Special Education


Teaching Students with Mental Health Disorders:
Resources for Teachers: Volume 1 - Eating Disorders

Reflection: Attitudes Toward Food, Weight and Body Image

To understand what is and is not an eating disorder can be difficult. North American culture is preoccupied with food, weight and body image. Advertising, fashion and entertainment all present idealized images of the food we eat and a body shape that few can achieve, making almost everyone susceptible to our culture’s messages. However, during the last few years, some basic assumptions, or “myths,” about the relationship between food, weight and body image have begun to be questioned.

Please take a moment to reflect on each statement below to decide whether it is a myth or the truth.

  1. What media presents is a real picture of our culture.
  2. Anybody can be slim.
  3. Slender people are happier and more successful.
  4. People who are overweight become and remain so because they eat excessively and lack self-control.
  5. Being overweight is a health hazard.

Reflection Check: Myths about Food, Weight and Body Image

Each of the preceding statements is a “myth.” Were you surprised by some of your answers? Whether we are aware of it or not, we often hold faulty beliefs about dieting, weight loss and body image. People with eating disorders are subjected to the same kinds of social pressures as the rest of us. Often, however, they lack the positive support network and coping skills that allow others to resist the onset of an eating disorder. The preceding statements underscore some of the deep-rooted values and beliefs we all share about the issues that drive students with eating disorders: personal pride, self-esteem and body image.

The myths surrounding food, weight and body image are very pervasive in today’s society.

Many of these myths and ideals have very little basis in fact, and are indicative of social pressures and learned attitudes.

Myth #1: What media presents is a real picture of our culture.

Fact: The message of today’s media, if left unchallenged, is that what is presented is a true reflection of the culture in which we live. Every day, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet and advertising present the message that to be valued, one must be attractive, slim and youthful. Being thin has become synonymous with “always on a diet.” The target audience of advertisements for fashion, exercise and food products is almost exclusively youth, particularly young women. Exposure to such pervasive messaging can influence students to diet and can create excessive desire to achieve the images presented by media-constructed role models. For some people, this leads to extremes of disordered eating.

What the media presents is a “construction” of reality, shaped by careful image creation and editing. Media literacy skills can help students to become active consumers of today’s media, making informed choices about what they see, hear and read.

Myth #2: Anybody can be slim.

Fact: An individual’s body weight is naturally resistant to change, as it is tied to metabolism, body type and other genetic factors. Each body has a weight range where it naturally tends to stay. Dieting has an adverse affect in that it changes the way the body responds to calories. When deprived of calories, the body assumes it is starving and will defend the body fat that is left by burning the calories available more slowly.

Myth #3: Slender people are happier and more successful.

Fact: Despite a concerted effort by an individual with an eating disorder to attain the elusive feelings of happiness and success, the obsessive nature of the conditions results in the opposite outcome. Feelings of shame, inadequacy and the drive for perfection result in withdrawal from friends, family and pleasurable activities — the very things that promote healthy feelings of happiness and success.

Myth #4: People who are overweight become and remain so because they eat excessively and lack self-control.

Fact: Many mistakenly believe that overweight people lack self-control, that they eat too much, or are just plain lazy. In reality, most people who are large eat no more than people of normal weight. Many large people are a product of their genes, or altered body chemistry. It is now known that years of repeated and strenuous patterns of dieting and exercise, often called yo-yo dieting, can result in cumulative weight gain over time.

Myth #5: Being overweight is a health hazard.

Fact: While having excess weight may increase the risk of some health problems, it may also decrease the risk of others. People come in all shapes and sizes. Neither starving nor force-feeding will change the fundamental genetic and metabolic predispositions that determine body size and shape. While all people can lower their health risks through proper nutrition and regular exercise, most evidence indicates that neither shape nor size, in itself, poses a significant health risk.

Many mistakenly believe that overweight people lack self-control, that they eat too much, or are just plain lazy. In reality, most people who are large eat no more than people of normal weight.