Middle School Health Class (Fat Shaming 101)

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When I wrote my blog post about having a daughter in middle school, it didn’t occur to me that the teachings in the classroom would be something I would need to worry about. Apparently, I was wrong. This week - this graphic was used in the school’s health lesson. I think the class should be renamed Fat Shaming 101. Here is a list of the things I found troubling in just one day of health class as well as the reasons why these issues are so problematic.

Areas of concern in a typical middle school health class:

  1. Making health be based on weight or how much fat a person has on their body

  2. The use of stereotypical and stigmatizing pictures in class - (seen above)

  3. The idea that eating certain foods by itself makes you fat

  4. Shaming food choices - (McDonald's)

  5. Counting calories and the myth of calories in and calories out as the way to control weight

  6. The idea that eating fat makes you fat

  7. Setting up the "good food/bad food" dynamic

  8. The lack of information about how girls gain weight in puberty and it's normal and necessary

  9. Setting kids up to judge and shame each other and start food policing each other.

  10. The lack of information around size diversity and how to foster a positive body image

  11. Overall, perpetuating fat phobia and fat bias by giving the impression that fat is bad vs just another characteristic of a human body.  

From the information being presented in class, it appears that health is being equated with weight. However, people are beginning to understand (and many pioneers have known for years) that this is not necessarily true and to assume this is harmful. There are many larger people who are healthy and thinner people who are sick. You can't tell anything about a person's health by their size.

I was very troubled, therefore, by the graphic that was presented in class. It promoted stereotypes of fat people which adds to the bias that people already have of fat people and it stigmatizes fat people. Studies have shown that it's the weight stigma and bias that can be more harmful to people's health than fat alone. Studies have also shown that if a child perceives that parents think they are bigger than is accepted by our very narrow cultural standards, they have a higher tendency to be even bigger in the long run.

Why do they end up bigger? Because if children are given the message that they are bigger than they should be, they have a higher tendency to try and stop eating certain foods and diet which often leads to increased weight since diets have been proven again and again to fail in the long run.

Furthermore, it is not true that eating pizza and doughnuts by itself makes you fat. There are many components to what affects a person's size - family history and genetics, how much they move, what they eat, in addition to our environment, and access to quality foods. There are also many components to health - physical health, emotional health, mental health, and spiritual health not to mention the social determinants of health such as income and access to medical care.

Being thin does not in anyway ensure that you are healthy.

A young woman restricting her food and counting calories and avoiding social situations where tempting foods are available may (or may not) be thin, but she certainly isn't mentally healthy. Then there are girls who starve themselves daily and are still fat - (you can be fat and anorexic) and according to health class - they must be eating pizza and ice cream and McDonald's all day.

Some people also don't have the ability or finances needed in order to stock the fridge with high quality foods and a meal at McDonald's is better than no meal at all.  They should not be shamed for it.

Calories in and Calories Out has also been proven to not be as clear cut and reliable as we once thought. Our caloric needs vary day to day and even by the time of day or time of year. How we metabolize those calories is also very different from person to person and from food to food.

 Also, it is a myth that eating fat makes you fat.  It's the fat free craze that has changed how and what we eat in the first place. Often when fats are removed, sugars are added and foods end up more processed. It's better to eat full fat foods that fill us up and are satisfying.

In addition, it is harmful to label foods as good or bad or junk.  How does a person end up feeling when they are eating "junk" food? They feel guilty. Studies have shown that how we feel when we eat has a big impact on how we metabolize food.  Our minds are very powerfully linked to what our bodies do and how they operate.

Middle school girls bodies are also changing dramatically. They are supposed to gain between 20 and 50 pounds as their bodies prepare for childbirth. This is normal and they should not be shamed for the size and shape of their bodies.

In addition, children at this age are not very nice at times and if we teach them that fat is bad (which it isn't) then we are giving them more ammunition to hurt and bully others.

Fat is a body type.  It's a characteristic for some people just like being tall or blonde or green eyed.  It's not within our control as much as our culture would like us to believe (and the culture is finding that they have been wrong to think we can control our size.)

Are American's getting fatter? Yes, but our increase in size is actually also being attributed to the rise in dieting and the impact of the fat free food movement, among other diets. Biologically, when we restrict our bodies of the calories it needs, it tends to respond by working really hard to get us back to the size that we were before we went on the diet (this is called the set point theory). This is why 95% of diets fail and people regain the weight lost, often plus more, within 3-5 years. 

So those are a lot of things that we should not be doing when it comes to educating children (or anyone else for that matter) about health.  What can we do instead?

We can teach students that they can learn to trust their bodies.  Instead of telling them how much to eat, we can teach them about hunger and fullness and how to be aware of their own internal signals. Instead of calling foods good or bad, we can have them be mindful and notice how they feel when they eat different foods. We can encourage them to incorporate a wide variety of foods in their diet that are nourishing and satisfying.

We can encourage them to include more fruits and vegetables without shaming them about other foods that may also be in their diet or suggesting restrictive behaviors. We can encourage them to find movement that they really enjoy and try new things. We can support them as they experience their changing bodies and assure them that the changes are normal and not all bodies are supposed to look or operate the same. 

We can encourage them to support and help others with kindness. We can encourage them to have compassion for themselves and others. We can make sure they have the emotional and mental support that they need. We can look outside of ourselves and fix the systems that are broken that affect the health of our children.  We can stop saying that fat is the enemy. Weight stigma and bias is the real enemy.

Now I know that schools have a curriculum to follow and certain things are being dictated from the district level.  All of us need to ask what exactly is being taught in the curriculum and what are our kids being exposed to? What does the curriculum include to address eating disorders, size diversity and positive body image?

 It is also imperative that at a minimum all fat shaming and stereotypical materials are removed from the curriculum.

I'd also like to invite all health teachers and staff to consider your own experiences with your body.  How is your relationship to food and body and what has been the biggest influence on that relationship?

Personally, it brings tears to my eyes to imagine the number of students, (boys and girls) who have ended up with disordered relationships to food and body following calorie counting lectures in health class.

It doesn't have to happen and I'm hoping we can work together to ensure that it doesn't.