Dear Virgie: How Do I Create A Body Positive Classroom?
Figure out a way to create a body positive environment within your personal limits and which center methods that excite and nourish you.
I am an elementary school teacher. Recently, there has been some teasing around weight that happened in my classroom. My co-teachers and I really want to introduce the idea of body positivity and body diversity to the class. My students are 10 and 11 years old. I was wondering if you had any activities or ideas for opening up this discussion at this age level.
I don’t frequently work with children around this topic (I used to be a teacher, and fatphobia was one of my biggest challenges– both between students and between myself and students). Most of my experience is with adults, but here are some of my ideas:
- Setting the intention of creating a zero teasing environment (this is a tall order, but omg why not create the vision?!) – where children who are witnessing or experiencing teasing feel fully empowered to act and are given the language to respond when this happens. You can come up with a simple script that you emphasize and repeat so that they can just mimic it easily. I am trying to teach the people I work with some of that language with statements like these: “there is no weight limit to everyone’s right to a good life” or “no one gets to make you feel bad about your body.” In your classroom, maybe that looks like: “it’s not ok to make another person feel bad about what they look like, what they wear, or who they like.” Figure out what your authentic voice is. Maybe even enlist some of the students to help you formulate the language that will resonate.
- Introducing age appropriate literature. I don’t have access to a reading list for your age group, but it’s worthwhile reaching out to a children’s librarian in your town or the closest progressive city. There is an AMAZING children’s librarian named Barbara/Bix who works at the San Francisco Public Library. She is always giving great book recommendations which center anti-oppressive narratives.
- Encouraging children who are being teased to be empowered to speak up and speak back. Encouraging them NOT to be the “bigger person” or “turn the other cheek,” because this encourages victim blaming mentality despite our best intentions, and it often enables silence and a toxic power dynamic where the people who frequently get abused (i.e., girls, fat people, dark skinned people, disabled people and queer folks) are never allowed space to set boundaries and express anger or pain. You’ll notice that the people who face abuse in school, are also people who are systematically marginalized in society, so empower them with language and introduce the idea that teasing is not the victim’s fault. The person who is expressing bigoted attitudes should be ashamed of their behavior, not the person who is the target.
- This is more of a framework issue, but it’s important to stop thinking of this emotional abuse as “teasing.” I feel like the words “teasing” and “bullying” minimize the lifelong effects of emotional terror in childhood. Also it minimizes the reality that “teasing” is always undertaken on behalf of dominant culture and children (frequently boys) feeling empowered to maintain dominant cultural violence.
- Don’t feel overwhelmed. And don’t feel like you’ve failed when you get pushback. Be compassionate to yourself and remember you’re one single solitary person who will likely not see the dividends of the lessons you are teaching these kids. Figure out a way to create a body positive environment within your personal limits and which center methods that excite and nourish you.
I hope this helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help women who are ready to break up with diet culture, and started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight.