The Best Way to Talk About Body Image

You've been telling us that your students are interested in body image issues, and in the December/January issue, we have a hot-button debate [link] that will get them talking. (Don't worry, that's a good thing! With some proper prep, that is. More on that in a minute...)

In Should Body-Shaming Ads Be Banned? we raise the question: Should there be government policies put in place to limit or ban ads that promote unhealthy body ideals?  In this four-page story, your students will:

  • Meet two students with differing opinions on the topic
  • Learn about the complexities of body image ideals in the media
  • Discover their own opinion--and how they can take action

It's a tricky debate question for sure, but tackling this topic can be life-changing for your students. Right now, 69 percent of teens say media influences their concept of the ideal body shape, and more than half of teen girls report using unhealthy weight control behaviors. We checked in with Kristen Snow, a consultant for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) who specializes in body image education, for some Do's and Don'ts to help frame the discussion.

DO:

*Explain the difference between "healthy" and "beautiful." The trend in media is to describe thinner models who look a certain way as healthy (think: "Strong is the new sexy"). It can be confusing for students and make them equate health with outward appearance. Instead, stress that it's impossible to tell if someone's healthy or not from the way they look, and that there is no single version of a healthy man or woman.

*Dig into the advertising industry's goals. Students are slammed with 7.5 hours of media each day, says Kristen, and in those hours, they're likely seeing imagery that can lead to body dissatisfaction. Asking questions such as, "What do you think they're trying to do in this ad?" and "What is the goal of this ad?" helps students see hidden agendas. In doing so, you can disarm the power these ads have over their beliefs. "When kids understand that the fashion, diet, and plastic surgery industries are profiting from these ideals to the tune of $60 billion, it leads to some lightbulb moments," explains Kristen.  

*Encourage "body activism." When you're constantly bombarded with one definition of beauty, it's easy for students who don't look a certain way start to feel powerless. In fact, half of teens say media ads make them want to lose weight. Even bringing this statistic to light can increase awareness and get teens to start challenging their own thinking. Reinforce the notion that they do have power--the power to not be impacted by these ads, to realize that beauty comes in all forms, and to take action to change the standards we see. Encourage them to voice their own beliefs and write to change-makers.

 

DON'T:

*Model poor body talk or allow teens to body shame themselves and others. Make sure students understand that your classroom is a body-positive zone, and start using--and encouraging students to use--compliments that aren't about appearance (think: "You look so happy today," or "You overcame that challenge.").  We have a great Advocacy in Action activity and worksheet on this--check out the November/December Teacher's Guide [link] for more info! You may also want to explore our feature story on Body Bullies (from the September 2014 issue). 

*Discuss specific disordered behaviors, even as a cautionary tale. "In recent years we've moved away from discussing specifics around unhealthy eating behaviors, such as binging, purging, calorie counting, or restricting, since it can be triggering to students," explains Kristen. Instead, when discussing ways to combat feelings of body dissatisfaction around these ads, keep it positive. Encourage students to be mindful of their own feelings and physical sensations, with statements like: "How does seeing this ad make you feel?" and "What would make you feel better about your body today?"

*Miss an opportunity to help. Students who constantly speak poorly about others or who seem to do a fair amount of negative self-talk in class could be  having a hard time with body image, says Kristen. Check out this comprehensive list of warning signs, here, and work with the guidance office and parents to discuss the issue and bring in early intervention, if necessary. NEDA's Helpline is also a great resource for educators and their students: 1-800-931-2237.

Additional Resources:

  • The Body Project is an excellent eating-disorder prevention program for young women who have experienced body dissatisfaction. Learn more about the program, including how to be a facilitator,  here

 

 

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