Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Hungry for Perfection: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Hungry for Perfection: Feature

Article excerpt

In the competitive environment of a high-achieving school, the pressure pupils feel to succeed academically can go hand in hand with pressure to be thin, contributing to instances of eating disorders. Sarah Boyall reports.

I felt so unhappy with myself. I felt like a failure," says Abby of her time at a high-flying grammar school. It was during her years in what she describes as an extremely competitive environment that she developed an unhealthy relationship with food.

"Pressure came at us from all directions: from the school, from parents and from pupils themselves."

Abby's experience accords with the widespread perception that eating disorders are more common among pupils at academically high-achieving schools. But is this view based on an unhelpful myth or does it point to the need for awareness of the vulnerability of a particularly at-risk group?

The statistics around eating disorders, although far from comprehensive, are startling. A survey conducted by the NHS Information Centre in 2007 found that 20 per cent of women between the ages of 16 and 24 screened positive for an eating disorder. The same survey also found that 6.4 per cent of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder, a quarter of them male.

At least one expert thinks that the pressures are particularly intense at private schools, where pupils feel that they have to conform to the stereotype of the straight-A student. Professor Carrie Paechter of Goldsmiths, University of London, told the Girls' Schools Association annual conference at the end of last year that too many independent schoolgirls lead "overscheduled" and stressful lives in pursuit of perfection and a desire to "live up to expectations".

However, eating disorder charity Beat points to a lack of data detailing how many people in the UK have an eating disorder, and little recent research has been conducted into the incidence of disordered eating among high-achieving young people.

"People who have competitive, high-achieving and perfectionist traits, combined with low self-esteem, are more likely to develop eating disorders, and these traits might be more likely to occur in those who are successful academically," says Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat. "So the hard- wired nature of the illness is more likely to exist in more academic institutions."

And when these traits are combined with an environment in which there is pressure to achieve the top grades, disordered eating is more likely to develop.

"If these people are in an environment where competitiveness and perfectionism are prized, they are more likely to strive," Ringwood says. "It won't cause the eating disorder, but for some people it can undoubtedly increase their vulnerability."

Plummeting self-esteem

Abby, now 30, is certain that her illness was triggered by a pressured school environment. She had excelled at junior school and passed her 11- plus but was placed in lower sets when she arrived at secondary school, and her self-esteem plummeted. She began to develop an unhealthy relationship with food when she was 13.

Abby says there was a big focus on league tables and academic performance at her school. "The school was extremely competitive and there was a great amount of pressure placed upon us to succeed," she says.

After she lost a significant amount of weight, her parents took her to the GP, who referred her to a child and adolescent psychiatrist. But her school showed little understanding of her illness, Abby found. She recalls her distress during her GCSEs, when the emphasis appeared to be only on getting her through her exams.

"They wouldn't let me complete my exams unless I agreed to sit with a teacher and eat before them," she says. "I refused, but a meeting was called with my parents and I was forced to consume an energy drink prior to each exam. I struggled to sit still during the exams; I couldn't cope with the thought of having drunk 200 calories and then being seated for a period of time. …

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