It is widely accepted, from preschool to high school, that teachers and school staff play a big part in helping students to develop positive self-esteem. Many of those same teachers may not be aware that one of the most significant factors in an individual’s overall self-esteem is body image. So why does the way we see/think/feel about our bodies matter so much and what does that have to do with our classrooms? Consider the following:
- 31% of adolescents do not engage in classroom debate for fear of drawing attention to how they look.1
- 20% of teens say they stay away from class on days when they lack confidence about their appearance.1
- On days when they feel bad about their looks, 20% of 15 to 17 year old girls will not give an opinion and 16% will avoid school altogether.2
- A study of more than 11,000 teens found that students who saw themselves as overweight (regardless of actual weight) had lower academic performance than those who did not.3 This is important because it means the perception of being overweight – likely because of cultural bias and negative stereotypes that come with that – was a more significant determinant of academic performance than medically defined obesity.
If the way kids feel about their bodies impacts attendance, classroom engagement, academic performance and individual self-esteem, it makes a lot of sense for schools to be paying attention to body image. Below are just a few ways you can work to establish a school environment that is body positive and doesn’t reinforce harmful weight stigma, appearance ideals or the diet mentality.
6 Guidelines for a Body Positive Classroom
Do a thorough scan of books, posters and other materials around your classroom. Do they include a wide representation of people with diverse bodies – both in weight and shape but also skin color, gender presentation and physical ability? Will all kids see themselves represented in the positive imagery around your classroom?
If your class involves physical fitness or health messaging, consider whether your resources show kids and adults of all shapes and sizes being active or just thin/muscular people? Are fatter bodies exclusively used in imagery meant to deter or shame people for specific behaviors? If you’re in need of new imagery, check out these inclusive stock fitness photos from The Body Positive Fitness Alliance.
Above all, remember that kids who feel good about their bodies, regardless of their weight, are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and less likely to engage in risky or harmful behaviors like smoking and bingeing.4 To help bring body positivity into your class, add books and resources to your lesson plan or syllabus that promote body acceptance and provoke age appropriate conversations about the natural diversity of bodies. Messaging that focuses on 1) how health behaviors can make us feel, or 2) developing gratitude for the functionality of our bodies as opposed to what they weigh or look like, can promote self-care and confidence. A list of age-specific body positive resources is included at the end of this post – please scroll down to check it out!
Leave all personal diet-talk at the door and enforce that rule with fellow teachers and school staff.
We know that kids are listening to the adults around them even when we don’t think they are. Casual background discussions about cutting out carbs, trying a new “cleanse” or berating oneself for eating a cupcake are not as innocent as you might think. When little ears – or even mature high school ears – overhear their favorite teacher or respected mentor talking about food and bodies in critical or shameful ways they can internalize those messages. There are many reasons why we encourage adults not to introduce kids to dieting, including the fact that kids who diet are up to 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder.5
Furthermore, there is no long-term evidence that any fad diets like keto, paleo, Whole30, Atkins or otherwise lead to reliable or sustainable weight loss. In fact, diets have been associated with longterm weight gain. Specifically, adolescent girls who diet are at 324% greater risk for obesity than those who do not.6
Normalize the variety of healthy body changes that take place before and during puberty.
For example, it’s completely normal (and necessary) for a young girls’ body to store up extra fat before she gets her period for the first time. It’s also common for boys and girls to gain weight and fill out just prior to growth spurts in height. Remember this happens at very different times for different kids. If they experience these normal changes as abnormal or bad, it puts them at risk for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. But If kids (and teachers and parents) can learn to anticipate these changes they may be more likely to trust their bodies as they grow and mature.
Incorporate MEDIA LITERACY into your curriculum.
It doesn’t matter if you teach preschool story time or AP Literature, there are countless opportunities to talk about how to handle cultural messages kids receive about beauty, appearance, health, and weight. The Center for Eating Disorders provides body image and media literacy workshops for educators and parents as well as arts-based campaigns like the Love Your Tree campaign. We also encourage school staff to pursue training in evidence-based prevention programs such as The Body Project and to work with local organizations to incorporate student activism projects that challenge the thin ideal and inspire brands to do better.
Weight-based bullying is more common than all other forms of teasing. Establish a policy against weight-based bullying and actively work to reduce body commentary in general.
