There is no doubt that low body confidence is damaging people’s lives. Research continually shows it affects everyone – all ages, both sexes – and perhaps most importantly, it starts young.
Time and time again we hear our members, who represent all sectors of education including state-funded and independent, from nursery to higher education, report that they are seeing increasing concern among young people about their body image.
They have even reported children as young as four talking about being fat.
Society is placing pressure on young people to conform to unrealistic expectations about body image. And we can see the results of this in the classroom. Many young people have such low self-esteem that they are not able to enjoy their time at school or reach their full academic potential.
This lack of confidence is affecting attainment and involvement in extra-curricular activities, including sport and PE, and even worse, can lead to the development of mental health issues, including eating disorders and depression.
It is time to change
As educators, we should be empowering young people to aspire to healthy rather than skinny bodies and to appreciate our natural diversity. This is why we are extremely enthused to support the Be Real campaign, which aims to help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.
There are so many individuals and organisations making headway in tackling issues around body confidence. Our own support of the campaign, for example, is spearheaded by biology teacher, Helen Porter, a tireless campaigner on tackling body image, who has raised the many concerns education staff have about the effects of pornography on young people.
Imagine what we can achieve if we combine all the efforts and expertise of individuals like Helen. This is where Be Real becomes so pivotal. The three-year campaign combines the expertise and knowledge of organisations, schools, businesses and individuals, to make a real difference, with education as a key area of focus.
Schools have many issues to tackle, and body confidence, like many other issues, requires a whole-school approach, and for all education staff to receive high-quality training and support.
In Helen’s school, all youngsters and their parents have access to high-quality resources, information and networks that enable them to build body confidence. She has also ensured that CPD is available for teachers to help them to deliver age-appropriate body confidence lessons as part of PSHE.
We are also campaigning for PSHE lessons to be compulsory and for training and support for specialist teachers.
We, like many of the organisations involved in the Be Real campaign, have an important role to play. We need to work with parents, young people, and school leaders to eradicate low body confidence so that it doesn’t stop girls and boys from reaching their full potential.
To achieve this, we need to build on the proactive approach taken by some schools, and spread best practice on teaching body confidence in an age-appropriate way from nursery to 6th form.
What can you do to help?
We want everyone in the UK to be confident about their body, and that begins with education. We want young people to value themselves and others. We don’t want them to feel pressurised into conforming to commercial ideals of beauty that exclude many, including those who are not white, people with disabilities and those who challenge the all-pervasive gender stereotypes.
But it is also a question of what sort of society we want for our young people. Do we want a society where young people have high levels of stress and mental ill-health, or do we want confident, young people achieving their best?
Thirty-six million people are unhappy about how they look, so it will take all of us to build a body confident nation, and every organisation and individual has something important to contribute.
Be Real unites schools, businesses, charities, public bodies and individuals to change behaviour and celebrate real, healthy and diverse bodies.
We urge everyone in education to take this opportunity to stand up for health and diversity – because together we can bring about real change.
Dr Mary Bousted is the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
Natasha Devon is a supporter of Be Real and founder of The Self Esteem Team, which has delivered presentations and workshops tackling mental health, body confidence and self-esteem to more than 40,000 pupils across the UK. Here, she shares her advice for teachers.
Children pick up on your own attitude towards your body, so it is important to lead by example. There is little point in telling your pupils they are gorgeous then complaining about your own body within earshot. Young people are often in a hurry to seem grown-up and if they think body insecurity is an integral part of being an adult, they will emulate that.
Often parents and teachers think the solution to body confidence woes is to constantly tell young people they are good-looking or “perfect”. Often, however, this just reinforces the notion that they are valued for how they look. Draw attention away from the body by taking the time to praise pupils when they say something insightful or witty or do something kind or brave. This way, they will realise they are more than the sum of their parts.
Sometimes, it takes a new face to introduce subjects like this. Teachers often tell me they find it both amusing and infuriating that students will accept a message of self-acceptance from my team that they have been trying to instil themselves for ages. This really isn’t anything personal (teenagers in particular are hard-wired to rebel against authority figures), but remember that your role is just as instrumental. Showing videos or having discussions which reinforce body-positive themes in form times for five minutes a week will make all the difference – the Be Real website is a great place to find inspiration for these activities.
Fact: Most teenagers want to feel special. Make sure you take the time to notice and praise students who exhibit healthy habits and attitudes. We often see, sadly, students starving or self-harming because they want to be noticed and have seen peers doing the same thing and being given the type of intense attention they crave. This technique attempts to reverse that.
Further informationTo support the Be Real Campaign or to keep up-to date with the latest resources for teachers, parents and individuals, visit www.berealcampaign.co.uk
Natasha’s book, Fundamentals: A guide for parents and teachers on mental health and self-esteem, is published in January 2015.
CAPTION: Be Real: Grace Barrett (l) and Natasha Devon (r) from The Self Esteem Team at the Body Confidence Awards last month