The annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week (WSAW), sponsored by the Binge-Eating Disorder Association (BEDA), is in full swing, with a special focus today, Sept. 25, on the issue of weight stigma in school settings. In light of the recent press release by the Academy for Eating Disorders that showed half of children’s television programs contained at least one weight-stigmatizing event, the problem of weight stigma among youth is ever more pertinent.
The featured blogger today was Carmen Cool, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist with extensive experience with youth, leading her to suggest 10 key ways to combat weight stigma in schools. Her key points are listed and summarized here.
First realize that it exists
Weight bias is the action that leads to weight stigma and it is apparent in all settings of society; school is not an exception. It sometimes seems that children are more conscious that they judge and are judged on the basis of their weight, primarily because their actions are less hidden in the guile and duplicitous nature which adults use to mask their biases. Children often take it for a certainty that they will be judged according to their weight (i.e. picked last for a sporting event or excluded from the ‘popular’ crowd), but they do not realize it is an unacceptable form of oppression.
Stop teaching it
In order to stop weight stigma, we must stop teaching it. It can sometimes slip subconsciously into our assumptions and discussions, especially in relation to health, so it is imperative that we adopt a more concerted attitude towards discovering and rooting out weight stigma in our words and actions.
Stop having us calculate our BMI in health/gym/psychology class and telling us what’s ok and what’s not ok
Body mass index (BMI) is a far from perfect tool, but our clinical reliance on it is considerable. However, it cannot indicate a person’s health, especially not a child’s, when their body is still growing and changing at a rapid rate. The use of BMI calculations or report cards in schools only serves to give children an extra source of competition and a distorted view about the importance of weight.
Teach health, not weight
Health must be the focus rather than weight, since there is increasing evidence that weight is not the most accurate predictor of health, especially when BMI is considered. However, if BMI must be taught in schools, Cool shares that “the message needs to be clear that it is only one of a multitude of factors that go into health, and that people outside the ‘normal’ range can be very healthy.” Changing the focus of physical education classes to health and wellness could also help mitigate an over-emphasis on weight.
Teachers need to be aware of their own body-negative comments
Children present a vulnerable population that are highly susceptible to the influence of peers, caregivers and teachers. When put in a position of influence over children, it is imperative that we recognize our own biases and insecurities to ensure we do not project them. Cool states “teachers are role models and believe me, kids are watching and listening … 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
The focus on athletics is over-emphasized in relation to other activities, implying to artistic or academic students that their contributions are not as valuable. Scholarships are often based on athletics, driving home the message that those who are athletic are valued or have more privilege than those who are not. We need to stop adopting this narrow-minded value frame and understand that children can have strengths in many areas, all of which are treasured.
Look at the ways that schools institutionalize thinness as a value
The thin-ideal is ever-present in all areas of society, with schools as no exception. This will require a cultural-shift that must begin with the way we approach size in schools and extend to all areas of life. Because truly, ‘playground politics’ are everywhere and weight-based bullying in school can continue in other contexts life-long unless we take steps to stop it.
Give us a chance to be activists
Children have a unique voice and power that can be harnessed to effect change. If they are educated about the dangers of weight bias and stigma and understand the importance of changing this dialogue, they can become activists to change the situation. Giving them that power also makes them realize that they don’t have to just accept this as a natural part of life.
We need a safe way to practice our skills
Speaking up about sensitive issues takes bravery in any context, but in a school-setting with the heightened value children and teenagers attribute to their peers, it can be debilitating. However, it is important that children are provided opportunities to practice combating weight stigma through role playing in realistic scenarios and brainstorming ideas for how to change the status quo.
We need to be taught to value difference – not fear it
Lastly and perhaps, most importantly, we need to embrace differences among children and not judge them based on those differences. Our society has progressed considerably about accepting gender and racial differences (although it still has far to go), but weight stigma seems to be considered an acceptable form of discrimination among both adults and youth. It is time to challenge the status quo and respect each other for the unique individuals we are, independent of size, shape, or weight.