What’s the difference between a teacher proclaiming “you look amazing! Have you lost weight?” and a student teasing her classmate for “packing on the pounds” over the summer? Not much actually. They both reinforce a negative bias towards larger bodies and establish an unnecessary focus on appearance/size. In our culture it is assumed that saying something one thinks is “nice” about someone’s body is a good thing but praising specific aspects of one’s appearance can be just as detrimental for the school community as a whole because it reinforces the dangerous appearance ideals. Consider the following scenarios:
Malik gets nicknamed “string bean” by the principal because he had a growth spurt and grew much taller and slimmer than his peers. Malik was already feeling self-conscious about his height and knows the principal was just kidding around but now he does everything he can to avoid seeing him in the hallways.
Dean came back to school a size smaller and friends are requesting her “weight loss secrets”. They don’t know she was in treatment for an eating disorder over the summer and has developed heart problems and other health complications as a result.
So what is a school or classroom policy that addresses all of the situations above? Something similar to “We just don’t comment on other peoples bodies” can be the most effective message to dissuade body-talk (praising or teasing) among students and staff.
Encourage colleagues – administrators, school nurses, coaches and physical education teachers – to review the evidence for any interventions they are implementing with regard to weight, health or nutrition.
Every school should be asking whether there is quality, health-focused research to back up the intervention and does this program have the potential to do more harm than good? The truth is, many of these practices lack research and may have harmful consequences, yet many schools and childcare centers continue to implement them. Examples of such campaigns and curriculums currently include:
- Publicly weighing kids in gym or health class
- Giving kids assignments that require them to count calories and track their food
- Hosting “Biggest Loser” weight-loss competitions among school staff
- Sending home BMI report cards for students or calculating BMI in class.
- Shaming kids’ lunch items or teaching very young kids to label food items as good/bad or healthy/junk.
When it comes to BMI report cards, even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes in their report that “Little is known about the outcomes of BMI measurement programs, including effects on weight-related knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of youth and their families. As a result, no consensus exists on the utility of BMI screening programs for young people.7”
There is no indication that providing kids and parents with BMI information leads to any significant behavior change or improved health outcomes. Furthermore, unless safeguards are solidly in place, a risk of harm exists when children are simply told there is something wrong with their body size. Risks for body comparison and weight-based teasing also increase.8
What else are you doing to reduce weight-based teasing and make your classroom a safe place for students of all shapes and sizes? Tweet us @CEDSheppPratt today and share your experiences.
Body Positive Resources:
For School Administrators:
- Ellyn Satter offers an incredible guide for educators on how to incorporate Nutrition Education in the Schools in the safest and most impactful ways.
- Are School Health Lessons Harming Kids? in U.S. News & World Report
Preschool/Elementary Kids & Parents:
- Shapesville, Andy Mills, Becky Osborn, Erica Neitz
- It’s Okay to be Different, by Todd Parr
- I Am Enough, by Grace Beyers
- Your Body is Awesome: Body Respect for Children, by Sigrun Danielsdottir
- For Caregivers – Child of Mine: Feeding with Love & Good Sense by Ellyn Satter
- For Caregivers – Comfort Food: A podcast about the joys (and meltdowns!) of feeding our families and ourselves hosted by Amy Palanjian & Virginia Sole-Smith
- Celebrate Your Body by Sonia Renee Taylor
- New Moon Girls Magazine
- Messages About Me: Wade’s Story: A Boy’s Quest for Health Body Image
- The Student Body documentary
- Alicia Keys: Time to Uncover – An Essay
- Why I’m done trying to be man enough – a Ted Talk by Justin Baldoni
- The Illusionists A documentary by Elena Rossini
- The Eating Instinct by Virginia Sole-Smith
- Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
- Body Respect by Linda Bacon, PhD
Links to References:
- Ignoring it doesn’t make it stop.
- Beyond stereotypes: rebuilding the foundations of beauty beliefs.
- Perception of Overweight is Associated with Poor Academic Performance in US Adolescents
- Does Body Satisfaction Matter? Five-year Longitudinal Associations between Body Satisfaction and Health Behaviors in Adolescent Females and Males
- Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years
- Risk Factors for Body Dissatisfaction in Adolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Investigation
- A Report on the Facts and Concerns About BMI Screening in Schools