Educators can impact students’ concept of body image

Guest post by Elena Bukshtinovich, Occasional Teacher, SCDSB

This week is recognized as Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week by the Ministry of Education. But at schools, every day of every week of every month should have a focus on bullying prevention.

The Accepting Schools Act Bill, 113, describes bullying as a behaviour that is:

  • repeated and intentional which causes harm, fear or distress
  • creates a negative environment at a school
  • where there is a perceived or real power imbalance between the student and the individual based on factors including size, strength, age, intelligence, peer group power, economic status, social status, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, family circumstances, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability or the receipt of special education

For this post, I will focus on sizeism and delve a bit deeper into what is often a socially accepted and deeply ingrained form of bullying.

Our students are bombarded with socially-constructed ideals of beauty and attractiveness in the media. As educators, we know the ‘thin is beautiful’ myth is rampant and it is propagated through the media every second.

Schools are not in a vacuum. Our students go home and are repeatedly told by the media that their bodies are objects that need to be adjusted and perfected. Girls are told via the media that their worth is connected with their appearance. Media activist Jean Kilbourne states that the overwhelming presence of media images of painfully thin women means that real girls’ bodies have become invisible in the mass media (1).

In 2004, a study conducted for ETFO by Dr. June Larkin and Dr. Carla Rice found some very saddening and startling data. Consider the following:

  • By age four, our young learners have expressed a desire to be thin
  • By age eight, while body image is a struggle for both male and female students, female students experience the issue much more severely
  • By age 15, many girls react to the constant teasing, harassment and bullying about their bodies by resorting to extreme weight loss and binge eating, both extremely unhealthy responses
  • Girls who internalize negative thoughts about their bodies may withdraw from physical activities and other learning experiences (2)

This data can definitely inform our teaching. We need to ensure that all body types are visible in our schools and classrooms. Science has shown that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. We can reinforce to our students that all body types are acceptable. And we should have a dialogue with students about the media and how it portrays physical appearances, as well as how it under represents, makes invisible and oftentimes villanizes certain types of bodies. Teachers can also ensure they focus on students’ ability, achievement and success, and make students aware of their own success.

Ensuring acceptance of diverse body types can also be aided through the use of various children’s literature and mentor texts, including;

  • Shapesville by Andy Mills and illustrated by Becky Osborn: This text celebrates body diversity and looks at body acceptance: “It’s not the size of your shape, or the shape of your size, but the size of your heart, and that deserves first prize. So be proud of your body, any size or shape will do.”
  • I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont and illustrated by David Catrow: This engaging text depicts what self-acceptance and body-acceptance looks like.
  • Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patti Lovell and illustrated by David Catrow: This beautifully illustrated text examines how a grandmother teaches her granddaughter to accept her body and recognize just how valuable her skills and achievements are.
  • Ink-Blot written and illustrated by Maria Eugenia: This text examines Ink-Blot, a girl that does not conform to the beauty myth, and instead focuses on having fun and being happy.
  • Amazing Women Athletes: Women’s Hall of Fame Series by Jill Bryant: This text makes women athletes visible and gets students to see that a female’s athletic ability, not her appearance, is tantamount to her worth and value.
  • Being Big by Sharen Liddell: This mentor-text examines body diversity and body acceptance.
  • Incredibly Women Inventors: Women’s Hall of Fame Series by Sandra Braun: Various short autobiographies about women inventors and their achievements, focusing on their inventions, rather than their physical appearance and the beauty myth.
  • In the Bag! by Monica Kulling and illustrated by David Parkins: Examines the influence of female inventor Margaret Knight and her contributions not only to the Industrial Revolution, but also to our everyday lives.
  • Princess Backwards by Jane Gray and illustrated by Liz Milkau: Mentor-text that positions the female character in a powerful role, where her appearance is not nearly as important as her accomplishments.
  • Princess to the Rescue by Claudia Souza and illustrated by Christelle Ammirati: This mentor-texts centers around a princess that uses her strength and intelligence to achieve success, not her appearance.

Ensuring that students are exposed to diverse body sizes in literature is a wonderful step to creating learning communities that are full of students with positive body image and self-concept. It is also a critical step in ensuring not only student achievement, but certainly student well-being.

Having students hear stories and reflect on experiences of those who have been bullying based on size (and any other characteristic), as well as those who do the bullying and those who witness it, is crucial in creating a discourse about the hurt and damage bullying can do.

A poetry anthology, The Bully, The Bullied, The Bystander, The Brave collected by David Booth and Larry Swartz can be used as an instrument to deconstruct sizeism and bullying and unpack the equity issues that are present when bullying occurs. I would like to conclude this blog with a poem by Barrie Wade, titled Truth:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin,
while words are ghosts that haunt me.

Slant and curved the word-swords fall
to pierce and stick inside me.
Bats and bricks may ache through bones,
but words can mortify me.

Pain from words has left its scar
on mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises now have healed;
it’s words that I remember.

It is important for educators to create an environment where bullying and sizeism does not exist. Leave a comment to share your anti-bullying initiatives!

  1. Kilbourne, Jean. Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Touchstone, 2000.
  2. Data derived from http://www.etfo.ca/ISSUESINEDUCATION/BODYIMAGE/Pages/default.aspx

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