Social Navigation

How schools contribute to negative body image in children


Experts say routine school practices designed to combat obesity and promote healthy eating, such as weigh-ins, food diaries and fitness reports, may be making matters worse.

Negative body image is common among children and teens and can have serious health consequences. Still, it’s a subject few K-12 schools cover.

In fact, experts say routine school practices designed to combat obesity and promote healthy eating, such as weighing, food diaries and fitness reports, may be making matters worse.

“I don’t know if there are many other areas where you could be causing the problem you’re trying to prevent,” says Zali Yager, a body image expert and associate professor at the Institute of Health and Sport at Australia’s Victoria University. “With body image, we’re finding that teaching the wrong kind of content makes people think they need to lose weight, and that can trigger dieting and eating disorders.”

What is Body Image?

Body image is “your thoughts and feelings about what you look like,” says Yager. Having a negative body image is associated with a range of negative health outcomes, from lower self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors to depression and eating disorders.

Research shows that many young people experience body dissatisfaction and that eating disorders, which are among the most deadly mental illnesses, took off among teens during the pandemic.

[READ: Understanding School-Based Mental Health Services.]

While girls as young as 3 see thin as good and fat as bad, body dissatisfaction isn’t just about losing weight, says Yager. “It’s the pressure and feeling that you should change your body from what it is in the first place.” For example, in some boys this may take the form of a desire for more muscularity.

Effective body image interventions can teach children to question cultural standards of beauty and value their own bodies and appearance. But public school health and physical education curricula tend to focus on easy-to-learn nutrition facts like food groups and calories.

“Most schools don’t teach a curriculum on body image,” says advocate Denise Hamburger, who founded a nonprofit organization, Be Real, to address the lack of resources for educators. And “those who do may be doing more harm than good because they themselves are trapped in diet culture.”

School practices that can be harmful

Nearly all public schools offer some form of nutrition education, but experts say much of what is taught is rooted in outdated beliefs that can contribute to body dissatisfaction.

“It’s very black and white: healthy or unhealthy, good or bad,” says Luciana Zuest, an associate professor of exercise science at Towson University in Maryland. “It’s simple, it’s easy right? Don’t eat this, eat that. But there is a lack of a socio-cultural view of what nutrition is, what health is.”

Hamburger recalls a California high school student whose 2018 health book discussed “good and bad” foods, counting calories, measuring body fat with calipers, and using a food diary — all practices she says often contribute to disordered eating.

Copywriters may be health experts, but they’re not necessarily body image experts, she notes. “You have to read the research to know what’s problematic. We all live in this culture where this is considered normative behaviour.”

Experts say health education has long been rooted in “shame and guilt,” a problem that extends to physical education as well.

“As a marginalized field, one of (PE’s) hopes was that we can solve the so-called obesity crisis — we can be important,” says Zuest, who is a board member at SHAPE America, which publishes national standards for K-12 health and physical education. “But there is no evidence that physical education can do anything to change children’s bodies.”

For example, in the past two decades, in response to rising rates of youth obesity, many states began requiring schools to weigh students and measure their body mass index, or BMI. But years of research have shown that such studies do not reduce childhood obesity. “All the evidence points to it being harmful,” says Yager.

Body size is a common reason students are bullied in school, and studies show that BMI screening in schools can lead to stigma and teasing about weight, as well as student dissatisfaction with their weight and the likelihood that parents will put their children on a diet to make. associated with weight gain in adolescence.

Yet about 40% of school-age children live in states where schools still weigh students and send BMI reports to parents, according to data collected by Be Real.

[Read: How to Handle Bullying at School.]

Similarly, California and other states still mandate physical fitness testing despite a lack of evidence of any positive effect on children’s health.

“There is no evidence that fitness testing can contribute to the mission of making exercise attractive to children,” says Zuest. “On the contrary, it’s public, it can be humiliating.”

How schools can help children develop a positive body image

In addition to ending shame-based practices like BMI reporting, experts say K-12 schools can help promote healthy body image in a number of ways.

Zuest says PE teachers should focus on creating opportunities for kids to feel confident and enjoy physical education, regardless of their ability, size or background.

Nutrition education can include talking about “mindful eating,” says Yager. That means “listening to your body…trusting your body to know when it’s hungry and full.”

Schools can also teach about healthy body image. While curricula can sometimes be hard to find, Dove’s Confident Me program for high school students has been shown to be effective and Be Real is rolling out a free high school curriculum.

Consistent with the research, these programs are as much about social-emotional learning, media literacy, and challenging stereotypes as they are about health.

Yager, who helped develop Be Real’s curriculum, says it’s built around practicing self-compassion, which has been shown to improve body image in adults. “It’s a very practical strategy that becomes more automatic over time, to talk to yourself with kindness rather than criticism,” she says.

[READ: What to Say and Do If Your Child Thinks They’re Fat.]

What parents can do

Outside of school, parents should be “careful about what we say about our own bodies and other people’s bodies,” says Yager. Children can pick up on parents’ attitudes about body image and weight from a very young age.

“So when we’re standing in front of the mirror and squeezing our bits and looking sad, they can pick up on all of that,” says Yager. “The message they can get is how you look is the most important thing.”

In addition to not criticizing their own or others’ appearance, parents can talk about the things they like about their body’s functionality.

“We try to teach kids that what our bodies do for us is so much more important than how they look, and that how we feel is so much more important,” says Yager.

Hamburger says parents can ask if their child’s school teaches about body image and how they deal with weight and health. She encourages parents to share the facts about childhood body dissatisfaction and speak up about potentially harmful messages or practices.

“We all don’t want to be that parent. You don’t want to be the complaining one,” says Yager. “But that’s the way change will happen.”

More from US News

How schools integrate social-emotional learning

How much break should children get?

Bullying in private schools versus public schools

How schools contribute to negative body image in children originally appeared on usnews. com

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.