Julia Molony: Mixed schools could offer antidote to anorexia scourge
Highly restricted access to boys only breeds insecurity and rivalry in all-girls' schools
Are private girls' schools a hot bed for mental health problems? New research would suggest that is the case. A report released last week seems to expose a "silent epidemic" of eating disorders among girls who attend high-achieving, fee-paying schools.
Last year, the number of hospital admissions in the UK related to eating disorders rose by 8 per cent. And the age profile of those suffering from them is getting younger and younger.
As recorded cases of eating disorders increase, so do the efforts to uncover the mechanisms behind them. Like most mental illnesses, eating disorders are extremely complex and only partially understood.
Conventional wisdom, of course, points the finger at the parents. Or to be more specific, conventional wisdom points the finger at the mothers. This is hardly surprising. As any mother will tell you, the role makes her a convenient scapegoat for almost all society's ills. There has even been a term coined to describe the phenomenon of "thinheritance", a process by which a female child's relationship with her growing body is heavily influenced by her mother's.
On the face of it, it makes sense. A child who grows up watching her primary role model of femininity approach food not with appetite but with consternation, is bound to be affected by that.
But as studies continue, different potentially contributory factors are starting to emerge. Mental health charities have singled out selective private schools as places where eating disorders are more common, and selective private schools tend to be single sex.
Sandra Passmore, an eating disorder specialist, points out a culture of perfectionism that characterises private schools. "There are lots of factors that contribute to eating disorders but we know that being an anorexic takes a lot of discipline. Girls who are very academic can lose themselves in their work to take their minds off how hungry they are," she says.
Mental health problems in adolescence are the hidden scourge of the affluent classes, and it seems that intensively pressured, competitive schooling system doesn't help.
I went to an all-girls private school, and managed to escape without an eating disorder. Of course, a causal relationship isn't clear. It's not possible to say whether private schools foster eating disorders, or whether it's just that the kind of high-achieving girls with personalities most associated with eating disorders are more likely to end up in them. But this evidence doesn't surprise me in the least. I can't talk about other schools, having only been to one, but I do remember neurosis, miserable insecurity and dysfunction being as common as muck around there.
There is undoubtedly a cultural aspect to this problem – why else would one in 10 girls in dance and drama schools be classified as anorexic, compared to one in 500 in state schools?
My school was a starched, bloodless institution which soothed parental performance anxiety about their kids by creating an atmosphere of stifling rectitude and fierce competition.
I found there to be something profoundly repressive about the miniature, all-female society created there. In general, girls tend to be inclined towards approval seeking and perfectionism than boys (though whether this comes about by nature or by socialisation is an argument for another time) and these values often flourish in single-sex schools.
In my school, the ruling principles were good exam results and ordered uniformity.
Chaos and character were not well tolerated. In mixed schools, this cannot happen to the same degree. That atmosphere would be undermined by the normal mess of adolescent life. The hormones, the flirtations, the disorder and high spirits of overt, sexually loaded interaction between a mixed group of young people upends an overly regimented environment.
Based on what I have heard anecdotally, I suspect mixed schools actually encourage greater solidarity between women, and less competition. Highly restricted, drip-fed access to the opposite sex seems to breed rivalry. Whereas girls who are around boys from morning to night are more likely to form a comfortable identity alongside, but separate from them. The sort of nonsense that goes on in all-girls' boarding school dormitories – taking polls on who is the prettiest among them, comparing calories consumed and thigh measurements, I don't imagine much of it goes on in mixed schools – especially mixed state schools.
The focus is different. I'm not saying that extreme self-scrutiny doesn't happen in state schools, but it probably doesn't happen collectively, as a group exercise in the break between PE and French.
And also, of course, there's probably not the same degree of pressure to achieve, and therefore less scope for the young women therein to turn the stringent pressures of their environment against themselves.