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This online version of the book Everybody Belongs, one of the series The Curriculum in Action, supports the implementation of Health and Physical Education in the New Zealand Curriculum. Body image issues are about much more than just physical size and shape. They also encompass attitudes, beliefs, and practices. For the purpose of this resource, body image means "a person's perceptions, thoughts and feelings about his or her body"(Grogan 1999: p 118). The Mental Health key area of learning requires that students have opportunities to develop:
- knowledge, understandings, and skills to strengthen personal identity and enhance a sense of self-worth;
- knowledge, understandings, and skills to examine discrimination and stereotyping, and to evaluate their impact on people's mental health;
- values and attitudes that support the enhancement of mental health for the students themselves, other people, and society.
Everybody Belongs provides teachers with ideas for planning units of work to meet the identified learning needs of their students. Teachers are not expected to implement all the suggested activities in this book. However, the key concepts do describe a developmental process that should be followed when planning and implementing this unit. These concepts are:
- personal identity and self-worth,
- societal attitudes and beliefs,
- critical thinking and action.
Why provide opportunities to consider issues about body image?
Body image is primarily a mental health issue with links to all other dimensions of well-being. Psychological research journals abound with articles describing the consequences of disordered ideas about body image for adolescents. So why should we be raising issues about body image with our eight- to ten-year-old students? In a 1992 British study of body satisfaction and body figure preferences:
They [the researchers] argue that children "consume" adult beliefs, values and prejudices around body shape and size, and adopt them as their own.
Grogan, 1999, p. 118
Children learn to make judgments about others from a very early age. At first, these judgments focus on tangible physical things like size and physical differences, but as they grow older, young people develop stereotyped views about other people based on these judgments, and they make assumptions based on these views. Everybody Belongs provides a context within which we can challenge stereotyping and other cultural myths and encourage young people to develop views that are less judgmental.
In present-day western society, the media exert an enormous influence on the social construction of an ideal body image. Much of what present-day society holds to be "ideal" is driven, and perpetuated, by the media. Media messages about "image" impact deeply on our emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social well-being. Young children are bombarded with messages about "acceptable" body images and the gender roles associated with them through their toys, television programmes, magazines and books, fashion trends, and music, and through the games they play. However, these messages do not reflect the diversity in our population.
Although anecdotal evidence suggests that messages about body image are increasingly impacting on male well-being, they are typically associated with female dieting and eating disorders rather than with such concepts as developing self-worth and well-being for all. The bulk of available research refers to women and girls.
In this country, preliminary findings from research being conducted by Dr Robyn Dixon from the School of Education, University of Auckland, indicate that concern about body image has already become an issue for some ten- to thirteen-year-olds (source: personal communication). Two-thirds of intermediate-age girls were dissatisfied with their weight. Sixteen percent thought that they were thinner than was ideal and fifty-one percent thought they were heavier than ideal. Forty percent of the girls believed that they would be happier if they were thinner (sample size = 700, aged ten to thirteen years).
Many people, even those who fall within a healthy weight range, undertake diets, exercise, or more drastic methods to "control" their size. Huge amounts of money are invested in combating "fat", and this reinforces poor societal attitudes and the development of stereotypes. In this book, body image is not about dieting and eating disorders.
Providing direct instruction and information about eating disorders and problem... eating may inadvertently serve to introduce young people to the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours which precede eating problems.
O'Dea, 1998, p. 1
Everybody Belongs is about:
- considering the thoughts and feelings that contribute to our self-perceptions – not only those that relate to our physical selves but also those that relate to such influences as our nutrition, our work, the media, peer pressure, the literature we read, and our recreational activities;
- accepting diversity in both ourselves and others and acknowledging and celebrating the differences in size and general appearance, abilities, ethnicity, and cultural practices that make each of us unique;
- creating mentally and emotionally safe environments in which all people work towards eliminating judgments, assumptions, and discrimination based on stereotypes, promoting the tolerance of difference, and reducing the hurt caused by remarks about appearance and difference, even those made in fun.
Everybody Belongs focuses on accepting individual differences and promoting a sense of belonging and security. Being connected to someone or to a group is important for maintaining well-being.
Schools are unlikely to develop specific policies about body image. However, the need to create safe physical and emotional environments (National Administration Guideline 5.1) requires schools to develop supportive policies and procedures to ensure the safety of their students. For these procedures to be effective, classroom programmes and the school's ethos or climate must be mutually supportive.
Children need to know that human beings come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, and that there is no "ideal" or "perfect" body. They should be taught that every body is a good body, and that each person is responsible for taking care of his or her body. Most importantly, children should learn to respect the bodies of others even when they are quite different from their own.
Ikeda, 1995, p. 109
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