Said one way, the question, “Are you gonna eat that?” is an informal query among friends that is the chummy equivalent of “Can I finish that?” You might here it at a diner among best friends. Although you’d never lean over and pose the question to the queen at a state dinner, the question is benign in a casual context.
Said a different way, more like: “Are you gonna eat that ?” the question is a common example of disordered eating dialogue. It’s the kind of comment that fuels unhealthy attitudes and behaviors toward food; the kind that could ignite the spark of anorexia or bulimia. With an emphasis on “eat,” the question implies its opposite: “You shouldn’t eat that.” Or “Eating that would be gross.”
Sadly, I hear comments like these at camps and schools wherever I travel. You’ve heard some of these before, in dining halls, at picnic tables and even in restaurants:
• That’s so gross.
• I feel fat just looking at that.
• Oh my gosh, that has way too many calories.
• That looks so yummy, but I shouldn’t have any.
• I have so much weight to lose, so I’m skipping this meal.
We’re all entitled to our opinions about food, but as youth development professionals, we must be especially mindful of our expressed attitudes and behaviors around this most necessary of human activities. Too often, our trendy, misplaced culinary commentary conveys an unhealthy cultural message: Very thin is very cool.
The more neurotic young people are about what an how they eat, the more at-risk they become for developing severe—and sometimes lethal—eating disorders. No single comment from a staff member to a child will cause disordered eating, but multiple comments can start the ball rolling.
So how does your camp or youth program train staff to behave around food? If you’re like most, the answer is, “We never even thought we needed to provide training to our staff on how to prevent eating disorders.” It doesn’t need to be a whole afternoon, or even a whole hour, but I recommend you touch on the following at this summer’s staff training:
Model healthy living by eating a balanced diet; being physically active; refraining from lots of food talk and diet talk; refraining from discussing your own nutritional goals or political / religious beliefs about certain foods; and not commenting on other people’s bodies or eating habits.
Be mindful of the early warning signs of an eating disorder, including:
• excessive preoccupation with food, calories, dieting, weight, etc.
• unhealthy dieting (overly restrictive, unbalanced, or binge eating)
• lots of talk about food (“I’ll be bad and eat this.” or “I’m such a pig.”)
• excessive criticism about self, body, food, weight, popularity, etc.
• obsessive or compulsive exercise or “exercise binging”
• not attending food-related events or rushing to the bathroom after meals
• use of diet pills or laxatives, including herbal laxative teas, etc.
• purging (making oneself vomit in order to empty ones stomach)
If you are concerned about a camper or staff member, do something! Eating disorders can be lethal, so always consult with your camp’s health care professionals and possibly an outside expert. Consider the effects of the person’s negative emotions and unhealthy behaviors on the individual and on the camp community as you make important decisions about caring for a person with eating issues. Staying at camp may not be best.
Help a camper or fellow staff member find professional help. Don’t wait to get help. Eating disorders can be “contagious” in a group setting and camps are not treatment facilities. The sooner someone gets help, the better chance they have of recovering, so you are not helping them by letting them stay at camp when they are symptomatic. By not intervening, you only play into the person’s denial that they don’t have a problem.
Once you understand the facts and myths about eating disorders and disordered eating, your awareness will be heightened and you can avoid judgmental or mistaken attitudes about food, weight, body shape, and eating disorders. Accept people—and yourself—for who they really are.
Honestly examine the relevant aspects of your camp’s culture. What are the prevailing attitudes about exercise, meals, snacks, weight, body type, fashion, and popularity? What is truly valued at your camp? Work to change ideas that a particular diet, weight, or body type will automatically lead to happiness. Challenge false beliefs that thinness and weight loss are great, whereas fat and weight gain are horrible or indicate laziness, worthlessness, or gluttony. Promote healthy eating and exercise.
When the opportunity arises with campers or staff, critique media (magazines, movies, television, video games) and popular attitudes that convey unhealthy messages about eating, exercise, and a person’s physical appearance.
Most CampSpirit readers are not directors of treatment programs for youngsters with eating disorders. However, we all have staff and campers who eat. So, we all share a responsibility to keep mealtimes healthy and balanced, both from a nutritional standpoint and an attitudinal standpoint.
Next time someone asks, “Are you gonna eat that?” pretend you heard it the other way. Say, “Oh yeah. It’s quite good. I’m happy to share, if you’d like some. Or, is there something else here at the table that I can pass you?” By not playing into the hands of a dubious camper or colleague, we are helping them shift their thinking about their own eating.