Eating Disorders a Hidden Issue at Boarding Schools

Nearly one out of every five girls at Phillips Academy has experienced an eating disorder, according to The Phillipian’s State of the Academy survey conducted last spring. Overall, 10.5 percent of the 743 student respondents said they had been treated for or experienced an eating disorder. But of the 390 female respondents, 17.2 percent checked yes. “It is a problem that has not diminished in the 15 years that I’ve been here,” said Dr. Richard Keller, School Physician. “Most people don’t have eating disorders, but they aren’t rare. I don’t think they’re more prevalent here [than elsewhere],” he said. Agatha Kip, a nutritionist, Registered Dietitian and former house counselor, said, “It’s sometimes a little awkward in the dorms, because you may not have even thought much about a certain topic, but a whole bunch of people in your dorm are talking about what size clothing or what size biceps [they have].” Dr. Carol Israel, Graham House Counselor, said, “Everyone here gets a lot of stress. But I wouldn’t say boarding school aggravates the situation.” Isham Health Center and Graham House Counseling Center receive information about students with eating disorders in a variety of ways. Many students, house counselors and faculty express concerns about their friends or students with an eating condition. “If it becomes that there is real concern about this student, that the student is not eating, that the student is binging and throwing up – those kinds of behaviors – we can say you have to go and talk with someone, at least an initial visit,” said Adams Hall House Counselor Leislie Godo-Solo. Catherine Roden, a Paul Revere House Counselor, said, “As a house counselor and a teacher and coach it is imperative that I look out for it. It is such a deadly disorder and can have long-term lasting impacts. I don’t think it’s necessarily on the rise, but it is definitely an issue that needs to be monitored.” “I think the faculty is very aware of [eating disorders],” she continued. “It’s suggested that we talk to a health counselor or someone at Graham House.” Parents may also inform the health centers of their children’s eating disorder history before the start of school. “Parents are not required to [disclose former or current eating disorders], but it really helps us,” said Israel. According to Keller, if he were to notice someone who looked underweight, he himself may recommend that the student visit Isham for a checkup. Keller also said that, of the eating disorder cases, there were about as many known cases of bulimia as anorexia. Bulimia proves harder to detect, according to both Israel and Keller, as the condition does not necessarily involve losing significant weight. Most cases of bulimia are therefore discovered through the concerns of friends and house counselors. “[Being bulimic] simply means the person consumes a lot of calories and burns a lot of calories,” said Israel. Some students, however, report themselves out of exhaustion and frustration with their eating habits, Israel said. Keller said, “Kids just realize that it’s just not working and they ask for help.” An Upper girl, who is a former bulimic, spoke to The Phillipian in hopes that others would get help as well. She was one student who asked Graham House for help. She said, “I pretty much said I want to deal with this and I don’t want my parents involved or the school involved. [The counselor at Graham House and the nutritionist] said if it didn’t get worse they could do that.” “The school is really understanding when it comes to eating disorders and not letting people find out and keeping the person from getting in trouble,” she said. In the case of anorexia, students rarely ask for help on their own, according to Israel and Keller. “That’s part of the disorder, not recognizing the need to get better,” said Keller. “They’re anorexic for a reason,” said Israel. “[Students with anorexia] think they can never get too thin. They have a distorted self-image.” According to Keller, eating disorder cases at Phillips Academy are almost exclusively of girls, as girls are usually subjected to more pressure related to body image. Nana Matsushita ’09 said, “At Andover I don’t think peer pressure is a big part of it because I think we’re a pretty accepting community…It’s more self-imposed pressure by not looking like what you think other people or your friends look like.” Boys tend to have fewer cases of eating disorders, according to Israel; most cases of eating disorders among boys can be attributed to athletic pressures, though such pressures can affect girls as well. Emerson Stoldt ’09 said, “I don’t think there’s a lot of guys with real eating disorders but there’s some guys – not for self-image but for athletics – who won’t eat enough or will eat too much depending on what their sport is. Some football guys eat two meals at dinner. Some wrestlers eat…a grapefruit for dinner.” But Keller does not believe that sports initiate eating disorders. “Sports don’t create the condition. [People with eating disorders] find expression of their eating disorder through sports,” he said. Although Graham House and Isham do not monitor high-risk sports, such as cross country and crew, according to Israel, the coaches remain aware of the potential risk for athletes of developing an eating disorder. Wrestling, a sport in which athletes are divided by weight class, is one of the few sports that monitor its athletes, for both practical and safety reasons. “Who you compete against is determined by your weight,” said Alex Gottfried ’09, a varsity wrestler. There are 14 different weight classes, starting from the 103 lb. weight class, up to the 285 lb. weight class, according to Gottfried. In order to be in a certain weight class, athletes must weight less than the maximum weight. “We weigh ourselves before and after every practice. I think [the coaches] just want to keep track of how much we weigh, for meets and such,” said Gottfried. “They do measure your body fat for safety reasons. They won’t let you go under a certain level of body fat.” Stoldt, a wrestler, once took drastic measures in order to make a lower weight class for a meet. “For breakfast I’d have an apple and glass of orange juice. No lunch, and for dinner I’d just have really small portions,” he said. “I was losing weight and I was at the right weight on Wednesday when we would’ve had the match. I was sick that week though. The morning of weigh in on Saturday the coach told me to go to Isham. Probably part of [my sickness] was due to not eating right.” Gottfried, however, called these instances “exceptions, not the rule.” “I think the program is responsible in that they don’t make people wrestle in weight classes that are unsafe for them,” he said. “I know that’s not necessarily true for other high schools.”