School, Eating Disorders, and Academic Achievement: A Formula for Failure

Most parents don’t like to watch their children suffer. When parents encounter a suffering son or daughter they become solution-oriented, looking for the quickest means of alleviating the problem. Parents who have a child with an eating disorder are the same. Unfortunately, the problem in using this tactic with a child who suffers with an eating disorder is that the sufferer develops complicated and often distorted thought processes. As a result, what appears to be the logical and quick solution to a problem may produce the opposite effect in an individual with an eating disorder. In fact, an individual with an eating disorder can twist perfectly normal and loving statements into negative affirmations of self that trigger greater entrenchment into the eating disorder. Thought distortion in an eating disorder sufferer affects every aspect of their life, especially behavior and achievement in the socially intensive environment of school. One of the ways parents unknowingly promote increased entrenchment in their child’s eating disorder is to encourage their continued and even enhanced involvement in school with hopes that it will eliminate the problem when, at the same time, the child is actively distorting the messages they receive because of the eating disorder.


An eating disorder sufferer is a contradiction in behaviors. An individual who is deeply entrenched in a disorder displays a set of characteristics diametrically opposed to their behavior when not suffering with the disorder. They become listless, withdrawn, emotionally numb, unexpressive, disinterested in activities, anti-social, and incapable of concentrating. Once they work through their distorted thinking they revert back to their real selves – sensitive, intelligent, outgoing, involved in many activities that reveal their many talents, able to focus on multiple projects, and very giving and loving.

Amy is a beautiful and gifted senior in high school. She is a cheerleader, the English Sterling Scholar from her school, writes beautiful poetry and stories, and is very active in school affairs. Amy has rebounded from an eating disorder that completely disrupted her life. She writes,

“Eating disorders are born, raised, and sustained by negativity; it is the bitterness I experienced with my eating disorder that allows me to appreciate and savor sweetness much more than I did before… Like any addict or substance abuser…I refused to think I had a problem. Not until I had been hospitalized for nearly three months…did I realize the horrific consequences brought about by my eating disorder. It had made me into the person I strived NEVER to become: I fought with my parents, I said things I will forever regret, I lied, I stole, I slipped in my studies, I isolated myself, twice I was tempted with suicide….ultimately, everything I had worked for and wanted was either gone or going as a result of my eating disorder. I lived in a grey haze which never cleared and allowed the little light left in my life to wane systematically.”

The contrast between ED behaviors and healthy behaviors are drastic and frightening. Parents who witness this transformation in their child’s behavior, from a bright, energetic, and out going person to the opposite, react with a swift desire to alter the trend. Unfortunately, very often the tried and tested methods of eliminating suffering and changing undesirable behaviors are the very things that make the disorder worse. Telling a daughter, “You are beautiful and don’t worry!” usually is interpreted as, “She feels she needs to say that because I am so ugly,” and the command, “Eat all the food on your plate!” may be interpreted as, “My parents want me to be fat and unpopular at school.”


One of the most obvious evidences of something going wrong in the sufferer’s life is the impact the disorder has on school achievement. The sufferer’s normally very good grades start to slip. They begin to withdraw from activities and become more antisocial. They lose interest in school subjects and extracurricular activities. They lose their ability to focus on important projects, papers, and tests. They become much more sensitive to what is going on around them and what others may be thinking about them.

“I could not stay focused on my school studies. My concentration level was terrible and I could never read book assignments without my thoughts wandering. I was always too tired to stay awake, and more often than not my head was on the desk top sleeping. All of my energy went towards my eating disorder. It was first priority.” – 19-year old woman

“My concentration level decreased, I skipped classes, isolated myself from friends, and didn’t care about grades. I went from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s.” – High School Junior

School is a quick-paced, unrelenting, socially competitive, and demanding environment. When you combine this with the changes that are taking place in the lives and bodies of young men and women, it becomes a potentially threatening and frightening place. If an individual starts to wonder and worry about their social and intellectual status, the school environment can become a very intimidating place. For an individual suffering from an ED the school environment is filled with messages that can be twisted and confused. The whole experience can become too overwhelming to bear.

“My anorexia destroyed my concentration, my drive, my love of school, and my performance in classes. Education no longer played a vital role in my life. My anorexia preoccupied and consumed all of my time, leaving little time for school and studies. Anxiety-producing stress only exacerbated my anorexia, which, in turn hindered my performance.” – College Freshman

Parents looking for the quickest and most logical means to alleviate the disruption of anorexia or bulimia causes in the family encourage their eating disordered child to become more involved and to work harder to display their natural talents and abilities in their school settings – Talents they know their children have because they have observed them for years. The child unable to cope with the negativity they sense all around them in school, reacts in the opposite manner and starts to withdraw and shut down even more. They know what they feel and are confused about their inability to cope with the seemingly simple solutions their parents offer. They very naturally start to believe that something is wrong with them, i.e., that they are a social outcast, unable to fit in, and undeserving of good things.

