Classes counteract body messages


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The Scene

A group of girls walks out of the St. Paul Academy and Summit School dining hall after a student-favorite pizza day. The group giggles and gossips until one girl makes a comment that silences the rest: “Oh my gosh, I look so bad today. I look so fat and gross. I should have just stayed home today.” Her group of surrounding girlfriends intervenes before she can even finish complaining.

“Shut up! You’re a stick,” one friend replies.

“Don’t even try to say that to me! I’m practically obese,” the girl replies.

The group continues, throwing around compliments and self pity like hot potatoes.

The Problem

In high school, it is almost impossible not to be influenced by fellow classmates. From clothing, to music taste, to television shows, the identity of many students is a reflection of their friends and school.

While many blame media for low teenage self esteem, other perpetrators of negative body image often reside in the halls of high schools. According to a 2011 Texas A&M International University study, girls are more influenced by peers and family than the media.

“Women know they’re not really competing with women on TV; it’s the women in their neighborhood they have to worry about,” Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson, TAMIU associate professor of psychology, said. One can feel more self conscious because of his or her group of friends than the models they see on magazine covers.

In addition to competition in class and on the field, SPA students often feel like the hallway is a place to size each other up. With such a small student population, it’s very easy for students to constantly be subjected to evaluation.

“I do think sometimes people compare themselves to others,” junior Carrie Jaeger said. “Sometimes people here are kind of perfectionists, and you can tell when people they are thinking, “‘Oh I’m better than that person because of the way I look’”.

Often comments regarding body image and weight are indirect and passive. It’s common to hear girls in the lunchroom criticize their friends and their own food choices. Overheard comments range from “I shouldn’t eat lunch today. I had too big of a breakfast,” to, “Are you really going to go up for seconds? That is a lot of food.”

Jaeger noticed that these situations happen much too often and can be destructive. “Sometimes people do it to make themselves feel better,” she said.

It is also not uncommon for girls to experiment with dieting in order to lose weight. These diets can range from intense juice cleanses to a cayenne pepper diet. Students often have false notions of healthful eating, including beliefs that “sugar is the devil” and “diet sodas are healthier than regular sodas”. Some students complain about the frequent presence of food in SPA classes, advisories ,and activities.

Sadly, these beliefs regarding weight and body image are often ignored and laughed off, when in actuality, they are cries for help.

The School Steps In

Many classes at SPA are making sure that students do not fall into the trap of dieting, unhealthy eating, and negative body perception. Tenth grade Wellness discusses eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image.

Upperclassmen English elective Gender in Literature also looks at body expectations for boys and girls. The freshmen class Fitness for Life has added a new unit on healthy eating and eating disorders, per the request of Upper School Principal Chris Hughes and Upper School Counselor Susanna Short.

According to Fitness for Life teacher Kaitlyn Frenchick, the new unit covers basic healthy eating habits and debunks common nutrition myths.

“Most [SPA students] think that you need [only] 1500 [calories] a day,” she said. “In order for your body to function, and even to perform in the classroom and on the field, you need that fuel source.” Frenchick continued, stating that the average active student needs 2000-3000 calories a day.

The unit also includes information about eating disorders. “I explain what they consist of. I also talk about where somebody can go to get help if they have an eating disorder or even if you think somebody has one and how to go about that,” Frenchick said.

Frenchick makes sure to address that eating disorders are widespread, affecting females and males alike. “I stress that it is not a gender specific disorder, both male and female can get it,” she said.

She addresses that even though many athletes, including gymnasts, dancers, and runners are pressured to be a certain weight and have a specific body type, it is important for everyone to take care of their bodies. “It is not just the athletes. I’m trying to stress to even the kids performing in theater, music, even in the classroom, that you need that fuel for doing your homework and getting stuff done,” Frenchick continued.

Even though this education can be both helpful and preventative, it is not the answer to stopping eating disorders from developing. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and there isn’t a singualr source of their development.The path to treatment and healing is different for each person. Eating disorders should never be made into jokes or taken lightly.

It is important to keep in mind that what one says about another person’s appearance, even when well-intentioned, can be both hurtful and harmful to many. Students should be seen for who they truly are, their personality and interests, not how they look.