Body Image in the Classroom

I read an article the other day about what parents can do to fight body image issues in young children who have fallen or are vulnerable to falling into the trap of the distortion of what is ‘beautiful’ and ‘normal’. It struck a chord with me. The British Journal of Psychology’s findings are deeply worrying:

Half of three to six year old girls worry about being fat.

By the age of 7, seven out of 10 girls want to be thin. By nine, nearly half have been on a diet.

These problems only increase as their bodies begin to change and they are exposed to an increasing amount of pressure in the media and from their peers.

US statistics are similar. Check out ABC News’ report from last week here.

The article suggests that parents should ‘love their bodies for the sake of their children’, paying attention to their language (no “bad food” or “diets” allowed), being responsible in their own relationships with food and promoting healthy attitudes towards it (no guilt or emotional eating). I believe these suggestions apply to anyone coming in contact with children, although the parents are at the frontline of the battle. It’s easy to complain about the negative messages sent to children by celebrities and the media and their world about bodies and beauty, but it is our job to create an alternative message.

It is important to say that I firmly condone healthy eating and fighting our society’s greed and obesity problems. Where I take issue is with the “thin is beautiful and anything else is not” message, and in the premature realisation of this discussion amongst children.

I have witnessed countless instances where the world of children has been infiltrated by potentially harmful body image messages and am keen to counteract those as best I can, promoting a healthy attitude towards food and towards my own body. I’ve heard negative and positive messages about body image in classrooms dating back to my own school days. In my experience as a teacher, 2 events stick out. I remember one 10 year-old girl commenting that I must like make-up, which made me worry about the image I projected: I do enjoy make-up and don’t think there is anything wrong with using it to enhance natural beauty, but I have since made a conscious effort to wear less when in the presence of children as I am strongly against the “let me put my face on” attitude towards make-up that more and more young girls are subjected to. Secondly in an early primary school class, a couple of the girls came in to the classroom and found me having a snack. They were very inquisitive as to what I was eating and I volunteered that on such busy days, it was very important that “Miss Wilson keep a few snacks in her bag as it was important to fuel our bodies”. This led to a great conversation with the girls who then offered that they, too, were “always hungry”.

In researching for my ‘Lady Gaga ate my children’ dissertation (more on that soon), I looked at some of the social learning theories that I believe relate to children learning behaviour from observing behaviour from ‘role models’ in the media: children emulate behaviour they see on screens and take in the messages they hear in songs, etc…; but these theories also relate to behaviour children witness from the people in their close circles – so Lady Gaga and I are both in the running for children’s learning. What a scary thought. (Note: Lady Gaga has not been explicit in talking about eating or body size. There ARE other artists and celebrities that should be attributed with contributing to this issue – in the interest of homogeneity of the discussion surrounding my research, she symbolises the media and celebrities portrayed through it.)

In reflecting on my role as an educator in this, I am mindful of these things:

Language: refraining from naming anyone or anything “fat”, referring to myself and my body in positive ways, not naming unhealthy food as “bad” or “naughty”.

Dress: I believe that there is a strong link between the objectification of women and their body image problems. As such, I dress in a manner that expresses respect for my body – dressing in a modest manner and enjoying fashion and looks I like. This links also to make-up and ‘styling’ – there is such a thing as too much, especially when it concerns children…I must not send out the message that I wear make-up because I am unhappy with how I look.

Attitude to food: I bring healthy food into the classroom if planning food-related activities, I eat healthy food at school (if seen by pupils or not), I don’t talk about being on a ‘diet’ (as, for many children, this means a restrictive, obsessive attitude towards eating).

Celebrating the kids: this might be the most important. They are all unique, different, talented and precious. I can fight negative body image in my classrooms, but children must be given the tools to stand against it when they exist the classroom. Understanding their value is, in my opinion, the best tool for that.

Lady Gaga, bring it on.

My thoughts on “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” – Kids’ version – t-shirts here.

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