“My eating disorder destroyed school for me. I hate school and I sleep through anything. My focus isn’t on anything but my eating disorder and so school is a waste of time.” – 21-year-old woman


Over the last year approximately 4000 junior and senior high school students in Utah County and Las Vegas Nevada have filled out an eating survey designed to assess ED behaviors. The results of the survey suggest that approximately 6% to 13% have already developed a diagnosable eating disorder; 30% to 35% have attitudes and beliefs about food and weight that fall into the abnormal ranges and that put them at risk for eventually developing an eating disorder. These findings document that there is a great need for effective education and prevention programs.


It is important for teachers to understand the impact of anorexia and bulimia so they can pick up on the signs and consequences among their students. Since most students with anorexia and bulimia are very bright and talented it can be difficult for teachers to pick up student’s subtle changes in feelings and attitudes before their academic performance suffers. Consequently, knowing that 2 out of 10 girls in their classes are at risk for developing an ED presents a dilemma about when to raise concerns about anorexia and bulimia. Thus, it is helpful to raise the subject matter at different times throughout the year in general fashion. Doing this will encourage students struggling silently with the pressures and stresses of life and school to talk to you or a school counselor in private before they develop eating disorder behaviors that disrupt academic performance. The fact that a teacher is willing to broach this subject in an open and general fashion can be perceived as a safe invitation for students afraid of negative consequences of an eating disorder to do something for themselves.

Another dilemma for teachers is often in how to approach a student about a suspected eating disorder that is disrupting personal and academic performance. Most girls with a disorder will deny, minimize, or lie about the problem when confronted directly. They often feel ashamed of who they are and their behaviors. It is important to not make direct accusations about concerns, but rather, gently talk about what you are seeing as a teacher and encourage them to talk to you, or someone else, when they feel more ready to do so. Raising the concern in their presence and then giving them room to come back to you, whether they are struggling with an eating disorder, depression or some other personal problem, will let them know that you have noticed, cared, and have offered a kind invitation to do something about it.

For the student more entrenched in the ED, another dilemma for a teacher is whether to tell other school personnel or the parents about their concerns. Sometimes parents are the last to see the eating disorder because they want to believe their daughter’s responses to their questions. It is important to first talk to the student in private. Explain that you need to do something to help them rather than ignore or avoid the problem. Then give them some time to get back with you about who they are willing to let you talk to about the problem. For many girls with eating disorders it was the persistence and honesty of a significant other that led to their decision to seek treatment. For those girls who are too afraid or angry to admit to or address the eating disorder, it is very important to make more people aware of their problem including the parents so that teachers do not become silent collaborators of the disorder. The student may not be ready to change but they will know the secret is out.


There are a number of things teachers can do to help their students:

Encourage counselors in schools to start support groups for those who struggle with eating problems and body image concerns. Develop working relationships with counselors who can do one-on-one work with students and who can refer to outside professionals. Encourage the school to have assemblies or combined classes where outside professionals and recovered eating disorder sufferers can do presentations for the students. Provide materials and information that students could review on their own. Conduct a school-wide awareness program during national eating disorder awareness week in February. Be sensitive to the reality that eating disorders are about psychological and emotional pain and conflict and not about food and weight. Actively give invitations and encouragement to students to get help to overcome their eating fears or disorders. Talk to other teachers informally to develop a network who can identify at-risk students and offer support to those identified students.


Parents can help their daughters by doing the following: Do not treat this problem as just an academic issue, but rather recognize the emotional roots of anorexia and bulimia. Be open to feedback from teachers, counselors and others who can help. Educate yourself on the causes, impacts, and treatments of eating disorders through literature, books, seminars, and the Internet. Talk to your daughter about what’s underneath the disordered eating behavior, don’t just focus on the eating patterns. Recognize the need for proper assessment, dietary counseling, medical consultation and outpatient and inpatient therapy treatment. Get involved in a parent support group. Talk about the issues and possible solutions to eating disorders with the whole family. Don’t be fooled by a daughter’s attempts to minimize and ignore the real problem, be firm about the need for recovery while being sensitive to not forcing the issues. Be a good role model around food, take care of yourself, don’t blame yourself, and be patient. Recognize that recovery takes time and don’t place unrealistic demands for a quick fix for your daughter’s eating disorder.


