Teacher journal archive (2008-2011)

Article Title

The drive for perfection : schools and anorexic behaviour


A recent study from the University of Western Sydney has shed new light on the relationship between anorexia nervosa and the practices of schools. The article explains how day-to-day operation, organisation, culture and values of schools can unwittingly encourage anorexic behaviours amongst vulnerable individuals. While recent government policies and media attention have focused on the 'obesity problem,' anorexia nervosa is the most common chronic illness amongst teenage girls. Up to 3.7 per cent of females are estimated to suffer from anorexia and the incidence is highest amongst teenage girls, with five to 10 times as many teenagers believed to have intermittent symptoms and to engage in fasting, self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse. Education policies and school practices that endorse self-discipline, individual achievement and a healthy lifestyle are critical for the development of a child's self image, confidence and self-esteem. Yet an overemphasis on these same virtues can engender such a strong drive for self-discipline, perfection and health-as-thinness that it reinforces tendencies to anorexic behaviours in vulnerable individuals. This is the 'paradox of virtue' that blights anorexia. Many of the behaviours adopted by girls with anorexia are just an over-zealous application of values and behaviours that have been instilled through their upbringing, through school experiences and through wider social messages. For the same reason, school culture can play an important role in resisting anorexia and helping recovery but this means resisting the zealous adoption of virtues. The findings of the University of Western Sydney study issue a strong warning to policy makers to be moderate and measured about the pressure put on teachers, students and schools. [Author abstract, ed]

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