A 2017 study directly spells out how to creating a body confident school environment, "Body image issues and eating problems are best prevented when teachers are trained, school policies are changed, and the school enviroment is modified" to consider body image issues. That is exactly what we are doing here, with 4 Steps for Schools to Create a Body Confident Environment.
Teachers in the United Kingdom who have taught body image for years think students gain quite a bit from this type of body image discussion. The UK is way ahead of the US, in terms of government mandates on teaching body image curriculum in the schools. The UK teachers thought that kids who are taught body image lessons are:
- More likely to look after their bodies
- More likely to value health over appearance
- Better general mental health
- More likely to participate both in the classroom and in activities outside school
- Improved chances of fulfilling their potential – particularly academically
Be Real Campaign, UK 2016
The kids think discussing body image in school is also a good idea. We directly surveyed 3 classes in a suburban Chicago high school and asked the students, “Is body image an important topic to discuss in school?" We wondered if they’d heard enough on this topic, or felt it didn’t apply to them in the numbers reported in the studies.
The kids surveys came back saying that students are "starving" for body image discussion! Ninety-one percent of the kids we surveyed thought it was "very important" to talk about body image in school. The kids told us that body image isn’t a regular topic of conversation in most homes today. Their body image unit in health class might be the first and only discussion kids ever get on body image -- a bit like sex education was at the beginning of teaching sex ed.
Step 1. Educate teachers and coaches about body image issues: taking a look at teachers' personal values and attitutes
The first step toward a body confident school environment is to educate teachers and coaches about body image issues. The first thing teachers and coaches can do is to look at their own values and attitudes regarding weight, dieting, and body image.
Teachers are stuck in cultural ruts on body image like everyone else in Kardashian Culture.One report of junior and senior high school teachers found that 76.6 percent were practicing some form of weight control: with 48.6 percent trying to lose weight and 28 percent trying to keep from gaining weight.
There is potential for teachers to transfer undesirable behaviors to their students. There have been studies that say the student’s observation of their teacher’s behavior has a greater influence on their learning than their verbal communication. There is potential for inadvertent negative role modeling through teachers' misinformation about nutrition, simplification of weight control attitudes, glamorizing or normalizing eating disorders, and perpetuating of the thin ideal.
Modeling healthy body image at school
Once teachers look at their own values and attitudes, they can think about how to model healthy body image at school. Kids today don’t have many “sane voices” in their lives on body image because the most of the adults in kids’ lives today – their parents and teachers -- have body dissatisfaction themselves.
There's a story of junior in high school who moved three times in three years that illustrates how teachers' own values affect what they teach. This young woman had to re-do a health class in 3 different schools, each time re-doing the nutrition unit. She was given three different paradigms on what’s considered “healthy eating,” and these paradigms were all over the map. One teacher was on the Whole 30 diet and told the kids sugar was the devil and caused cancer. This young student told me she became afraid of sugar. The next teacher told her to write down everything she ate in a food journal. Maybe this made sense for kids who aren't thinking about what they eat, but that wasn't good advice for her. She was thinking about it from the teacher the year before. She’d get in bed every night and run through what she’d eaten that day in her mind again and again. Her behavior got obsessive.
The last teacher told her she could eat everything “in moderation.” But, she told me that this teacher didn’t give her a sense of how to figure out what “moderation” looked like for her, so she felt a bit lost. Kids get so much conflicting information about eating. It’s no wonder this happens, we adults are subjected to so much conflicting information ourselves in the culture and media. Most parents have their own blind-spots going on with their body image, and haven’t thought about how their behavior affects kids.
Psychologist Elizabeth Scott says “one sane adult” on this topic in a child’s life can make a world of difference to the child on the topic of body image. I hope all teachers think of themselves like as that one sane adult who believes that:
- Health and fit is better
- Who gives the kids body & mind self-care objectives
- So the kids can take care of the vehicle that allow them to focus on living their lives and fulfilling their potential, and
- Teaches them that judgment of other people is size-ism, and not only is it hard on people in larger bodies, but it causes everyone to fear being fat in our society.
Words have power
It’s important to understand the power of our words have on kids listening. Teachers understand this better than anyone. Here are some tips for teachers regarding body image.
Avoid message-loaded language
We don’t want to talk about weight or body size —no matter how subtle, slight, or “in fun.” There’s no such thing as fun teasing with body image anymore, if there ever was. It’s simply not okay. Avoid words that focus on weight or body size like “skinny,” “obese,” “fat,” or “chubby.” Even the words “big,” “small,” beg the question, “Bigger or smaller than what?”
