Learning to Model Self-Acceptance in the Classroom
Over the last two years, my work life has consisted of a before-and-afterschool program and an arts program for at-risk youth. My volunteer work at NEDIC, where I facilitate body image and media literacy workshops with students, has truly helped to change my lens. Although it would be fun, I’m not here to share with you cute anecdotes about the behavior of children or the funny things they say. Instead, I’d like to give you a window into the educators and caregivers I work with and some of the unconscious behavior they routinely engage in.
I cannot count how many times I have overheard my co-workers comment on how “out of shape”, “fat”, “gross”, “disgusting”, “overweight” and in need of a diet they are, all while in the earshot of children. The guilt they unconsciously espouse about what they just ate, ate yesterday or ate over the weekend is never a taboo subject. “Fat talk” as we refer to it at NEDIC, is something that many of us are guilty of. Fat talk is the shaming of our body, the bodies of others, and the foods we eat when they do not match the “ideal” we hold them to. These statements of shame and regret are uttered with such disregard due to the fact that this way of thinking has become so normalized in our culture. Because of this blind adoption of such problematic thinking and language, the influence our words have on ourselves and those around us is rarely given a second thought.
We all know kids are sponges. They constantly listen in on our conversations and parrot much of what we say. I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed a group of five-year-old girls mimicking the way I talk while they play teacher. If we are to model for children, when it comes to their behaviour, how they approach learning and how they problem solve, then we must also model for them how to accept and show love for themselves, their bodies and the different sizes and shapes of those around them.
Without training… without affording educators and childcare workers a lens through which they become aware about how problematic shameful statements about their body, the bodies of others and food types can be, how can we blame them for the harmful things they say? When we live in a culture where commenting and critiquing women’s and men’s bodies is the norm, where everyone could and should “look better”, be in “better” shape, lose weight, eat “healthier” and be stronger, then we must do the work that is dearly needed to open our eyes and the eyes of our students to how problematic and pervasive such thinking can be. It is a necessary part of our jobs to arm ourselves and our learners with facts and truth and to teach them that health does not come in only one size. And ignorance for us and them can no longer be an excuse. Just as gender and racial discrimination have no place in our schools, weight bias and body and food shaming should also be without shelter.
If our goal is to help create good, kind and compassionate members of our society, then we need to start with ourselves-the educators-first. Without NEDIC and the influence that it has had on my life and the lens it has equipped me with, I don’t think that I would have come to realize the body based issues and internal, once unconscious biases I carried. NEDIC has helped to ensure that I don’t pass along such problematic thinking to my students. I now try my best to empower them with critical thought, the importance of good character, and a love and compassion for themselves and others no matter their size or shape.
Adam is an outreach and education volunteer and a new teacher with the Toronto District School Board. He left his work in personal training and creative advertising to become a teacher. This move inspired him to join the NEDIC team and teach children about the importance of critical media literacy, health and wellness.