Recently, after reading a story about a bike messenger in a big city to my kindergarteners, I asked the students if being a bike messenger was a job they might like. I also asked them to clarify why it would or would not be.
“Yes, I love to ride my bike,” offered Sage.
“No, I think I’d get tired after being on my bike all day long,” Chris said.
“Yes, you’d get to meet lots of new people,” replied Hannah.
Sally was vigorously waving her hand. She had an answer she was dying to share.
“Yes, I’d like to ride my bike a lot because it would help me be skinny and I love to be skinny,” she said. To be clear, Sally appears to be a perfectly healthy weight for a 5-year-old.
But I thought, body image issues in kindergarten? Really? Where would a 5-year-old pick up on such an absurd idea? The media? Comments from older sisters or mom? I took a deep breath and began explaining my concerns with her reply.
“Sally, there is a difference between being skinny and being fit,” I said. “Does anyone know what being fit means?”
A few reluctant hands went up. This was unchartered territory.
“It means you exercise and are in shape,” Sara said. Yet, she sounded uncertain.
“You are exactly right, Sara. Being fit means you eat healthy and take care of your body by exercising, like the messenger in the book,” I said.
“Being skinny, especially too skinny, isn’t healthy for your body. You need energy from food and muscles on your body to help you stay strong,” I said as I flexed a muscle. They loved this.
“Remember that everybody is unique (we’d just discussed the meaning of this word) and no matter what your body looks like, everyone is beautiful,” I continued. This elicited a few giggles from the boys.
“And really, why do you need to be skinny?” I asked the class. “One of my favorite sayings is ‘I've never seen a smiling face that was not beautiful.’ So, let me see everyone’s best smile.”
With that, I saw a sea of superb smiles. How could anyone not think each and every one of them was perfect?
I’m not sure Sally fully understood my line of reasoning. I will keep trying to help her see that every shape and size should be celebrated. When will society stop making girls and women feel like they have to look like Twiggy or Olive Oyl to be attractive?
I wanted to scream at my class, “Don’t let the media manipulate you!” Naturally I didn't. In a weird way, I’m glad this came up. It reminded me that part of my job is to make these impressionable students understand it’s what’s inside that matters most. And really, they are all beautiful–inside and out.
Halpern is a kindergarten teacher in Maine.