dieting in preparation for Prom or Baha is dangerous or problematic, which is perhaps part of the problem. In Scarsdale it has been disguised as the “norm” to go on extreme diets around certain times of year in order to lose weight quickly.
Ava’s parents are health obsessed, and they want her to be like that too. “Occasionally, my mom will say something like ‘you have such a pretty face, if only you lost a few pounds…’ It’s the stuff like that really hurts and affects how I see myself,” noted Ava. She remembers a time at the beach with her family when she was wearing a bikini. “My mom said something like, ‘you have back fat now, you know.’ That kinda sucked,” recalled Ava. She revealed to us that every day one of her parents encourages her to go for a run, and have apples as a snack after school instead of cookies. In addition, Ava’s mom tries to prevent her from wearing baggy clothes because it makes her body look larger.
Not everyone in Scarsdale is necessarily aware that these issues are present in our school. “I think it’s like a lot of issues, where if you’re not directly affected by it, or no one in your group of friends that you know of, you could get through this place thinking no one has an eating disorder,” observed Pomerantz. While it is evident that body dysmorphic disorder may not be as chronic as a textbook eating disorder, it is extremely prevalent within our community but often goes under the radar.
Although body dysmorphic disorder is widespread throughout SHS, education about this issue is not as commonly found among students, “As far as education of what is an eating disorder, I do think people know,” said Pomerantz. Although people do know what an eating disorder is, often times, they don’t know what classifies as body dysmorphia. Education about well-known eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and other lesser known body image issues, should be made mandatory through seminars and assemblies held at the school. Attention should be brought to the signals of an eating ailment and how one could recognize if someone they know has issues with their own body image. Even if a person doesn’t having an eating disorder, the ability to recognize the signs of one could, potentially save the life of a friend.
Body dysmorphia, and the eating disorders it can lead to, may seem foreign and obsolete in a setting like Scarsdale. However, it does happen and it is serious. Someone may make a joke or say something offensive about an eating disorder or body image issue that one of their friends is secretly a victim of. Without education of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder, detrimental events could transpire. All SHS students need to be aware of the presence of eating disorders in our town because, without this consciousness, students who may covertly experience issues with their body image may never discover the help and support that they need to recover, and the results could be fatal.
*name used to indicate anonymity
by Lena Glickman, Arin Hendell, Talia Potters, and Sammy Thurm