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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Look Around! Tips for creating a body positive learning environment

by Maureen Kelly

This article is divided into the following sections:


Rationale

Body image, the mental representation someone has of his/her physical self at any given point in time, is getting a lot of attention. News stories, magazines, TV shows, researchers, educators, youth and parents — everyone's talking about it. We know that negative body image has a damaging impact on self-esteem. We also know that low self-esteem can be a causal factor for some high-risk behaviors, including early and unprotected sexual activity. Given these realities, it's vital that lesson plans and physical classroom environments contain messages and images that emphasize the connection between diversity — of both bodies and beauty — and health.

It's essential to be aware of the images of bodies and beauty that your learning environment projects. If you are teaching about the natural and beautiful diversity of bodies, but the images on your walls or in your textbooks reflect only one kind of beauty, you've got some work to do. This activity and worksheet are meant to assist you in looking at the images in your educational environment and examining the messages they send. Remember: alignment is key! What you're teaching in words must match the visual images that surround your students.

In order to take stock of the body and beauty images in your learning environment, it may be helpful to change your perspective. If you're a classroom teacher, sit in a student desk and look around; if you're a health educator, review your pamphlets and handouts to check for alignment. Ask yourself, is what I see congruent with the message of acceptance and diversity I want to convey to the youth? Alignment is key!

This inventory is similar to one that would be used to review messages and images regarding cultural diversity or sexual orientation. Although the discrimination and bias are different, the pain is often similar for those who are both consciously and subconsciously marginalized.

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Step-by-step: doing a body sensitive inventory

  1. What you'll need: paper (either print this page or jot down some notes) and a pen. You'll want the following headings on your worksheet:
What are you looking at?
Keep!
Toss!
Find more like this!
Okay, but keep looking
Textbooks:        
         
         
         
         
Magazines & Periodicals:        
         
         
         
         
Posters & Artwork:        
         
         
         
Pamphlets & Brochures:        
         
         
         
Other Materials:        
         
         
         

  1. Set aside about 30-45 minutes. Have your paper and pen ready, and start looking around. This is an opportunity for you to explore your learning environment from a new perspective. You can do this on your own, you can make this a class activity, or you can ask another teacher or student teacher to help out.

    You may want to look at the following areas:

    • Textbooks: Do you have a choice about the textbooks you use in your class? If so, check out the variety of textbooks available to be sure that the images used within the pages realistically represent your students. Textbook publishers are getting very savvy about using a variety of images to represent their diversity of readers. Ask for sample copies of competing textbooks and decide which ones fit best for your classroom.

    • Magazines & Periodicals: What messages are being sent to your students via your magazine and periodical selection? Whether they're health or news journals, or fashion, sports, or teen magazines, are there a variety of people represented on the pages? Magazines are one of the biggest culprits of the mixed message syndrome we find in the media. The periodicals you offer should be reviewed for consistency.

      Many "women's" magazines promise the best double chocolate cake and the quickest weight loss scheme within pages of each other. Many "men's" magazines tell men and boys that the only way to be okay is to build their muscles at the gym. All too often, people of healthy, realistic, and diverse sizes are pictured as the depressed and unattractive "before" image for a weight loss program.

      Review magazines page by page prior to purchasing a subscription to be sure the message you are sending from their pages is aligned with the one you want to send about the diversity of bodies and beauty.

    • Posters & Artwork: What pictures do you see as you look around? Are there a variety of positively represented body shapes and sizes? Do images portray people of various sizes in active and realistic scenarios? Will the people looking at your walls see themselves represented?

    • Pamphlets & Brochures: Do you hand out pamphlets, brochures or articles as a part of your lessons? Do the materials you make available on health/weight/body issues have positive messages about a variety of normal body shapes and sizes? Do materials address nutrition, exercise and realistic weight/body goals more than simply dieting? Are there materials that talk about what to do or where to go for help if weight preoccupation is an issue? Are there materials on basic principles of self-esteem? How about body acceptance?

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Summary

A positive body image has a positive impact on many life behaviors. Educators can play a vital role in cultivating the development of positive image. By assuring that the representations of bodies and beauty used with a learning environment are diverse, healthy, and realistic, an educator can be a part of the solution, not the problem.

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Looking for More Ideas?
Top 10 things an educator can do to encourage positive body image

  1. Teach about body size and body weight as one part of who people are.

  2. Speak up! Ask questions about how bodies are depicted in the media. Ask: does that look real? Do most people look like that? What do you think might have been done to that picture to make it look that way?

  3. Watch your mouth! Do you put yourself down? Do you criticize your own body? If you do, stop it! This is good for you, your students and the whole world! There is no value in spending your time on body hatred.

  4. Teach about health and weight and nutrition and exercise. But, when you teach, make sure that you teach about facts, not myths, and health, not social expectations! Teach that someone's body size alone is NOT an indicator of health!

  5. Look around. What kinds of images do you have on posters in your classroom? Alignment is key … do the images you have displayed match your commitment to body acceptance and diversity?

  6. Educate yourself about the myths and facts about body shapes and sizes. Having a large body does not mean an individual is unhealthy.

  7. Don't lie or sugarcoat anything! It's a harsh world out there regarding bodies — acknowledge the difficulties; then help to create an action plan to fight them!

  8. Teach skills for dealing with our societal obsession with size and weight. Teach critical thinking skills. Teach media literacy. Teach youth to use their voices early and often and whenever they see oppression, intolerance or prejudice.

  9. Teach about injustice and tell youth that many groups of people have suffered discrimination and prejudice. Teach youth what they can do to help stop it!

  10. Never, ever, ever say something like, "But I'm sure she's pretty on the inside!"

See the Promoting a Healthy Body Image Topic in Brief for a list of resources related to body image.

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About the Author

Maureen Kelly, CFLE, is an author, educator and activist around issues of sexuality, health and human rights. As the Director of Education and Training for Planned Parenthood of Tompkins County, Kelly works to advance sexual literacy, increase access to sexuality information and encourage thoughtful community dialog about human sexuality. Kelly's published works include My Body, My Rules: The Body Esteem, Sexual Esteem Connection.

Kelly is currently serving her second term on the board of directors of the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States. She can be reached at maureen.kelly@ppfa.org