Researchers shine spotlight on teen eating disorders

29 July 2015

Health experts from the University of Sydney will take to the Seymour Centre stage in a unique theatrical collaboration this August aimed at dispelling myths around eating disorders and fad dieting in teenagers.

High school students will have the chance to ask a team of leading researchers their pressing questions about negative body image, obesity and eating disorders at interactive workshops following the newest production of What is the Matter with Mary Jane?

The play is the autobiographical, one-woman account of creator Sancia Robinson's 15-year battle with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Co-written by Wendy Harmer, the powerful and funny show has become a classroom staple since it debuted at the Sydney Theatre Company in 1995.

"The workshops will be a great learning tool and a new concept in teaching," said Professor Stephen Touyz from the School of Psychology, whose talk will focus on how to combat eating disorder thinking.

"Instead of showing someone a video, you're presenting them a story told in a real live production, which makes the impact a lot stronger. Immediately afterwards, we'll be there to stimulate discussion and answer any lingering questions the play might raise for students."

Interactive forums like these workshops are critical for opening an early dialogue with young people facing eating disorders, which still tend to be glamourised in the media and popular culture, said Professor Touyz.

"There's a desperate need for us to identify anorexia nervosa early, as if it develops into adulthood it's an extremely difficult disorder to treat - sadly many people never recover from it.

"It's important we put the performance into context to ensure young audiences know what treatment opportunities are available, what preventative measures they can take, and where the research is headed in the field."

Eating disorders affect nearly one million Australians, or around 9 per cent of the population, with young people most at risk of onset. Incidence of eating disorders has increased worldwide over the past 30 years, and is estimated to cost Australia more than $69 billion annually.

Associate Professor Amanda Salis from the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders will draw on her own adolescent struggles with binge eating in a session on strategies for healthy weight management.

"I'll give a personal account of how I 'dieted myself fat' when I was a teenager, and explain the science around why dieting can backfire in some people if it's done without supervision," she said.

"When you diet, your body fights back: you get hungry, your metabolism slows down, and your body will try to resist the weight loss. Understanding the dieting process can help some people from falling into the trap of giving up or feeling like a failure."

Boden Professor of Human Nutrition and president-elect of the World Obesity Federation, Professor Ian Caterson AM, from the Faculty of Science, will also join the post-performance workshops to discuss his research into obesity and chronic disease.

The themes of the play and workshops continue into a free, public Sydney Ideas forum, 'Eating Disorders: New Approaches for Treatment and Management', on Thursday 6 August. The panel will feature Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, alongside Professor Touyz and Associate Professor Salis.

The new production of What is the Matter with Mary Jane? is directed by Sancia Robinson, and will run from 4 to 8 August 2015 with support from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre, Eating Disorders Victoria and The Butterfly Foundation.

Event details

When: General public performances: 2pm on 8 August, and 7pm on 5 to 8 August. The Sydney Ideas public talk will be held directly after the performance at 8pm on 6 August. Education performances + Q&A: 10.30am, 4 to 8 August. Workshops: 12.15pm to 1.45pm, 4 to 7 August

Where: Seymour Centre

Cnr City Rd and Cleveland St

Chippendale NSW 2007

Cost: Student $20 / All other tickets $25

Bookings:What is the Matter with Mary Jane? performance or Sydney Ideas forum

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Emily Jones, 02 8627 1433, 0427 309 579,