Written by Anya Ryan
Illustrated by Shazmeen Khalid
Trigger warning: eating disorders
This month, prompted by fears of childhood weight gain over lockdown, the National Obesity Forum have called for children to be weighed at school when they return in September and then again six months later. Post-quarantine, they believe this is the best way to tackle the problem of childhood obesity.
There has been much debate around the topic, particularly after the discussion was aired on Jeremy Vine’s channel 5 show, with show panelist Ash Sakar calling the plans “counterproductive”.
I agree – as someone who has struggled with a disordered eating pattern, the potential damage weigh-ins could cause for children seems obvious.
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact moment trying to lose a few pounds became an all-consuming obsession with the number on the scales, but the fact that it happened isn’t at all surprising.
The first time we were weighed at school, I was twelve years old. We weren’t given any warning – if we had, I would have stayed home. In alphabetical order we stood in line, waiting our turn for our self-worth to be decreased to a single number. I watched as smaller girls came out, announcing their weight as if it was something to be proud of.
When my name was called, I felt sick. Stepping on the scales as my classmates waited eagerly outside to hear my results was the moment I realised: weighing less is a celebrated privilege. One I had to earn. I left the room, telling my friends, when asked, that my results were much less than I’d just been told. I decided I wanted in.
When I relive this moment now, I still feel the shame I felt that day so viscerally. This is why the recent war on obesity post-lockdown has made me so enraged.
The government’s plans for calories to be printed beside dishes on restaurant menus and banning money saving schemes on junk food has already proven that the feelings and mental well-being of those living with or developing eating disorders has been overlooked. The combination of calorie counting and school weigh-ins will, without a doubt, have a damning and lasting effect.
What started as a desire to be healthier, became a compulsion to shrink myself. At sixteen, I started restricting calories. I cut out carbs completely. Chose liquids over full meals wherever possible. At seventeen, I started to obsessively exercise. Hunger began to feel like an achievement and congratulatory comments on my new found thinness pushed me to carry on.
One teacher even pulled me aside in the corridor: “you should be really proud of yourself, you look totally different!” I smiled and thanked her but inside I felt like I still needed to do more. I added pictures to the “thinspiration” album on my phone and continued to push myself to eat even less.
My experience with disordered eating is not a unique one. According to the charity BEAT, in the UK today, an estimated 1.25 million people are suffering with an eating disorder, with most being diagnosed in adolescence.
As Jameela Jamil has rightfully pointed out, the recent rules and changes put forward to tackle obesity in this country have a distinct focus on people’s weight, not health, with all evidence pointing towards the potential damage coating menus in calories or forcing weigh-ins could do.
I definitely wasn’t healthy when I was at my lightest, nor when I was adding up the value of everything I’d consumed in a day. In fact, being made acutely aware of my weight so young left me with years of bad habits that have taken a lot of time and energy to unlearn.
I don’t weigh myself four times a day anymore, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes it isn’t still a struggle. I know in times of stress, it is my eating that always suffers and I have to work hard to stop myself falling back into the pattern of counting up calories in my head. Even without the MyFitnessPal app, it’s difficult to forget the value of a slice of bread when you’ve spent so many years trying to avoid it.
Weighing children at school will do little to fix the systemic public health problem in this country, but will start many on a vicious cycle of psychological trauma that could continue for years to come. Instead, let’s teach children that they are worth more than their physical entities and that living healthily means getting into the habit of looking after their minds as well as their bodies.
Anya is a television researcher from Birmingham who has relocated to London. She has an interest in all things culture and enjoys reading and writing in her spare time.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous