Last week Fionnuala Kennedy, deputy head at Wimbledon High School for Girls, wrote a letter to parents asking them not to discuss "faddy" diets or perpetuate negative body image stereotypes in front of their daughters.
Ms Kennedy was apparently concerned after having watched controversial Netflix drama To The Bone during the summer, which she – correctly, in my opinion – assessed as "glamorising" anorexia. She cautioned parents and her fellow staff to be wary of reinforcing toxic messages, which could have a detrimental impact on the welfare of pupils.
Cue the expected tidal wave of barely-concealed contempt from the right-wing newspapers, along with disgust and derision in their comments sections. Cries of "PC Gone Mad" and outrage at the implication that a school would do something so outrageous and outlandish as "dictate" what parents should say to their kids.
Cue also, fitness and nutrition "experts" telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity crisis and how important it is to educate children about the importance of healthy eating and exercise. One of these voices was fitness instructor Danni Levy, star of ITVBe’s Life on Marbs, who during a televised debate on Good Morning Britain with yours truly insisted that children aren’t really influenced by their parents. In fact, she said, the behaviour of parents acts as a "deterrent", so it’s a positive thing when Mums yo-yo diet and obsess over what they see in the mirror. She argued that social media is to blame for poor body image and it is the schools’ job to resolve the situation by providing responsible advice on lifestyle.
Body image debates
This isn’t an attack on Danni, who I think is probably well-intentioned, but I am sick and tired of body image debates being framed within these parameters. I’m frustrated and weary in a way that only someone who has now been campaigning on the topic for a decade can be.
First, it’s classic "whataboutery". A desire to create and nurture healthy and positive body image and a wish for children to be physically healthy are not mutually exclusive. They might be related, but they also need to be understood distinctly. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been merrily riffing on the topic of body image and its relationship to mental well-being and someone has attempted to derail me with the nation’s so-called obesity epidemic. Now, I tend to respond with "that’s important. We can totally talk about that sometime. But it’s not what we’re discussing, right now".
Second, the view that parents, teachers and other consistent aspects of a young person’s environment aren’t incredibly influential on their mindset, represents a fundamental misunderstanding the psychology of the developing brain. Over the past quarter of a century, cognitive neuroscientists have discovered that the brain creates powerful beliefs and narratives during our early, formative years, eventually arriving at a stage where it gives more information to itself than it receives from the outside world. This is significant because it means our entire existence is, to some extent, an exercise in confirmation bias.
If, during childhood, we absorb information which unconsciously convinces us that body insecurity is part and parcel of adulthood or that slenderness and femininity or muscles and masculinity are both crucial and interchangeable, the foundations of an irrevocable and damaging belief system is created. Social media and celebrity culture might fuel it, of course, but it’s erroneous and a little insulting to suggest that parents, teachers, and carers don’t have a more crucial role to play.
Third and perhaps most importantly, trends in the education system, as well as society more generally, have seemingly replaced "doing" with "discussing". Funding and time within the curriculum for PE has been slashed, austerity has led to the closure of community sports centres throughout the UK, yet we have calls from the likes of Ms Levy to "educate" children on the importance of exercise. Incidentally, that’s one of the many reasons I was so glad to learn about Joe Wicks' new schools campaign in Tes last week.
Former secretary of state Nicky Morgan recently announced the forthcoming publication of her book by reinforcing the importance of "character education". During her time at the helm of the DfE, and during that of her predecessor Michael Gove, there was a sustained diminishment of the subjects, which naturally give children "character", such as art, music, drama, and sport.
If the average state school pupil was doing more than one or two hours of PE per week, it would be good for them to learn about how this activity benefitted them both physically and mentally. However, I fear recent changes herald a time when children sit around in classrooms being lectured by understandably resentful teachers on the importance of adopting a healthy lifestyle. In the meantime, faddy, scientifically unfounded claims about so-called "clean eating" (read the Angry Chef’s blog for more info on why this is nonsense) doing untold damage to young people’s relationship with their body is justified by concern over the rising rates of obesity.
It’s ludicrous. After 10 years of saying this, my patience is growing a little thin. Ms Kennedy was right when she identified that after the cumulative impact of the kind of self-bashing rhetoric women – and increasingly men – tend to default to create an environment where negative self-image can flourish. She was also right, as kindly as possible, acknowledging that we are all guilty, to an extent, of doing this.
What is not right is the way the press use opportunities like this to whip up public indignation towards teachers, without any consideration for the systemic circumstances that might have led us to this point.
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