Eating/Body Image

General Information

Concern about weight and appearance can become a preoccupation even for very young children. Excessive concern with body weight, body image, and food, especially when it leads children to severely restrict their food intake, vomit or use laxatives to manage food intake, or exercise to the point of causing themselves physical harm, can be both a mental health problem and a real threat to physical well-being.

A child suffering with anorexia nervosa refuses to maintain minimally normal body weight, intensely fears gaining weight, and exhibits a significant disturbance in his/her perception of the shape or size of his/her body. A child suffering from bulimia nervosa binges on food and then engages in compensatory behaviour, such as excessive exercise, vomiting, or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, other medications, or enemas, to prevent weight gain.

General Characteristics To Look For

  • appears sad, depressed, anxious; expresses feelings of worthlessness
  • is a target of body or weight bullying
  • spends increasing amounts of time alone
  • obsessed with maintaining low weight to enhance performance in sports, dance, acting, or modelling
  • overvalues self-sufficiency; reluctant to ask for help

  • sudden weight loss/gain, weight fluctuation
  • reports abdominal pain, feeling full/bloated
  • dry hair or skin, dehydration
  • headaches
  • lanugo hair (fine body hair)
  • feeling faint, cold, or tired

  • eats small portions or nothing at all in the presence of others
  • diets, chaotic food intake; pretends to eat but throws food away; skips meals
  • exercises for long periods; exercises excessively every day
  • continually talks about food
  • makes frequent trips to the bathroom
  • wears very baggy clothes to hide a very thin body or weight gain
  • easily fatigued; gets dizzy
  • at school, avoids the cafeteria; brings his/her own food
  • shows some type of compulsive behaviour
  • denies having any difficulty

Impact On Student Success

  • Preoccupation with body image can lead to neglect of other important attributes of self, such as school performance and social development
  • Eating disorders can consume one’s physical health and energy, requiring hospitalization and long-term treatment
  • Be aware of the warning signs of eating and body image problems such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
  • Examine how your own attitudes and expectations may affect children and model healthy approaches to body care and eating.
  • Show empathy and support.
  • Allow for alternative eating times and locations if needed for a vulnerable child.
  • Recognize and respond to bullying that focuses on body image attacks.
  • Cultivate a healthy home, school, and community culture with respect to eating and exercise.
  • When discussing concerns with a student, focus on health and function, not on weight or appearance.
  • Expect a student to deny that there is a problem; if there is reason for concern, act anyway.
  • Consult with parents/caregivers and counselling supports about how to help a vulnerable student manage in school.
  • Create a classroom environment that avoids a high level of competition and maintain low tolerance of criticism among students.
  • Reduce academic work load to accommodate treatment if needed and/or allow extensions for assignments, tests, and exams.
  • When consulting with parents/caregivers, consider the family dynamics and any cultural or social issues that may make it difficult for families to discuss these issues.
  • Begin by telling parents that school staff are concerned about the student AND offer specific, factual observations about the student’s behaviour to illustrate these concerns. Do not interpret what the behaviour could mean—just state the facts of the observed behaviours.
  • Allow for alternative eating times and locations if needed for a vulnerable student.
  • Aim to establish and maintain a positive, open, and supportive relationship with the family. Be mindful that parents may feel guilty, blamed, or responsible for the eating problem.
  • Encourage families to seek out professional help.
  • Seek out a curriculum that provides information about how to cultivate a healthier body image and challenge cultural pressures.
  • Focus on the child’s well-being rather than on his/her eating habits when beginning to seek help for him/her.
  • Be prepared to work hard to support the child’s treatment needs.
  • Keep the school informed about any treatment plans that affect school life or performance.
  • Focus on upstream prevention strategies—promote public education and dialogue about eating/body image issues.
  • Share materials and information with schools for distribution as appropriate.
  • Be available to support effective school/parent conferencing as needed.
  • Assist families to access any specialized assessment and treatment services.
  • Assist families and schools to participate in evidence-informed approaches to treatment provided by a mental health team.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.