A fundamental belief at Center for Change is that education is a basic right and opportunity for all human beings. Eating disorder sufferers are inhibited in their ability to take advantage of academic education opportunities. An individual with an eating disorder can forfeit their right to an education because of a basic belief in their inability to do what is necessary to meet educational goals and cope with the educational environment. At Center For Change we recognize that fundamental to the gaining of an education is the ability to: (1) take advantage of educational opportunities (i.e., have appropriate social, coping and learning skills), (2) maintain personal motivation for educational activities (i.e., learn to love education), and (3) believe in one’s personal ability to achieve educational goals (i.e., believe in one’s ability to cope with the environment in addition to meeting class requirements).

Center for Change incorporates an educational philosophy and pr

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Towards an Understanding of Self-Esteem and Eating Disorders

During a session with a client who has long suffered with an eating disorder I was discussing what it would be like if she could feel positive about herself. I was shocked with the response she gave me. Instead of reporting a desire to feel better about herself, this client laughed at me and retorted, “Self-esteem is laughable to me. I hope to be rid of the disturbing behaviors of the eating disorder, but I know it’s asking too much to like myself.” This encounter has been as intriguing as it has been disturbing. In this interaction I believe I came to understand, in small measure, what many women who suffer from eating disorders must feel about themselves. And, I better understand that when therapists, dietitians, and other helpers meet these women, survival is often the goal rather than happiness or feelings of self-worth. This interaction has come to symbolize for me the lie of the eating disorder in that it so efficiently creates such hopelessness, self-hate, and shame in women.


Anyone working with women with disordered eating recognizes that self-esteem is intricately connected, however just how the two are related is not entirely well-defined. Inevitably, any discussion of eating disorders and self-esteem leads to the question of the chicken and the egg-which came first: poor self-esteem which made an individual more susceptible to disordered eating or an eating disorder which wreaked havoc on an individual’s self-esteem? While there is no simple answer to this question, there is substantial research that has investigated the relationship between self-esteem and eating disorders, and provides interesting insights.

In a review of the literature, Ghaderi (2001) concluded that low self-esteem, along with other factors, not only puts women at greater risk for the development of disordered eating but also serves to maintain an eating disorder. Numerous reports support the contention that low self-esteem is often present before the development of disordered eating, and that low self-esteem is a significant risk factor for both bulimia and anorexia even in young, school-age girls (Ghaderi, 2001).

According to Robson (1989, as in Ghaderi, 2001), self-esteem is “a sense of contentment and self-acceptance that results from a person’s appraisal of their own worth, attractiveness, competence and ability to satisfy their aspirations.” Given this definition, it is clear to see that self-esteem is multifaceted. Similarly, the development and maintenance of eating disorders is complex, including such factors as family environment, cultural environment, history of dieting, genetic predisposition, history of abuse, age and developmental concerns, length of time in eating disorder, immediate factors such as support system, emotional factors, and spiritual factors, of which self-esteem is only one factor of many (Berrett, 2002). However, self-esteem appears to be a primary risk factor that may contribute to the development of other risk factors for eating disorders. For example, three separate research studies found that development of bulimia is predicted by perfectionistic tendencies and body dissatisfaction only among low self-esteem women, whereas women with higher self-esteem did not have these risk factors and accordingly did not develop bulimia (Vohs, Voelz, Pettit, Bardone, Katz, Abramson, Heatherton, & Joiner, 2001; Vohs, Bardone, Joiner, Abramson, & Heatherton, 1999; Joiner, Heatherton, Rudd, & Schmidt, 1997).

Identity formation is an area of focus when discussing eating disorders and self-esteem. Attention has been given to the parent-child relationship and how parents’ perfectionistic expectations work to limit the child’s development of autonomy, consequently creating an environment where the child is reliant on parental expectations rather than on individual needs and desires (Stein, 1996). Bruch (1982) posited that as children attempt to meet unrealistic parental demands, they often develop a sense of being “nothing.” As these children grow into adolescence they may turn to an eating disorder as a way of defining self and establishing a sense of self-control (Stein, 1996).


