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Why physical education should teach body positivity

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More than a third of teenagers are ashamed of their body, show figures released this week for Mental Health Awareness Week. Brunel Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences lecturer Dr Charlotte Kerner wants to see body image on the curriculum…

Body image is about how you think, feel and perceive your body. Having an unrealistic view of how other people see their body – a negative body image – can threaten mental, physical and social wellbeing.

Young people with poor body image are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. Negative body image can also influence how much sport and physical activity young people do. Young people who feel ashamed about their body often avoid exercise and physical activity, while others may exercise too much to try and alter their body shape and size. 

Many young people who are unhappy with their body often see diet and exercise as a way to try and make themselves feel better. Through altering their eating and activity patterns, they often aim to achieve the type of body that they see society celebrate and value. This is nothing new. Through praising and admiring celebrity bodies that are unrealistic for the ‘average’ person to achieve, the media has swayed how young people feel about their bodies for decades. This stretched from Marilyn Monroe’s 1950s hourglass curves right through to the 1990s’ waif-like supermodels such as Kate Moss. The look of the moment right now seems to be all about rounded hips and a big bum, aka the Kim Kardashian.

The steady shift from print media to social media has given young people more access to images of unrealistic and unobtainable bodies. These bodies are often cosmetically enhanced, digitally filtered and come from celebrities, reality TV stars and the latest online ‘influencers’. The next series of Love Island is just around the corner and is highly likely to lack body diversity among its contestants – and equally likely to be punctuated by adverts for cosmetic surgery. Subtle messages like these tell young people that their body is not good enough and should be changed. 

With the overload of images of ‘perfect’ bodies, we need to think about ways to encourage young people to feel good about the way their bodies look. Schools have an important role to play in supporting a positive body image, because they can educate young people about healthy and unhealthy behaviours. While classroom-based activities that teach children and young people about the images that they see on TV and social media are important, physical education (PE) would be a fitting way to develop positive body image. This may seem controversial because young people that feel unhappy about their bodies often find PE difficult. Remember dreaded communal changing rooms, compulsory kit or lining up at the pool in swimwear, fearing classmates are looking at (and judging) our bodies? However, positive experiences in PE could be a key way to support body image.

Schools should think about changing facilities that let young people change more privately. They might also offer a choice of kit or let pupils wear a t-shirt over their swimming costume. 

PE offers an experience like no other in school. It is the one subject that can help young people focus on how their bodies move and value what their bodies can do, rather than how they look. PE teachers can work with children to make them feel more confident in their abilities. This can be done by grouping pupils on ability, letting them choose activities and giving positive feedback. Children who feel more able in PE have a more positive body image and vice versa. 

A study about to start here at Brunel University London will explore more about what can be done in PE lessons to develop a positive body image. Researchers will work with teachers and children to develop resources and guidelines to be used in schools. In the meantime, this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focus on body image makes huge progress to tackle the pressure on young people to look a certain way.

Talk to your GP if you are worried about your mental health, or if you are in distress and need immediate help, visit your local A&E.