Opinion

Real talk, not Toilet Talk Discuss disordered eating with sensitivity

The Vanguard applauds the Peer Counselors for taking on the important topic of disordered eating, a topic that warrants recognition. But the recent “toilet talk” flyers distributed throughout the Upper School (US) bathrooms left several students uncomfortable and unhappy and risked encouraging the exact behavior they sought to prevent.

The flyer prominently displayed the words “Disordered Eating” and listed an exhaustive catalogue of over 10 different symptoms and varieties of eating disorders. Buzz words such as “purging” or “yo-yo dieting” abounded. For students with a history of disordered eating or with body image struggles, such a detailed flyer felt distressing and “in your face,” literally, since it was posted on mirrors and the backs of stall doors.

Emma Shakarshy, the Youth Outreach Coordinator at Proud2BMe —an organization spreading awareness about eating disorders— spoke to The Huffington Post about how best to talk about eating disorders and recommended avoiding specific details, such as methods of dieting and names of specific disorders. Relaying personal narratives relatable to those struggling is more constructive, she said, adding that talking about eating disorders the wrong way can be extremely harmful to those at risk of falling into old habits. 

The flyer included some of the very details Shakarshy warned against using. Additionally, the placement of the flyer all around the school in every bathroom—the very site where some of the unhealthy behavior described takes place—made escaping it difficult. For students who preferred not to be confronted by the topic, being in the bathroom was stressful. 

When students who objected to the flyer approached the Peer Counselors with their concerns, the Peer Counselors sent an email to the school saying that although the topic was sensitive, they wanted to spread awareness within the school. But the concerned students, who wish to remain anonymous, said they objected not to the topic itself, or awareness, but to the way the topic was discussed. 

US Counselor Doug Neuman said that disordered eating is one of many topics that cycles through the toilet talks each year and that students often request more in-school talk and education about the topic. Informing students about the signs and symptoms as well as about how to support friends has been helpful, he added.

Mr. Neuman acknowledged the feedback that the traditional bathroom placement of the “toilet talk” could be problematic, but he also said he doesn’t believe the flyer would encourage unhealthy behavior in anyone who wasn’t already engaging in it. The flyer would help more people find positive resources than it would encourage to engage in unhealthy behavior, he said; the more we inform, the better.

The Vanguard agrees. But to ensure the safety of all students, we urge more caution and sensitivity in future discussions about eating disorders. Talking about eating disorders in a less confrontational manner—in person, in a way that reminds struggling students that they are not alone and that eating disorders can be overcome—would be far more productive in connecting those affected with the resources they need.

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