BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change. The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.
Carmen C. Cool MA, LPC has been a psychotherapist for 14 years, has started and run a nonprofit, has been an educator, youth mentor, massage therapist, worked in reproductive rights, on a suicide prevention hotline and in an HIV clinic.
She loves being an advocate. The thread running through her work is being an advocate for people and their bodies, and helping people make decisions based on their own body’s wisdom. She has a master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology, and is a certified Hakomi therapist. She has presented at many national and local conferences and is a fervent champion for youth to raise their voice and create new cultural norms around body image. Carmen was named “Most Inspiring Individual” in Boulder County in 2012, and won the Excellence in Eating Disorder Advocacy Award in Washington DC.
Let’s Not Teach it in The First Place
The world isn’t always kind. We know that; now and then we’re all confronted with random acts of unkindness. Now that our kids are back in school we have to trust that they are protected, for the most part, from the very cruel.
Bodily harm, bullying, and racial intolerance are watched for and guarded against, but bias and stereotypes still creep in. So when I started thinking about how to prevent weight stigma in schools, I consulted the experts – young people – and asked them directly: What do you see? What feels problematic to you? What could be done differently? What do you need?
When I invited them to consider “how can we stop weight stigma in school?” the first thing they said was:
“Stop teaching it.”
Part of me feels like I could end this blog post right here. It’s brilliant. The best way to prevent something is to stop putting it out there in the first place. Stop endorsing it. Stop perpetuating it. Stop making the assumptions that go along with it. But I wonder if our schools hear it lurking in the halls. So…
“First, realize that it exists.”
Instead of teaching weight bias and weight stigma, teach about weight bias, the act that contributes to stigma. Which means awakening to the fact that it’s a thing. Most kids I’ve worked with have never stopped to consider the ways we make assumptions about people based on their weight. They don’t know that it’s another form of oppression though they certainly feel the effects. They haven’t learned to step outside of the system to see it and name it. So including it in discussions about equality, bullying, etc. is important.
“Stop having us calculate our BMI in health/gym/psychology class and telling us what’s ok and what’s not ok.”
I always know when BMI is being taught in a class. My cell phone lights up with texts from students who are angry and upset about what they overhear in hallway conversations for the rest of the day. One year I heard that kids were calculating their BMIs and those who fell in the “normal” range received applause. I also heard loud and clear from kids that “You absolutely cannot have BMI’s on report cards”. Even if BMIs are calculated privately, kids still choose to compare with each other. One shared that “I came into class feeling ok about myself, and I left feeling like something was very wrong with me.”
“Teach Health, not Weight.”
Health could be taught in a much more embracing way. I talked to some kids who loved that their school changed the name of the online “comprehensive physical education” class to “health and wellness”. Changes need to happen at the district level, where curriculum is approved. Many health teachers are coaches and PE teachers – who don’t necessarily have an interest or training in health. Students pointed out that even if teachers have to teach about BMI, the message needs to be clear that it is only one of a multitude of factors that go into health, and that people outside of the “normal” weight range can be very healthy.
“Teachers need to be aware of their own body-negative comments.”
Even when it’s self-directed, a negative body comment hits a mark. Teachers bemoaning the size of their body as they pass through the aisles, saying they can’t eat a cookie offered because they’re on Weight Watchers, admitting they smoke for a couple of weeks if they want to drop weight… Teachers are role models and believe me, kids are watching and listening. Putting out body-positive comments has an impact. When the messages are negative, kids direct awareness back to their own bodies with an attitude of self-scrutiny and a lack of self-compassion.
“Let’s talk about the ways that athletics are valued.”
This is a particular issue here in Boulder, Colorado, where elite athletes come to train. Kids could see that those who look athletic (whether they are or not) are more valued or have more privilege. It’s embedded in the ways that funding and scholarships are awarded to students. A young client of mine recently went to a dive camp. On her boat was another young person getting her certification. When the trainee was asked, “what’s an important thing that every diver needs to be?” she glared at my client and said, “fit”. One person said that she recommends having more options for gym, and not throwing everyone into the same class. She can track feeling body shame back to when everyone was laughing at her because she couldn’t climb up the rope. Offering different kinds of activity to choose from while fulfilling the P.E. requirement would be a huge relief for many of our kids.
“Look at the ways that schools institutionalize thinness as a value.”
Another theme that arose was the need to teach compassion, awareness and acceptance much earlier and work with younger kids. One student shared that her younger brother, who is in elementary school, has a very hard time getting up and going to school because he has a larger body. She has thought a lot about what she can do to help him feel ok. She took it upon herself to approach staff and faculty and start the conversation. And what she realized was that it’s not just the school that has to change – but the whole culture, because playground politics are everywhere. Having her brother feel safe and comfortable in school is important, but he should be able to feel safe and comfortable in his life no matter where he goes. We’re lucky to have young people who recognize it’s time for a cultural shift, because they are the ones who will make it happen.
“Give us a chance to be activists.”
Young people feel that it’s not enough to learn about stigma, they want ways to get involved and do something. Without that, they can end up feeling powerless: charged up about something with no place to go with it. It’s also important for them to feel that their teachers care about the issue and actively support their efforts.
“We need a safe way to practice our skills.”
It’s not enough to tell kids to speak out against bullying behavior; students need to be able to practice it first, in a way that feels safe. It’s not easy to speak up in high school, let alone with skillful means. One thing that helps is setting aside time to brainstorm and role-play together. Giving kids a chance to practice their skills in realistic scenarios, sharing feedback and ideas with each other helps them find their own voices and strategies. Saying the words beforehand makes them easier to find when they’re really needed.
“We need space for open discussion.”
Last year, one of the high schools had a high school panel discussion as part of the Conference on World Affairs. Five students got in front of the auditorium full of their peers, and shared their experiences with eating disorders, recovery, body image struggles and being teased. The impact of this was far-reaching, and it is still being talked about at school a year later.
We need to recognize that weight stigma pervades our schools, and we need to help our kids see it, name it, and speak out against it. Both parents and teachers have a wonderful opportunity to go beyond shielding our kids from bullying behavior to helping them get rid of it altogether. Which brings me to the last, and clearest insight that my student experts offered me:
“We need to be taught to value difference – not fear it.”