Rachelle Allen is an education coordinator at Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV) who works with the community raising awareness about eating disorders. She explains why schools are an ideal setting for creating positive body image in children and which strategies can be most effective.
Why are schools good places to help children develop positive body image?
Schools are the workplace of children. They spend a significant portion of their days in school learning academic and social skills. Peer interactions are an important part of this experience and children are guided and influenced by their friends, classmates and teachers. It is not uncommon for children to mimic behaviours seen in the media, and this is often the catalyst for conversations with their peers. With so many mixed messages about how to look and feel, how to dress and what to eat, how to exercise and be popular, unhealthy behaviours such as ‘fat talk’ and ‘diet talk’ can become normalised.
Schools are a great place to model healthy acceptance of oneself and appreciation of diversity. It’s also a great opportunity to teach simple but effective health messages such as enjoying exercise because it is fun and eating a variety of foods in moderation (while identifying coping and resilience strategies that don’t involve food as rewards).
What strategies can schools use to promote positive body image?
To develop a healthy school culture, it can be simple and effective to model and promote: a positive body image; an enjoyment of sport/activity; and an acceptance of everyone’s strengths and skills.
One of the best strategies is through social and emotional skills teaching in the classroom. We know that social and emotional learnings, when explicitly taught in the curriculum, tend to filter into the whole-school environment. For example, if you are teaching the concept of ‘getting along’, then you should see evidence of these strategies in student interactions and problem solving in classroom activities. Classroom time can be dedicated to teaching students about acceptance and the development of self-awareness – in particular, of the physical self. These concepts are easily integrated into other curriculum areas such as literacy, society and environmental studies, music or art, for example.
Furthermore, keeping messages consistent within school policies and procedures ensures equity and safety of all members of the school community. These documents should reflect school values (including positive body image, physical activity and acceptance of one another) and be written in accessible language to support a healthy school culture.
How can schools best work with families to promote positive body image at home?
A whole-school approach is key when working to promote the best health and wellbeing outcomes for students. Families often look to teachers and school staff for advice, suggestions and support. To help promote positive body image parents can be encouraged to model the messages discussed in the classroom. To engage parents, effective strategies for schools include:
cultivating a supportive and welcoming environment for parents, so that they feel comfortable and confident discussing the issue, reiterating the messages at home and asking for assistance if needed
ensuring teachers are familiar with related services available in the community and where to go for the best and most current advice
information-sharing through newsletters to reach a wide audience
running parent information sessions (using presentations from organisations such as Eating Disorders Victoria) to provide effective strategies to support children and to highlight the many myths, traps and stereotypes
creating student awareness campaigns to encourage conversation at home and incorporate the messages of acceptance and diversity in homework activities and projects completed at home.
How critical are peer relationships to body image?
Body image is about how we see ourselves, but also how we think others perceive us. Children like to fit in; standing out for being different (particularly based upon appearance) can be incredibly stressful and anxiety-provoking. Seeking acceptance from friends and peers is highly important and linked to children’s feelings of acceptance and self-esteem.
Children are exposed to a range of messages in the media – through the internet, advertising or television shows. They may be unaware of the motivation behind these messages, but when friends and peers are all discussing the same concepts and coping strategies they may have seen on the latest episode of their favourite television show, these sometimes unhealthy messages can seem like a desirable behaviour.
Peer pressure is a normal part of childhood and adolescence, and many children are capable of making their own choices when they feel their values are compromised or their choices at odds with how they feel. However, until these critical decision making skills are developed, peers will be a significant and important sounding board. When everyone has the same mixed messages, we run the risk of normalising the wrong ideas and behaviours.
Can school staff really have an influence on peer relationships?
Absolutely. Children learn from those around them. Having strong role models, reliable teachers and supportive influences in their lives ensures children have positive experiences. So much about working with children in schools is about having faith that they are developing life skills and will continue to long after their relationship within a school has ended.
Resilience and coping skills, the ability to take risks in learning and life and to identify personal strengths, and the ability to develop positive working relationships are vital in successful classroom learning. But, more importantly, these are the skills that support our children to become happy and successful members of our community later in life.
What resources does Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV) offer to schools?
Because we recognise the importance of a whole-school approach, EDV Education offers workshops for parents, school staff and students.
Our parent and school staff workshops include:
An overview of eating disorders: the warning signs and protective factors (one hour workshop)
Body Image and the Media (one hour workshop)
Should I Say Something (four hour workshop developed by La Trobe University Melbourne).
For students, the EDV Education program Celebrating You! is a great model to improve the mental health outcomes of young people. There are four modules that can be run throughout the year, or components of each can be delivered to meet individual school needs and to fit into existing curriculum expectations. These modules include:
Module 1: Celebrating you! Explores: difference and diversity; the importance of physical and mental health; friendship and compassion; self-esteem, strengths and confidence; and body image.
Module 2: Media and You! Explores: media and advertising images and messages; dissatisfaction in oneself; unrealistic expectations; identifying influence; and redefining beauty.
Module 3: Healthy you! Explores: definitions and determinants of health; why we aspire to have good health; body image and dieting; healthy habits and protective factors; and disordered eating.
Module 4: Stress busting. Explores: ways to build resilience; supporting others; how to de-stress, process difficulties effectively and learn strategies for coping; and asking for help.
The Eating Disorders Victoria website www.eatingdisorders.org.au also has information and fact sheets that can be downloaded. The EDV Helpline (1300 550 236) is also available 9.30am-5pm each day to listen to, support and direct people to the appropriate resources available.