Congratulations to Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland, speakers at the last November’s GSA conference, who won the award for Education at last week’s Body Confidence Awards for their book, ‘Body Image in the Primary School’. It is a great book, aimed at teachers in primary schools who have responsibility for personal and social development, and the main body of the text consists of practical lesson plans, but I would recommend it to every parent for the first three introductory chapters and the final resources section alone; besides, it can only help the cause of developing positive body image if parents can see, and support, what schools might be teaching their daughters and sons about how to develop resilience in this respect.
The pressures in our society on young people are shocking, and the authors of this book highlight clearly and concisely a range of research studies which indicate how these pressures have grown over the last century, and how this has led to a rise in eating disorders. Children as young as nine and ten – and younger – are showing a ‘disturbing level of anxiety about the about their weight and their physical appearance’ (p5) because of the sheer volume of messages they receive each day: ‘a young person today is thought to be exposed to more images of physical perfection in one day than a young woman one or two generations ago would have seen throughout her entire adolescence’ (p2). It is no wonder that the effect is overwhelming – and as educators and parents of young people, we should take this potential for psychological harm very seriously indeed.
The core of this book is the development of a ‘body image curriculum’ suitable for use in primary schools. Although the focus often of our concern as a society lies in teenage girls, in fact it stands to reason that the messages that girls – and increasingly boys – receive in their early, primary age years, form the basis of their teenage behaviour, and the sooner these are tackled, the better. This body image curriculum focuses on self-esteem, with lessons exploring the importance of being yourself, as well as examining pressures to look a certain way. Particularly excellent is the interspersing of these messages with the development of tools to enable children to recognise that images in the media are not always what they seem. The lesson plans are clear, imaginative, practical and eminently do-able, allowing the evolution of a creative narrative; it is perfectly obvious that the authors are real teachers.
Parents in search of advice should read Chapter 3, ‘The role of parents and carers’, which is a wake-up call to all parents. Our own thoughts and feelings about appearance and body image are transferred, often unconsciously, to our children, and we need to be very aware of the impact that this is having. As the book puts it, ‘Children who observe their mothers’ pursuit of thinness and dieting often internalise these same goals’ (p13). Parents need to exhibit positive attitudes about appearance, discuss openly with children the pressures placed on them by the media, and not be afraid to monitor their children’s access to technology.
Ultimately, we all want the best for our children, and their emotional health and well-being will come at the top of the list for most parents. The more we can do to support children in growing up able to manage the pressures around them about their appearance, the better.
‘Body Image in the Primary School’ is an excellent step along the way. It is also one of the clearest and most informative resource books I have read in a long time. Every primary school should have one – and the sooner, the better.