Body Talk: What Can We Do To Empower our Students

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At the beach the other day, I was shy about jumping in and playing the water due to my body shape, age, and size. If it were just me and my close family members, I may not have been as shy, but instead I was surrounded by fit, popularly-built women and men. So I stayed a bit hidden from the view.

Of course, you might think, it's crazy to limit your love of the water and play just because your body does not fit America's body beautiful obsession. But women like me everywhere know what it's like to face prejudice and ridicule about one's body. We grew up with taunts and unkind words. We were chastised for eating, made fun of because of our body size or shape, and learned to avoid those comments and find peace in other ways.

I remember when I first met my wonderful husband and was so surprised that a big girl like me could be loved by a wonderful man like him--it was one of life's greatest gifts.

My sister who had a culturally-approved body type, grew up keenly aware of the body talk and response I received. As a mother of girls, she made a point to follow these rules:
  • Talk about health rather than body size and shape.
  • Avoid any conversations with women that turned to body obsession.
  • Focus on elements of life that make women strong including health, education, passion, interest, positive activity, family, and friends.
She's been a good coach to me with regard to body image, and I've been able to be a good coach to my students too in this regard. I don't allow mean taunts or name calling related to body size. I look for ways to encourage healthy habits in the classroom, and I advocate to system leaders for greater, more inclusive health activities such as swimming lessons for all, bike safety classes, naturalist training, daily physical education classes for all students, and nutrition/wellness lessons and practice. I'd really like to see our students who have health challenges get extra coaching and support in this regard as I believe that would help them to achieve academically and socially too. 

In general, I work and live in a community that values health and has the money to support healthy lifestyles. Most students are involved in healthy extracurricular sports and activities, they eat good, nutritious food, and enjoy healthy family activities too. Fortunately, I was able to do the same for my children, and so far, they enjoy healthy lifestyles. 

As a child, I was always a big girl. That never bothered me until I reached the pre-teen years when I became very self conscious about my body. It didn't help that the fashion icon of the era was Twiggy. and that beauty meant mostly blonde and blue eyed. Television, newspapers, and magazines, which were included in my popular activities, reflected America's favored looks too and I didn't see myself in those pictures. Further, when I was young, girls' sports teams were few to none. It was before laws that equalized sports activities for girls and boys.

Fortunately there is a much greater variety of models today. We see greater variety when it comes to what's considered beautiful, acceptable, and popular. Yet when I walked down a popular street in a major U.S. city not too long ago, I did notice that the models in the windows didn't reflect the main population groups of the city. So we still have room to go.

Overall, our children will be healthy and beautiful if we do the following:
  • Focus on healthy food, healthy activity, and healthy living
  • Get out into nature--walk, hike, bike, swim, boat, and play outdoors
  • Don't focus on popular media images of beauty, but instead focus on values of beauty that really matter such as kindness, generosity, contribution, happiness, joy, love, passion. . . .
  • Explicitly discuss cultural values versus your own values. Let your children know their beauty and value from an early age and don't compare them to the media--instead help your children to cultivate their own sense of worth, value, and beauty.
  • Assess your clubs, schools, and communities for the messages they send about beauty and acceptance, get rid of any signage or messages that are not inclusive.
  • Reach out to students and children who are alone with regard to their body types, culture, race, lifestyle, and religion; talk to them about it and find ways to help them feel like they matter. Too often our students who are outliers in any way are demeaned both intentionally and unintentionally.
  • Look for ways to make your homes, schools, and communities healthier--advocate for safe bike trails, parks, and money spent on healthy, inclusive activities.
  • Work to support efforts that make healthy food more accessible and affordable. Make sure that school lunches are healthy. Support healthy snack access too. 
What we face and experience as children stays with us throughout life. It's very difficult to undo the impact our childhood experiences have on us. If we offer children healthy, happy, positive childhood experiences, the kind that lay the foundation to a healthy future, we prepare them well for their lives ahead. 

What would you add to this post? How can we better serve our students with regard to these ideas? In what ways can we alter programming and reach out to serve all of our students better? 

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