Are High-Achieving Students More Likely to Have Eating Disorders?

By Anne Davies

Eating disorders are a major problem in our society – one which is growing all the time. Many blame the unrealistic portrayal of physical ‘perfection’ in the media for the rise, and there certainly seems to be little doubt that a sense of personal physical inadequacy and a need for ‘perfection’ are contributory factors in eating disorder development. Other theorized triggers for the development of an eating disorder include a history of being bullied, a poor social and/or home life, and genetic factors. However, what surprises many is the demographics of those who tend to suffer from eating disorders. Far from being a problem restricted to superficial teenage girls, the eating disorder spectrum encompasses a vast and growing range of people from all walks of life – and high-achieving students are particularly at risk.

students eating

Photo courtesy of Penn State via Flickr

Poor Stereotypes

Eating disorders are, unfairly, considered to be a disease suffered exclusively by teenage girls who are obsessed with their appearance above all else. Indeed, such girls are considered something of a cultural joke – the trope of superficial teenage cheerleaders heading merrily to the bathroom to throw up has been played for laughs many times. This is wrong on the one level – bulimia is a serious illness requiring extensive and intensive recovery. It should not be treated as a joke, no matter who is suffering from it. So ingrained is this stereotypical perception of eating disorder sufferers that many keep the fact that they are struggling with such conditions silent, so as not to be considered superficial. The former Deputy Prime Minister of Britain, John Prescott, revealed in 2008 that he had battled bulimia for ten years without breaking silence, as he was ‘ashamed’ of being high profile, high achieving, and male while suffering from the illness. More worryingly, the public’s reaction to the news proved him somewhat right – while many were sympathetic, others responded with incredulity and ridicule. This is deeply unfair. Not only is it cruel and unnecessary to mock someone with a serious illness, there is considerable evidence to suggest that high-profile high achievers like Prescott (and, on a lesser scale, valedictorians) are more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than many other groups.

Perfectionism

It’s all to do with perfectionism. Perfectionism is either a blessing or a curse, depending upon which aspect of your life you apply it to. Many valedictorians will recognize the urge to get things absolutely right 100% of the time. Being used to being good at academic matters, valedictorians sometimes find it hard to deal when they are bad at something – they aren’t used to it, and therefore haven’t built up the emotional software necessary to take the knocks and build from them. This is great when it comes to achieving in many areas of life – valedictorians are made from the kind of stuff that won’t back down from a challenge, and will persevere at something until they get it absolutely right. However, when one lets that perfectionism leak over into other life areas, things can go wrong – particularly when combined with the tendency to over-analyse which comes as part of the package for many high-achievers. Research is increasingly finding that obsessive perfectionism and over-analysis present a major risk for the development of eating disorders. If you can’t switch off and just let certain aspects of your life ‘be’, then you’ll start overanalyzing and trying to control every little thing, which can quickly lead to one becoming obsessively controlling about what they eat – particularly when combined with internal perfectionist pressure to look a certain way.

(Editor’s Note: Check out an article I wrote about students and perfectionism here.)

Control

High achievers often feel an intense amount of pressure – and it is well known that stress can manifest as disordered eating. When one feels pressured, one often feels that aspects of one’s life are spiralling out of control. An easy way to reassert control over one area at least of one’s life is through controlling one’s diet. One eating disorder which high-achievers are increasingly beginning to suffer from is a condition known as ‘orthorexia nervosa’. This manifests when a person becomes so absolutely obsessed with controlling the ‘purity’ of what they eat that their health (ironically) begins to suffer as a result. The degree of control required to sustain an orthorexic diet is phenomenal to the point of obsession, and ensures that the sufferer’s self-esteem quickly becomes dependent upon their diet. It’s frequently a slippery slope from orthorexia to anorexia or bulimia so, while it is of course very good indeed to watch what you eat and ensure that your food is healthy, if your diet starts controlling your life, take a step back and focus on more important things.

Self-Recognition

Perhaps the worst thing about developing an eating disorder is the impact which it has on the rest of your life. Remember, an eating disorder is primarily psychological – and it leaves little brain space for anything else. As such, your studies will naturally suffer while you battle the condition. It is vital, therefore, that you develop the self-knowledge necessary to recognize if and when your eating habits are becoming problematic. If you catch the tendencies early, and seek help as soon as possible, it will be much easier to break the condition and get your life back on track. Speaking out is the most important thing – no matter what sitcoms like Family Guy may claim, eating disorders are not a joke, and no medical professional or person who cares will laugh at you for having one. Help is available – just remember that your health is more important than your appearance!

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