The message the kids can get is that we measure a person’s worth by their size. We also want to avoid any language that could blame the person in a larger body for the size of their body.
Instead we want to focus instead on health and what your body can do for the person living in it, for example, we can talk about “strong,” “fit,” or “healthy” bodies.
Avoid body judgments
We want to avoid comments that judge people by their appearance – and by “people” for teachers, that means themselves, too. The fear of being judged is at the root of most people’s fear of being fat. Kids -- and adults too -- often assume people are judging them cause they hear people talking about other people’s appearance all day long.
This category includes the popular “fat talk” or “body talk” that many girls and women engage in today. This is where a girl puts herself down and begs a compliment, for example, when a girl says, “I hate my legs, but you have great legs,” and then another girl replies, “No, you have great legs, I hate my hair, and you have the best hair .. . " This is very popular in girl-world today. This is socially acceptable, but harmful. Studies say this measurably lowers self-esteem.
Avoid talking about "good" and "bad" foods
We want to avoid talking about “junk” food or “bad” vs “good” foods. It’s a very short leap from “food is bad “to “I am bad for eating it!” We want to develop the idea that we should aim to eat the right amounts of different types of foods rather than stigmatizing foods. We want to focus on the idea of nourishing your body well.
We also want to notice talk of "healthy" foods, that really mean "not fattening" foods. The word health often gets co-opted for weight loss purposes in Kardashian Culture. Instead, use the word "nutritious" because it can't get misused as easily, and its meaning is more precise.
Take focus away from changing appearance; refocus on the process of taking care of oneself
Teachers want to avoid comments about changing their appearance by dieting, exercising and weight training. The message the kids get is that their bodies are “things that need fixing." We want to emphasize behavior or process goals rather than weight or results goals. So, we want to talk about "eating well," "getting fit," and "getting strong." We want to emphasize lifestyle change and health improvement.
Be body positive
It’s not enough to just minimize the potential problems. To instill body confidence we need to go a step further and emphasize the positive things about our bodies. We want the kids to focus on what their body does for them, not how it looks to others. Part of emphasizing the positive is pointing out when things are going well, so we can appreciate and be grateful for our:
- Health, when we are able to finish an event or even heal from an injury;
- Fitness, that allows us to train hard and improve; and
- And, for being able to get strong, so we can compete and win!
Athletes on a whole have more than twice the risk for eating disorders than non-athletes have. And athletes have more strange behavior around food, too. They restricting, binge eat, emotionally eat, and purge twice as much as non-athletes do.
In weight class sports like rowing, wrestling, and figure skating -- where what you weigh matters -- and in aesthetic sports – like gymnastics diving or ballet -- where what you look like matters -- almost 2/3 of females and 1/3 of males have disordered eating behaviors.
Focus on what the kids can control
Coaches will want to take focus off the kids’ bodies and put focus on areas that athletes can control to improve performance, like training and practicing. Athletes can really use accurate information about good nutrition and sports performance and the impact of bad nutrition.
Coaches also want to emphasize the health risks of low weight, especially for female athletes with irregular periods or periods that have stopped.
Avoid taking the kids’ body measurements
Coaches will want to avoid taking the kids’ body measurements. That means eliminating the weigh in policy for sports except when absolutely necessary. Anything that has the kids disclose estimates of their body shape and size should not be used, like taking:
- weight unnecessarily
- body mass index (BMI) - this measurement is controvertial - it doesn't distinguish fat vs. muscle tissue - Brad Pitt is obese according to his BMI
- even asking out loud for clothing size has been fraught with issues for the kids in today’s world
If you aren't sure if you should be taking a measurement, ask yourself WHY you need this information. Lots of coaches and teachers realize they are not doing anything with the BMIs they are taking, and it's cause a lot of personal strife for their students when they take these measurements.
Getting eating disorder training.
It would be great if coaches and trainers could get basic eating disorder training. Eating disordered athletes are really good at hiding their disordered behavior. In a survey of athletic trainers working with female college athletes, only 27% felt confident identifying an athlete with an eating disorder. Despite this, 91% of athletic trainers reported dealing with an athlete with an eating disorder. Even more trainers agreed that these athletes need more attention and they weren't sure how to work with them.
- United Kingdom Be Real Campaign, Body Confidence Campaign Toolkit for Schools
- NEDA Educator, Coach and Parent Toolkits