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Craig Ashley Wardlow, 15, was just finishing up lunch Tuesday afternoon at Moffat County High School with a few of her friends. She snacked away on a blueberry muffin and handed out pieces of a fruit snack to her friends and fellow sophomores, Jordan McLeslie and Emily Wellman.
“Food is just food,” Wardlow said.
But they agreed that not all of their classmates felt the same way.
“I think a lot of girls in high school just look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m fat,’” Wellman said.
McLeslie added she knew personally a few classmates who were bulimic, meaning they binge-eat and then induce vomiting to prevent themselves from gaining weight.
Although the sophomores said they’d never go to such extremes to look a certain way, they acknowledged that distorted body images and obsessive eating and dieting behavior are not uncommon in the MCHS halls.
Feb. 21 to 27 has been designated the 23rd annual National Eating Disorder Awareness Week by the National Eating Disorders Association.
The non profit organization hopes to create awareness about the dangers of eating disorders and promote healthy lifestyles and positive body image.
According to a news release from NEDA about the week of outreach programs, eating disorders affect men and women of all ages and ethnic groups.
According to some students and staff, Moffat County High School is no exception.
“I personally know of girls with eating disorders,” MCHS counselor Paula Duzik said. “There was one girl who came back in the fall, and I was just blown away with how much weight she had lost over the summer. I was at a rodeo, and there were a group of girls, maybe sixth-graders and younger, and they were talking about what size jeans they wear, and talking about other girls’ sizes. They’d say, ‘Did you know so-and-so wears a 12 slim and I wear a 14 slim?’”
Duzik said she isn’t sure what triggers young women to obsess about their weight and how others perceive their bodies.
“I want them to want to have a healthy, balanced outlook on food,” Duzik said.
But fellow MCHS counselor and former school nurse Carroll Moore said some have a skewed vision of healthy body size.
“There was one girl who used to come in all the time so weak and dizzy from not eating enough protein,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure on them. I think they want to look like models they see and look like the popular girls that wear the cute clothes.”
She said a distorted body image and insecurities are part of the developmental stage of 15- to 19-year-olds.
According to NEDA, 40 percent of all new eating disorder diagnoses occur in high-school age girls.
“At that point in your life, it’s all about you,” Moore said. “You take everything so personally, everything affects you, and it’s giant. Your emotions are huge.”
She said even minor comments, like a friend asking, “Are you going to eat all of that?” have prompted girls to stop eating.
Moore has seen first-hand that the issue of eating disorders isn’t restricted to high school girls.
She recalls members of high school sports teams who have sometimes dropped 25 to 30 pounds in short periods of time.
She also remembered an incident involving a young man who had lost a lot of weight but claimed he had been training hard for football. She said she believed his story when she asked him about his weight loss.
Later, she learned that he had been hospitalized in Denver with a heart rate around 30 beats per minute from malnourishment.
“It’s like any kind of addiction,” Moore said. “Because it’s an addiction to not eating. Once it starts to interrupt your life, it’s a problem.”
Although Wellman, Wardlow and McLeslie know that some of their classmates are afflicted with eating disorders, the three girls will continue to eat their lunches stress-free and lean on one another for support.
“I just try to think about myself and what’s best for me and my future,” Wellman said. “I mean, I want to be healthy and fit, but I’d never go to that extreme. I’d just go to the gym and exercise.”
McLeslie said that being a part of the athletics program and spending time with upperclassmen has helped ease her insecurities about being judged.
“Weight is just a number,” McLeslie said. “Why do people worry about their weight so much? No one has the same fingerprints, just like not everyone is going to weigh exactly the same.”