'Fat-shaming teachers won't cure childhood obesity'

A suggestion in the House of Lords that fat teachers should be 'shamed' into losing weight is wrong on so many levels, says Kate Martin
10th June 2020, 3:10pm


'Fat-shaming teachers won't cure childhood obesity'

Shaming 'fat' Teachers Is No Cure For Childhood Obesity

I'm fat. That's not a word I'd use about anyone else, but I often use it about myself.

I carry extra weight that I know is bad for my health, and I hate it.

I have carried this extra weight for much of my adult life, flip-flopping between different diets and exercise regimes. I've tried the lot - from cabbage soup to support-group-based diet plans.

I've shed many tears and hated myself for my seeming inability to lose the pounds over and over again.

'Shamed for eating and drinking'

So, imagine my delight when Lord Robathan announced in the virtual Lords last week that he had a special new cure for obesity specifically aimed at teachers and NHS workers.

"They know what makes them fat; they need to be told what makes them fat," he said, "and, dare I say it, they need to be shamed for eating and drinking too much."

That's the magic learning tool us overweight folks have been waiting for. Shame!

Well, my first reaction is to state that if shame made me thinner then I would have been a size 8 years ago.

I have been shamed for my weight many times by others, and I have cast guilt and shame on myself even more frequently.

But all shame does is breed guilt, pain and self-loathing.

Psychologically traumatising

Ironically, these are some of the emotions that might make someone overeat in the first place! Would Lord Robathan suggest that a child who is overweight should be shamed into losing weight?

Perhaps some sort of public humiliation might do the trick.

I understand that the Lord was talking about adults, not children, and yes, I understand that being overweight is not healthy.

However, let us be clear: the notion of shaming anyone into doing anything is not only outdated and ill thought out, it is psychologically traumatising.

I wasn't a fat child. Sometimes I seemed to fatten up slightly before growth spurts, but I wasn't fat.

Nevertheless, I still vividly remember the moment my Year 4 teacher told me in front of the class that I was "too fat to be an angel like the other girls" in the school play.

This moment in my formative years has had a really negative impact on the way I have viewed my appearance and self-worth for the rest of my life.

My heart is actually racing a bit now as I type this. That's the shame still bubbling away.

Teachers don't need to be perfect

My point is that while, of course, pupils need positive role models, it doesn't require teachers to be perfect. In fact, perceived perfection in others can be quite a disheartening thing itself. Nobody is perfect.

What pupils need is honesty and support to navigate the challenges life throws at them - be it weight issues, addiction, stress - and the full array of things they may struggle with.  

I work hard to ensure my pupils eat healthily and understand what being healthy is. I even tell them that I am not a healthy weight and that is a struggle for me.

I also tell them that being "thin" isn't a magic cure for low self-esteem.

These are both important points. At my school, the pupils help cook the lunchtime meal on a rota, and we all sit together to eat it - they plan menus and ensure a healthy balance in what we all eat.

Education is always key

Educating pupils about wellbeing and healthy living (mental and physical) is essential to what we do as teachers and I'm sure no one would disagree with that.

There are so many positive and interesting ways of getting the message out there: teaching healthy home-cooking skills; doing work in PSHE around health and wellbeing; exploring balanced nutrition in science; getting moving in PE; walking the school dog, etc.

But none of them involve shaming.

Lord Robathan might do well to research the myriad causes behind obesity. If he did, perhaps he would realise that suggestions like his only make the situation worse in the long run.

Shame breeds self-loathing and, be it in pupils or teachers, no good will come of emotions like that.

Kate Martin is vice-principal at Restormel Academy, an alternative provision school in Cornwall. She tweets @k8martin

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