The U.K. government recently released the results of a nationwide survey to better understand public perceptions of body image. Shockingly, they discovered that 87 percent of girls aged 11- 21 think that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability.
This is worrying. Evidence from academic experts shows that poor body confidence can have a devastating effect. From achieving at school to effectively dealing with bullying, healthy body image is important for children. (The term “body image” describes a person’s comfort level with his or her body, their integrated sense of body and self, and the extent to which their personal value is tied up with their physical appearance.)
Whatever your role with children and young people, we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to give out positive messages about our bodies to further the fight against bullying.
Here are three ways educators and parents can encourage healthy body image in secondary school children.
1. Take a hard line on bullying.
Bullying contributes to children’s depression and low self-esteem. Bullying behavior focuses on difference, and the difference can be real or perceived. Whether the victim is overweight, underweight, short or tall — with bullying, anything goes. A safe and supportive school climate can be one of the best tools in preventing bullying. Children need to feel safe or they can’t focus on learning.
The classroom, cafeteria, library, restrooms, bus, or playground are all areas where teachers and parents can strive to create safe and bully-free environments.
The easiest way for teachers to take a hard line on bullying is to intervene immediately. It’s important to address only the kids involved separately, never together. Don’t make the kids involved apologize or patch up relations on the spot. Forcing resolution in children will not teach them successful coping methods for the long term.
A recent survey of 250,000 children aged between 10 and 15 showed that nearly half have been bullied at school. And even if they had not been bullied, a quarter of the sample said they were worried about it.
Today, bullying does not just exist within the perimeter of the school. It can carry on day and night through the use of mobile phones and the Internet via chat rooms and social media. In short, it can create a vicious cycle that can make a child or young person feel worthless and unvalued. Teachers are uniquely situated to stop bullying on the spot and create a safe learning environment in the school.
2. Focus on personal strengths and relate to social media.
The Internet and social media provide a platform for adolescents to seek out images of what they want to look like, as well as an outlet through which children can perform outward comparisons with their peers and celebrities. Social media may not create new problems for children, but they do certainly intensify existing ones.
Social media has made constant the ability to critique and analyze bodies in such a way that promotes body dissatisfaction, constant body surveillance, and disordered thoughts. All of these factors can lead to very serious vulnerabilities and make children susceptible to bullying.
Research has shown that people who look at attractive users on Facebook have fewer positive emotions afterward and are also more dissatisfied with their own body image that people who look at unattractive users.
Moving toward student-centered classrooms, which are big on collaboration, are one way teachers can begin to curb bullying by sharing control with students. Taking that one step further, teachers can become a participant and co-learner in discussion, asking questions and perhaps correcting misconceptions.
A simple activity is to give everyone a list of the personal strengths and get them to cross off the strength that is least like them one at a time until they reach three that are left. These are each person’s personal strengths. Consider getting everyone to write their personal strengths on stickers or paper and show them to the group.
Do students recognize the strength in themselves? What about the top strengths of others in the group? Identifying personal strengths is a great way to encourage positive feelings. In small groups, think of a way in which you could exercise your top personal strength more in the next week.
By facilitating a conversation about personal strengths and encouraging students to collaborate around this topic, teachers can begin to help children foster ideas of personal strengths.
3. Engage in a healthy conversation with students and children.
First and foremost, teachers and parents need to speak up. Sharing thoughts and asking kids for their opinions about how bodies are depicted in the media is one way to start the conversation.
Conversation-starting questions may include, “Does that look real?” “Do a lot of people really look like that?” and “What do you think might have been done to that picture to make it look that way?”
Focus on being healthy and making healthy choices is important, as is discussing what is normal and what isn’t.
Teaching children to view media images with a critical eye is an important first step.
At a time when they should feel secure with their body, too many children learn to feel anxious about weight and begin to make choices that contribute to the very problems they hope to avoid. Rather than helping, studies have confirmed that weight stigma and body dissatisfaction lead to poorer eating and fitness choices, less physical activity, weight gain and diminished health.
As a result, researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Obesity and Health and elsewhere have issued a call for weight stigma reduction programs to promote positive eating and fitness habits without regard to size. Most important to this is developing an identity based on who they are rather than how they look, choosing positive role models that support their deeper values, and actively embracing health and vitality through positive eating and physical activity.
By taking a hard line on bullying, focusing on personal strengths and teaching children to understand what’s realistic and what’s not, we can begin to help adolescents encourage healthy body image now and always.
Swinson, Jo MP. Creating a Fairer and More Equal Society. 13 October 2014. Part of the Body Confidence Campaign Publications.
Davies, Carolyn and Ward, Harriet. Safeguarding Children Across Services. 2012. Safeguarding Children Across Services: Messages from Research brings together a wide-ranging body of government-funded research on safeguarding children from neglect and abuse in England and Wales.
Klein, Kendyl M., “Why Don’t I Look Like Her? The Impact of Social Media on Female Body Image” (2013). CMC Senior Theses. Paper 720. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/720