The activity is to accompany the Teaching Tolerance article "Weighing In."
- When calling on children, are you more apt to select those who are lean than those who are overweight or obese?
- Do you perceive overweight children to be lazy or less successful?
- Do you model healthy behaviors to students?
- Do you stress overall health rather than appearance or looks?
- What do you do if you hear a child being teased for weight?
- What do you do if you hear a lot of talk about diet or being thin?
Improving Health at Every Size
For educators, working with heavyset and obese children can present a dilemma. On the one hand, demonstrating affection and unconditional acceptance for who they are, exactly as they are, can help these kids navigate a culture that is often brutal to people of size. On the other hand, teachers can help guide these kids—and all kids—in exploring healthier lifestyle practices.
Reframing the issue as one of overall health rather than weight and shape can help shift the discussion to one of genuine concern for children’s well-being. That is the argument of Linda Bacon, Ph.D., a nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, and developer of the Health at Every Size (HAES) program. The research of Bacon and many others indicates that dieting to lose weight is usually a fool’s errand, with most dieters ultimately regaining lost pounds or adding more, usually matched by sharp declines in self-esteem.
In place of yo-yo dieting, the HAES program encourages three sustainable “health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control).” These include:
• Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
• Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety and appetite.
• Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.
HAES has its critics. Many people who have dramatically lost weight—and kept it off—report being happier and say that obesity should not simply be accepted. Also, many doctors point out that obesity can complicate already severe health conditions, making weight loss vital for some people.
HAES advocates respond that the pleasure that comes from weight loss—and the medical benefits—are tied to the lifestyle changes that make permanent weight loss possible. They also say that increasing healthy behaviors and tracking personal data like blood pressure, physical activity and self-esteem can do much more for overall health than charting pounds, counting calories and mirror gazing.
- How can you reframe the discussions in your classroom into one of overall health rather than one related to appearance or shape?
- Does your school give students plenty of opportunities to consume nutritious food and be physically active? If not, what changes could you help to promote or implement?
- How can you be more accepting of all shapes and sizes of your students?
Body Image and Health: Cultural Norms
Go to the movies, turn on the TV or scan magazine ads and you can quickly see mass media’s take on people of size: Either they don’t exist or they often show up as laughable or damaged souls.
That is not the case in all slices of the American pie, however. Studies indicate that many Hispanic and African Americans—especially girls and women—are not as cursed with the stigma of being overweight, curvaceous or “thick.” Rather than taking their lead from popular culture, they may receive more resonant social cues about eating habits and body image from family and friends who may view bigger as just fine.
A study led by Josephine E. A. Boyington, Ph.D., at Shaw University, summarized the attitudes of some African-American girls this way:
Instead of an ideal weight or body size, the girls preferred a continuum of acceptable sizes. They perceived that self-satisfaction with size was more important than actual size. Hence, a healthy body size was one with which an individual felt “comfortable”: “I think being comfortable is just healthy,” [one participant in the study said]. “Being comfortable with your own weight.”
While mass marketing may warp to a lesser degree minority youth’s notions of body image, many pay a price in terms of health. Their rates of obesity outpace those of other races in the United States, contributing to a greater incidence of diabetes, according to national health studies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 18.7 percent of African-American adults are diabetic compared with 10.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Researchers attribute part of African Americans’ high rate of diabetes to genetic factors, but place greater blame on eating and exercise habits.
Poor eating habits may be explained in part by geography. For many families living in low-income neighborhoods, lack of access to nutritious food can be a powerful factor in unhealthy nutrition and weight gain. Well-stocked supermarkets may be few and far between in these areas, and those that do exist may lack anything resembling quality fresh produce. Instead, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants may be the ready source for meals, though what they offer in convenience they usually lack in terms of healthy nutrition.
Such communities have been termed “food deserts”—high-poverty rural and urban areas short on options for affordable, healthy eating. Grocery chains and supermarkets may not view these areas as profitable sites for their stores. The restaurants and stores that do exist commonly stock and serve processed foods loaded with calories, fats, sugars and sodium.
An analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has indicated that about a quarter of families that receive food stamps live in food deserts. And as valuable as food banks are in addressing needs in poor communities, they often rely on nonperishable items rather than fresh fruit and vegetables, which are much more difficult to keep and manage.
The takeaway? Many low-income families do not have ready access to healthy foods that more affluent Americans take for granted. Their communities may be largely fueled by junk food that over time saps health even as it fills the stomach.
- Do you know where the closest food desert to your school is located? Go to the USDA’s Food Desert Locator at ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html to find the closest food desert to your school. Based on this information, do students at your school have ready access to healthy foods? If not, how can you help guide them toward healthy food choices?
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Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon