A war on obesity is raging. Everyone from Jillian Michaels to Michelle Obama is calling for all Americans to lose the fat. But as doctors spend millions of dollars on fat-shaming billboards targeting children and studies proving that dieting simply doesn’t work, one might ask where does encouragement end and bullying begin?
There’s no doubt that bullying is a very real problem in this country. However, when the bullied child is fat, people believe that it’s ok; that it may even help the child overcome his body size. Some health and physical education teachers even encourage bullying, just as fitness gurus often bully adults into trying to lose weight. We often tell our students not to judge a book by its cover, but that rule doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to larger people. This behavior is not acceptable.
Instead of focusing on appearance, many health experts, from nutritionists to doctors, are focusing on the complete picture. Studies have shown that a healthy lifestyle including plenty of exercise and fruits and vegetables, rather than weight, is indicative of overall health. Encouraging all students by modeling and teaching these habits rather than embarrassing a few is one way we can help promote health while discouraging bullying and the development of self-hatred in children.
Providing creative physical outlets and healthy options are two ways we can help our students thrive. While we don’t often get a say in what our schools serve in vending machines or in the lunch line, we can definitely campaign to have more healthful options available—and request that less healthy options be removed. We can also encourage healthy classroom celebrations, field days and field trips by requesting that snack donations be low in sugar and fat, or include fresh produce.
Creating physical opportunities in the classroom, from nature walks in science to movement in music, is good for everyone. Introduce kids to as many fun physical activities as you can—but don’t push. Participation and positive experience should be the goal. The more we can include physical activity and make it a regular part of the classroom experience, the better.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to model positive behavior and acceptance of all people—including ourselves. Try not to bring up the fact that you are dieting or that you feel you are fat in a negative way. Students keenly pick up on these attitudes. Accept all of the students in your class and provide the same positive feedback across the board. If you hear negative comments about a student’s body, step in and explain that such comments are hurtful and are not allowed in your classroom. You might also say that people come in all shapes and sizes, and stress how important respect is to every individual, no matter his or her appearance.
Schmidt is a writer and editor based in Missouri.