At a middle school I recently visited, I learned that cool girls skip lunch. Girls complained to me about being famished by dinner time, overeating, and not understanding why. They were fearful of eating in front of their peers. These girls were in seventh grade.
On the road visiting middle and high schools in the U.S. and internationally, I have met kids who won't eat cookies or sweets out of fear of being fat, kids who diet, and kids who purge. I've listened to kids talk about how difficult it is to feel like their value lies in living up to unrealistic standards set by adults, peers, and of course, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry.
I am sensitive to this issue, not just because of my line of work, but because I was affected by it myself. A nationally ranked swimmer at sixteen, I battled eating disorders for over a decade and know the suffering of masking pain with perfectionism and self-harming behavior all too well.
When out for a walk last week, I came across a high school cross country team in training. Clusters of fit boys and girls covered the trail as the coach bicycled next to them. The back of the coach's t-shirt read: Puke On Your Own Time.
I get that the saying, "Puke on your own time," was supposed to refer to a state of athletic toughness, but no longer does it mean just that. Given that cross-country is considered a high-risk sport as far as propensity towards eating disorders is concerned, some of that coach's athletes could have been puking on their own time.
Body image and self-esteem are not just "girl issues"; boys experience them, as well. After a school assembly I did in Oklahoma City, I talked with two football players about how they had to gain weight to be good linemen and when wrestling season came, they had to lose weight to make the lower weight brackets. With innocent looks in their eyes, they asked how they are supposed to ever feel good just the way they are, excel in sports, and be healthy.
We must be more careful with our teens. Teenagers are tough, but they are still children. Athletes or not, kids are facing pressure to be perfect and meet unrealistic expectations like never before.
"At least one-fourth of all U.S. teenage girls are suffering from self-mutilation, eating disorders, significant depression, or serious consideration of suicide...And the rest of the girls, the ones who escape the clinical label, are hardly home free. Too many of them are struggling with hatred of their bodies, obsessive dieting...and the persistent sense that they just aren't good enough," notes Stephen Hinshaw, PhD., in his book, The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls From Today's Pressures.
My mission is not to halt the discomfort of adolescence but to help make it more bearable and understood. Sufferers are in hiding because the world has not made it safe for them to ask for help.
Skipping lunch is not cool at all. In creating a safe space to talk about these issues, I have started to hear the truth. It is time for us to listen.
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