About Body Image Health
First, Do No Harm
While it is well documented that shared cultural risk factors for eating disorders and rising rates of obesity are cultivated in the same environment, these problems have been regarded separately when it comes to prevention and treatment. It has become increasingly clear that this disconnected approach is counterproductive and even destructive, resulting in “solutions” that are short-sighted and contradictory, and that thereby add to problems. With concerns about obesity fueling ever more stigma and fear about fatness, a reminder about the directive to “first, do no harm” has never been more urgent. Models for health promotion must take into account all known factors contributing to body image, eating, fitness, and weight concerns. These models must pro-actively provide children with a guide for long-term health that is realistic, not at odds with any aspect of itself, and non-discriminatory. The model upon which this curriculum is based provides both goals and the means to reach them—healthy body image attitudes and healthy lifestyle choices—that are attainable by all, regardless of size, shape, cultural and socio-economic background, genetic predisposition, or gender. This approach will help without harming any child.
“Some people believe that stigma is helpful in motivating weight loss - that making it uncomfortable or undesirable to be overweight will somehow help people lose weight. But a large and growing body of research disputes this. Studies show that youth routinely cope with feeling bad about their weight by trying to lose weight in harmful ways (fasting, diet pills, vomiting, and chronic dieting) leading to binge eating and avoidance of physical activity - all unhealthy behaviors that can actually impede weight loss and reinforce weight gain… Confronting stigma, bullying and weight bias needs to go hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce the prevalence of obesity nationwide.” –Nan Feyler, reporting for the Philadelphia Media Network, September 25, 2012, regarding the call for weight-stigma reduction programs from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity .
Targeting Risk Factors That Are Within Our Power to Change
Several risk factors for body image, eating, nutrition, fitness, and weight concerns have been identified in recent years. Most of these fit into one of two distinct categories: 1) those arising out of the cultural context (including the wider culture but also family and micro-cultures), and 2) individual risk factors, including the innate constitution or biological predisposition that a particular person brings to that context. While studies have shown that social pressures alone can generate these concerns, certain genetic factors, such as a tendency for perfectionism, obsessive compulsivity, depression, and certain innate appetites appear to increase an individual’s vulnerability and susceptibility to these pressures. On the other hand, the existence of predisposing factors are not, by themselves, likely to result in body image, eating, fitness, or weight concerns without exposure to environmental risk factors, or triggers.
While it is important to recognize and respond to innate vulnerabilities in students when they are expressed, these are not within our power to prevent, nor should prevention necessarily be a goal, since their existence enhances the rich diversity of our humanity. In contrast, risk factors arising from the cultural context offer tremendous opportunities for prevention.
Students today are exposed to “toxic” messages promoting body image, eating, fitness, and weight concerns from a very early age through multiple interpersonal and media channels. In fact these messages are so pervasive; very few people escape the effects or question their validity. As a result, the majority of girls of all sizes and shapes learn to incorporate a negative set of attitudes and beliefs about how they should look for the “right” appearance, the “right” weight to be healthy, what they should do to achieve those goals, how to console themselves when they fail, and how they should feel about themselves as a result. Boys too, who have long learned to endorse or carry unrealistic expectations of females based on this set of beliefs, are now applying similar standards to themselves.
Since pressures for these problems are imbedded in the culture, change (while difficult) is possible. Lessons or promotion of messages designed as “antidotes” can increase resiliency in the face of unrealistic and unhealthy messages, promote positive, healthy attitudes and behaviors, and help the next generation. Students can learn to maintain innate body esteem and body integrity, develop realistic body image attitudes and perspectives, and cultivate a lifelong habit of competent eating and fitness choices. The Model for Healthy Body Image and Weight and the Healthy Bodies curriculum upon which it is based are designed as tools for this purpose.
This website will introduce you to these educational tools and provide you with other compatible resources you can download, print, and use to help children and adults, including yourself, to develop healthy body image attitudes and positive eating habits.
“Kater’s Healthy Bodies curriculum continues to be perhaps the premier prevention program for elementary school children. Kater focuses on the crucial issue of building positive body image, rather than simply preventing negative body image. By encouraging children to respect and appreciate their bodies, Kater’s program facilitates the development of self-esteem, positive affect, assertiveness, and, importantly, the motivation for girls to focus on something other than body shape! Firmly rooted in empirical work, this program is accessible and flexible enough to be used in a variety of settings with different age groups. Teachers will find the increased emphasis on mindful eating interesting and perhaps even helpful with their own eating. I wish all children, adolescents, and adults could have the advantage of participating in this program.” —Linda Smolak, PhD Emeritus, Professor of Psychology, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, USA