While self-esteem is a significant risk factor for eating disorders, one research team found body dissatisfaction to be the single strongest predictor of eating disorder symptoms (Button, Sonug Barke, Davies, & Thompson, 1996). Therefore, in targeting body dissatisfaction, therapists do well to attend to improving self-esteem, a major determinant of one’s body image. For instance, one study found that assisting adolescents in recognizing what is positive about their bodies and physical appearances while at the same time increasing their sense of personal competence leads to less internalization of sociocultural norms idealizing thinness (Phelps, Dempsey, Sapia, & Nelson, 1999). This resulted in significantly less body dissatisfaction, which in turn meant less eating disorder behavior among the adolescents (Phelps et al., 1999). Improving self-esteem is a challenging task for women with disordered eating. Often, their negative thoughts and beliefs are deeply entrenched and consequently difficult to give up. Once negative thoughts are established they serve to maintain low self-esteem and an eating disorder.

A critical intervention for women with anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating is to begin challenging the deeply held negative beliefs. For example, most women with disordered eating equate their worth with their weight, dress size, or shape. The sooner a woman can let go of these negative self-evaluations and replace them with more meaningful alternatives, the sooner she can be on the road to recovery. This may include exploring questions such as, “What do you want for your life, your future, your loved ones?” Answering these questions may be difficult and could result in significant shifts in an individual’s vocational roles, leisure activities, and relationships (Ghaderi, 2001). Therapists can assist women in identifying and building upon positive sources of self-definition. The eating disorder functions to limit an individual’s resources, yet through therapy women can be challenged to try on new roles and pursue activities where they can gain confidence.

Too often, individuals with eating disorders make themselves the exception in life. They believe that others deserve happiness, love, and joy, but that they themselves deserve sorrow, disappointment, and punishment. One of the first challenges therapists can give to the eating disorder is to begin disputing these false beliefs. Therapists can begin pointing out how the client has made herself the exception, and can then begin exploring where these false beliefs come from, whether they be from past abuse, negative family interactions, childhood teasing, or other difficult experiences. Teaching the client that she is worthy of love and acceptance, and that there are no conditions to her worth can prove essential to improving self-esteem.

It is important to keep in mind that, at least initially, these types of interventions, along with the therapist, will likely be rejected by women struggling with anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating. Challenges to the negative mind-set do not fit with what many of these women believe is true of themselves. However, with persistence, patience, and continuing acceptance, therapists can help clients to recognize their value and may help to create hope – one of the most critical components of overcoming anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating.

Addressing perfectionistic tendencies is also essential to addressing self-esteem among women with disordered eating. Typically, these women make their worth conditional upon their accomplishments, whether it be through grades, vocational achievements, or other activities. However, inevitably as these women achieve goals their standards become more unattainable, creating a cycle in which they can never reach the point of acceptance or value. One of the tasks of therapy is to separate the individual’s worth from perfectionistic strivings.

For most women with anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating, the eating disorder becomes their identity. Considering perfectionistic tendencies, these women often desire to become perfect – striving to exercise longer, eat less, and do more than is healthy. Many women claim that the eating disorder is what they are “good at” and it becomes all-consuming. A woman’s identity based in the disordered eating prevents her from trying new activities, especially because there is the risk that she may not do them “perfectly.” From the perspective of these women, it is safer to do the disorder perfectly than to risk failure in other arenas.

Therapists do well to make this pattern explicit in therapy. By addressing the underlying fear of failure and unmasking the disorder for what it is, these women can begin facing their fears by taking small steps, while receiving support from therapists and other helpers. Such small steps may initially be associated with disorder behavior. For instance, these individuals may be challenged to begin replacing disordered eating behaviors with healthier alternatives, such as calling a friend or taking a walk when the urge to self-harm surfaces. As these women find success in choosing healthier alternatives to the disorder, their self-esteem is strengthened and they can be challenged to take even bigger risks, such as interacting with friends, strengthening relationships, or trying new activities.

Along with perfectionism, most women with disordered eating compare themselves with others, especially other women. When these women compare themselves to others, they never seem to measure up-in their minds someone else is always more capable, thinner, or more attractive. These comparisons serve to further destroy self-esteem, thus perpetuating the deleterious cycle of compensating for negative feelings through a disorder. In addition to harming self-esteem, comparisons strain relationships and contribute to further isolation from others. Therefore, therapy must focus, in part, on the comparisons these women make and how these comparisons serve to damage self and relationships. Therapists can encourage women to choose a new way of being in relation to self and others – a way that is based on kindness and respect rather than on hurtful comparisons. As these women recognize that there are no gradations to self-worth, hopefully they can begin letting go of needless comparisons.

