A mother’s concern over her daughter’s maths class unit has helped overhaul how schools should handle conversations about weight.
Kylie Burton’s daughter, who has suffered from anorexia nervosa and has been hospitalised twice, was horrified when her daughter came home from school to reveal Body Mass Index was being talked about in school.
“This campaign began with a maths unit of work my daughter had to complete, but after posting on the Eating Disorder Families Australia Facebook page, I heard from so many other parents and carers for people with eating disorders – all across Australia,” Ms Burton told news.com.au.
“The children they were connected to also had classwork and assignments that were about measuring and comparing their weight, body parts, calories, and food intake – in maths, HPE, Science and Design Technologies.”
Ms Burton’s daughter wasn’t the only one impacted by this act – multiple students brought up issues with the curriculum.
“BMI is not an accurate measure of health. It doesn’t take into account things like muscle mass or ethnicity. For example, you could have a fit bodybuilder, who’s technically in the overweight category according to BMI, even though they might be extremely healthy.” she said.
“So when students are asked to compare themselves with their peers in this way, they think something is wrong with them if they don’t fit into a ‘normal weight category’. That can lead to low self-esteem, and dangerous attempts to alter their diet or body shape.
“Teens are particularly vulnerable to body image concerns as they try to navigate adolescence and their changing bodies.”
It inspired Ms Burton to campaign for reform, alongside the EDFA and The Embrace Collective.
Ms Burton said it was “devastating” to see when loved suffered with an eating disorder.
“Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, either from organ failure or suicide. Many people don’t realise this is not about vanity,” she said.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that are very difficult to treat. Meals are extremely distressing and it affects the entire family. Many families have to stop working – it’s a full time job trying to save my daughter’s life daily.”
It’s no secret that discussions of weight with young children and teenagers is dangerous, with adult content creator Annie Knight revealing her own experiences in 2022.
Knight was sitting in her maths class at an independent school for girls when her teacher brought in a set of scales and weighed each student in front of the class, and then lined them up based on the number that appeared on the scale.
The now 28-year-old remembers the devastating moment as clear as day, because her height and a small amount of baby weight made her 17 kilograms heavier than her best friend. It’s something Annie said she will always remember.
It was the first time she had ever stepped on a pair of scales in her life – but it would by no means be the last as it triggered something within her.
Annie went to her dad’s house after school that day, and her eating habits immediately changed and she developed an eating disorder.
Thankfully, she was able to enter recovery.
Ms Burton’s reform push was successful and published in the Australian Curriculum V9, in November 2023.
“There’s a lot of research and evidence that mainstream approaches to teaching about food and nutrition are outdated. Many organisations have been lobbying for change for years. This will undoubtedly save lives for decades to come,” Ms Burton said.
“The advice for teachers, and additional resources that were published in the Australian Curriculum V9, in November 2023, now provides clear guidance and support for teachers and will help to prevent eating disorders from developing.”
The reforms meant a review of language, such as references to BMI and calories removed, and a new focus on “balanced nutrition” and “strategies to maintain health and wellbeing”.
In the section “Curriculum Connections: Food and Wellbeing” teachers are advised to avoid activities such as assessing body weight and measurements, recording food diaries and critiquing and comparing food and wellbeing habits. There are also additional support materials from places such as the Butterfly Foundation and The National Eating Disorders Collaboration.
Ms Burton, a former teacher, said she wasn’t angry and understands teachers are under enormous pressure.
“Before my daughter developed an eating disorder, I would not have understood how teaching about health could potentially be interpreted by someone with body image concerns. Also, you can’t tell by looking at someone, if they have an eating disorder,” she said.
“It’s a mental illness, so teachers can’t assume that their students are interpreting these health messages in the way that it’s intended. Teachers are amazing and want the best for their students. We are on the same team here. We all want our kids to be happy and healthy.
“We’re not criticising teachers in any way. They just need more support and more resources to cater for the diverse needs of so many students. We hope that is what we’ve been able to do.”