How Schools Contribute to Negative Body Image in Kids

Negative body image is common among kids and teens, and can lead to serious health consequences. Yet it’s a topic few K-12 schools cover.

In fact, experts say routine school practices meant to combat obesity and promote healthy eating, like weigh-ins, food diaries and fitness “report cards,” may be making matters worse.

“I don’t know if there’s very many other areas where you can kind of cause the problem you’re trying to prevent,” says Zali Yager, a body image expert and associate professor in the Institute of Health and Sport at Victoria University in Australia. “With body image, we find that teaching the wrong sort of content causes people to think they should lose weight, and can trigger dieting and eating disorders.”

What Is Body Image?

Body image is “your thoughts and feelings about how you look,” says Yager. Having a negative body image is associated with a range of negative health outcomes, from lower self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors to depression and eating disorders.

Research shows that many young people experience body dissatisfaction, and that eating disorders, which are among the most lethal of mental illnesses, surged in teens during the pandemic.

[READ: Understanding School-Based Mental Health Services.]

While girls as young as 3 perceive thin as good and fat as bad, body dissatisfaction is not only about losing weight, Yager says. “It’s the pressure and the feeling that you should be changing your body at all from what it is.” Among some boys, for instance, that can take the form of a desire for more muscularity.

Effective body image interventions can teach kids to question cultural beauty standards and appreciate their own bodies and appearance. But public school health and physical education curricula tend to focus on easy-to-teach nutrition facts like food groups and calories.

“Most schools don’t teach a body image curriculum,” says advocate Denise Hamburger, who founded a nonprofit, Be Real, to address the lack of resources for educators. And “those that do might be doing more harm than good, because they are stuck in diet culture themselves.”

School Practices That Can Be Harmful

Almost all public schools provide some kind of nutrition education, but experts say much of what is taught is rooted in outdated notions that can contribute to body dissatisfaction.

“It’s very black and white: healthy or unhealthy, good or bad,” says Luciana Zuest, an associate professor of kinesiology at Towson University in Maryland. “It’s simple, it’s easy right? Don’t eat this, eat that. But it lacks a social-cultural view of what food is, what health is.”

Hamburger recalls one California school whose 2018 health textbook discussed “good and bad” foods, counting calories, measuring body fat with calipers and using a food journal — all practices she says often contribute to disordered eating.

Textbook writers may be health experts, but they aren’t necessarily body image experts, she notes. “You need to read the research to know what’s problematic. We all live in this culture where this is considered normative behavior.”

Experts say that health education has long been rooted in “shame and blame,” a problem that also extends to physical education.

“As a marginalized field, one of (PE’s) hopes was that we can solve the so-called obesity crisis — we can be important,” says Zuest, who is a board member at SHAPE America, which publishes national standards for K-12 health and physical education. “But there is no evidence that physical education can do anything to change children’s bodies.”

For instance, over the past two decades, in response to rising rates of youth obesity, many states began requiring schools to weigh students and measure their body mass index, or BMI. But years of research have shown that such screenings do not reduce childhood obesity. In fact, “all of the evidence points to it being harmful,” says Yager.

Body size is a common reason students are bullied in school, and studies show that school-based BMI screenings may increase weight stigma and teasing as well as students’ dissatisfaction with their weight and the likelihood that parents will put their children on diets, which is associated with weight gain in adolescence.

Yet, roughly 40% of school-age children live in states where schools still weigh students and send BMI reports to parents, according to data gathered by Be Real.

[Read: How to Handle Bullying at School.]

Similarly, California and other states still mandate physical fitness testing, despite a lack of evidence of any positive effect on children’s health.

“There’s no evidence that fitness tests can contribute to the mission of making physical activity attractive to kids,” says Zuest. “On the contrary, it’s public, it can be humiliating.”

How Schools Can Help Kids Develop Positive Body Image

In addition to ending shame-based practices like BMI reporting, experts say K-12 schools can help promote healthy body image in a number of ways.

Zuest says PE teachers should focus on creating opportunities for children to feel confident and enjoy participating in physical education, regardless of their ability, size or background.

Nutrition education can include talking about “mindful eating,” Yager says. That means “listening to your body … trusting that your body knows when it’s hungry and full.”

Schools can also teach about healthy body image. While curricula can be hard to find, Dove’s Confident Me program for middle schoolers has been shown to be effective, and Be Real is rolling out a free high school curriculum.

In keeping with the research, these programs are as much about social-emotional learning, media literacy and challenging stereotypes as they are about health.

Yager, who helped develop Be Real’s curriculum, says it’s built around practicing self-compassion, which has been shown to improve body image in adults. “It’s a really practical strategy that becomes more automatic over time, to speak to yourself with kindness instead of criticism,” she says.

[READ: What to Say and Do If Your Child Thinks They’re Fat.]

What Parents Can Do

Outside of school, parents “need to be careful about what we’re saying about our own bodies and other people’s bodies,” says Yager. Kids can pick up on parents’ attitudes about body image and weight from a very early age.

“So when we’re standing in front of the mirror pinching our bits and looking sad, they can pick up on all of that,” Yager says. “The message they can get is how you look is the most important thing.”

In addition to not criticizing their own or others’ appearance, parents can talk about the things they like about their body’s functionality.

“We’re trying to teach kids that what our bodies do for us is so much more important than how they look, and how we feel is so much more important,” says Yager.

Hamburger says parents can ask if their child’s school teaches about body image and how they approach weight and health. She encourages parents to share the facts on body dissatisfaction in kids, and speak up about any potentially harmful messaging or practices.

“We all don’t want to be that parent, you don’t want to be the complain-y one,” says Yager. “But that’s the way change will happen.”

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