Therapists must be especially aware of comparisons when leading an eating disorder therapy group. Unfortunately, group therapy can be a breeding ground for comparisons between group members. Aside from the effects to one’s self-esteem, group members may direct hostility towards those members whom they feel they don’t measure up to. Group leaders do well to point out tendencies to compare in the group, and members may desire to establish a norm of not comparing within the group. Identifying and labeling comparisons in the group can assist these women in recognizing hurtful behavior, and then, the women as a group have the freedom to choose new paths.

Control has long been recognized as a core issue of individuals with eating disorders. As hypothesized, individuals seek a sense of control when their lives seem chaotic or controlled by others.

For many women seeking a sense of control in their lives, this is gained in the form of control over the body. While perhaps initially women do feel more control in their lives, this is fleeting and inevitably leads to feeling out of control. Often, women with eating disorders use control as a substitute for self-esteem, holding the belief that “If I control myself and my circumstances then I’ll be acceptable.” Of course, this security is false and fails to offer genuine feelings of self-worth and value. Therapists must teach their clients that the control offered by an eating disorder is false and does not serve as a substitute for self-esteem.

As women with eating disorders seek control, they necessarily employ avoidance as a way of hiding from their pain. Avoidance of truth undermines their ability to live congruently, resulting in a cycle that serves to maintain low self-esteem and an eating disorder. By avoiding what they know is best for them, these women perpetuate feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Eating disorders thrive on avoidance, therefore therapists must make honesty a core issue of therapy. A therapeutic relationship that is grounded in honesty allows the client to begin being honest about behaviors, fears, and past experiences. By being completely honest in session, clients begin to break the cycle that maintains low self-esteem. Further, by honestly identifying fears, clients can begin to understand and conquer them, and can begin having success in the very areas that were once most frightening. These types of triumphs instill hope, strengthen self-esteem, and encourage individuals to choose healthier alternatives to an eating disorder.

In addition to specific interventions addressing self-esteem, prevention programs for eating disorders do well to encourage critical evaluation of current sociocultural norms, assist in clarification of personal values, and raise resilience through group discussions, problem-solving activities, and cooperative learning (Phelps et al., 1999). One such participant-oriented program has proven helpful in strengthening self-esteem and improving body image among participants (Ghaderi, 2001).

While eating disorders and low self-esteem are difficult to separate, research, along with clinical knowledge, have established the need to address self-esteem concerns in treatment. Further, interventions targeting self-esteem, particularly how it affects body image, have been shown to be beneficial and should be part of comprehensive treatment of women with eating disorders. As a therapist, the prospect of assisting clients in improving self-esteem can be daunting. However, the recognition that each intervention that challenges false beliefs and negative thoughts, each expression of caring and concern, each exploration of alternatives to perfectionism and comparisons, each authentic interaction grounded in honesty can assist women with eating disorders in finding the courage to believe something new for themselves, and can take them, like the client described above, from desiring to simply survive to a place of hope and healing.


Berrett, M. E. (2002). Factors contributing to development and maintenance of an eating disorder: A clinician’s view. Handout from Treating Teens: from Self-esteem to Eating Disorders. Center for Change, Orem, UT.

Bruch, H. (1982). Anorexia Nervosa: Therapy and Theory. American Journal of Psychiatry, 139, 1531-1538.

Button, E. J., Sonug Barke, E. J., Davies, J., & Thompson, M. (1996). A Prospective Study of Self-esteem in the Prediction of Eating Problems in Adolescent Schoolgirls: Questionnaire Findings. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 35, 193-203.

Ghaderi, A. (2001). Review of Risk Factors for Eating Disorders: Implications for Primary Prevention and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Scandinavian Journal of Behaviour Therapy, 30 (2), 57-74.

Gross, J. & Rosen, J. C. (1988). Bulimia in Adolescents: Prevalence and Psychosocial Correlates. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 7 (1), 51-61.

Joiner, T. E., Jr., Heatherton, T. F., Rudd, M. D., & Schmidt, N. (1997). Perfectionism, Perceived Weight Status, and Bulimic Symptoms: Two Studies Testing a Diathesis-stress Model. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 145-153.

Phelps, L., Dempsey, M., Sapia, J., & Nelson, L. (1999). The Efficacy of a School-based Eating Disorder Prevention Program: Building Physical Self-esteem and Personal Competencies. In N. Piran, M. P. Levine, & C. Steiner-Adair (Eds.), Preventing Eating Disorders: A Handbook of Interventions and Special Challenges. MI: Brunner/Mazel.

Stein, K. F. (1996). The Self-schema Model: a Theoretical Approach to the Self-concept in Eating Disorders. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 10 (2), 96-109.

Vohs, K. D., Voelz, Z. R., Pettit, J. W., Bardone, A. M

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