Mental heath matters: Elementary school and eating disorders

What was elementary school like? What about fifth or sixth grade? Whether your experiences manifested in math homework completed at utmost ease, or the petty, yet easily fixed arguments between you and your best friends, it is safe to say that your time in elementary school days were far simpler and more carefree than that…
<a href="" target="_self">Anna Harberger</a>

Anna Harberger

March 1, 2018

What was elementary school like? What about fifth or sixth grade? Whether your experiences manifested in math homework completed at utmost ease, or the petty, yet easily fixed arguments between you and your best friends, it is safe to say that your time in elementary school days were far simpler and more carefree than that of high school.

For the 40 to 60 percent of children in elementary school who have struggled or are struggling because of eating disorders, however, labeling those years as something to remember as stress free and enjoyable, is not so easy.

While most 11 and 12-year-olds spent their time trading Spongebob themed Silly Bandz and having fierce debates about who won the handball tournament during recess, I, like so many other young girls and boys in elementary school affected by eating disorders, depression and other mental illnesses, went about each day utterly miserable.

So angry and completely discontented about the way I looked, I spent many precious minutes of my childhood counting and calculating every calorie, as I continued to blight my still developing 11-year-old body; infected also, was my spirit.

Trapped and suffocated, the self-loathing I inflicted upon myself everyday turned into a dangerous, draining burden. I had to assure my mother that I was just “stressed about school” and my father that I “just have a really bad headache,” or quickly fabricate some other excuse of that nature, just so I could justify of the cold, apathetic countenance that those around me assumed was Gorilla Glue-d to my visage, at this point.

The time spent reinforcing these dangerous, restrictive habits felt safer, more comfortable within the confines of social media, but when, on numerous occasions, I would find myself lashing out when my parents or friends, who were only concerned for my well being, or was attempting to inflict harm on myself, my situation escalated much further.

I distinctly remember going with a friend of mine to a rehearsal of a production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when I was helping fill in for absent cast members.

During a lunch break, which in it of itself was a stress-inducing part of the day, I sat in a circle with friends when the director approached me about learning dance numbers and the possibility of joining the cast permanently. In response, I was overcome with tears, that soon turned into sobs as I entered the restroom.

My eating disorder had twisted and manipulated and consumed so much of my being, my energy, and thoughts. I couldn’t even handle the idea of being part of a children’s show that, in the most benign way possibly, really glorified the one thing that inflicted so much anxiety upon me, which was food.

From the time we are born and we turned on movies about Disney princesses, bought Barbie or Ken dolls, or consumed any other kinds of media (television, commercials, magazine ads), we subconsciously have been taught what the world thinks is the right way to look.

These types of messages, both unforgiving and unrealistic images of what the ideal body is have been aggressively shoved down the throats young girls and boys. And as a result, teenagers feel insufficient.

Healthy boys and girls are now compelled to compare themselves constantly to retouched images that are stretched, stitched, and assembled, no longer resembling what is humanly achievable, like some kind of toxic, twisted Build-a-Bear type system.

Children are raised to feel disgusted about their bodies while they go through puberty or just because they aren’t stick thin, holding themselves to a standard of false perfection we’ve been taught to idolize.

I sought help through seeing a therapist because of pressure from my parents, who relentlessly told me I can’t let this monster be in control any longer — it was too dangerous. For me, having a person to talk to and plan how I was going to fight this was really beneficial, allowing me to start making positive, tangible change for myself.

Looking for support and guidance, social media, like Instagram and Tumblr, became a kind of cultish echo-chamber of teenagers who labeled themselves as “pro-ana” and/or “pro-mia,” promoters of anorexic or bulimic behaviors.

In finding a community where I actively had people encouraging me to persevere onward with this destructive lifestyle, my transformation from being an eager, untroubled, and curious person devolved into someone so frustrated and nervous; I became a person who radiated terribly negative energy and was often labeled timid or “mute” by my peers.

Now that I am in a much healthier, happier place, I can attest that there are so many different kinds of blogs and magazines and forums out there to celebrate and uplift women, men, and those who are gender nonconforming, regardless of their shape or size.

Articles and advice columns in online publications, like trailblazers of the Body Positivity movement, RookieMag, are here for support as they unapologetically break down rigid social constructs of how one is supposed to look in order to be accepted and treated with respect.

As she preaches “everyone’s body is beach ready” in an interview with i-D, activist and plus-size model Barbara Ferreira is one of many inspiring women who use their platform to liberate and empower people.

It is so crucial to remember what is most important: one’s happiness and health. As long as you are and feel healthy and are actively finding joy in the different facets of your life, no reason exists to feel anything less than truly blessed to be who you are.

At so many different crossroads of your life, at the different stages in which we develop, it is easy to lose track of yourself, to get lost desperately searching for ways to become the version of yourself you expected yourself to become.

Those kinds of unhealthy expectations are what blind people to just how appreciated and valued they are. Those kinds of unhealthy expectations are what make seeing beauty as something relative and completely unique to each being, something that should not be defined by the snide and sexist commentary plastered in People Magazine, virtually impossible.

It was through the help that I received through seeing a therapist and the perspective I was able to obtain through her support and that of friends and family, that I was able to get better. I understand how it is so much easier said than done, but it is so incredibly imperative you try your hardest to keep a level head and understand that the shackles of what was conventionally thought of as “pretty” are being shed.

As the individual, you must allow yourself to be the person who defines beauty through your own lense of your mind, heart and spirit.