The Model for Healthy Body Image and Weight

The health principles in the Model for Healthy Body Image and Weight provide the framework for the Healthy Bodies curriculum lessons, and have also been translated into a set of Healthy Body Building Blocks for children. Rather than promoting fear by warning children what to avoid, each Building Block teaches students what they should embrace to maintain health and integrity in the face of negative pressures.

More specifically, each health principle serves as an antidote to help children resist one of the four toxic myths that promote most body image, eating, fitness and weight concerns today.

"A culture is formed by the stories its children are told.”
–Chinese proverb

"Actually I felt pretty good about my body until 6th grade. But then everyone else hated theirs, so I thought I should too."
–21 year old woman with bulimia


The Myths and Their Antidotes

Children routinely learn that beauty is only skin deep, and you can’t judge a book by its cover. But today’s students must be prepared to defend themselves in light of another adage: One picture is worth a thousand words. Since the explosion of visual media in the late 1950s, people no longer assume that other ordinary-looking people should be the basis for comparing their looks. Instead, millions of images of extraordinarily photogenic models all chosen for a particular “look” have revolutionized the value placed on appearances in general and have created a mandate for a slim or lean appearance in particular. 

As children enter puberty, it is developmentally normal for them to begin to identify less with parents regarding certain issues and more with friends, especially regarding what looks good and is considered “cool” or socially desirable. Belonging means fitting in, and whatever is perceived as normal carries tremendous value. Playing on this human need for inclusion, intensive marketing of a generally unattainable, slim/lean beauty ideal as if this look was normal, especially for girls, but increasingly boys, has been very effective in creating tremendous anxiety about appearance. 

Mission Statement for the Healthy Bodies curriculum

To empower boys and girls to maintain positive body esteem based on recognition and acceptance of what they can and cannot control in regard to size and shape.

To empower boys and girls to resist unrealistic and unhealthy cultural pressures regarding body image, eating, fitness, and weight.

To inspire boys and girls to develop a stake in caring for their bodies; in eating well, enjoying physical movement and fitness, and in appreciation of the healthy, diverse bodies that result.

Many people are not aware that the manufacturing of anxiety about social acceptability is a purposeful marketing strategy. Insecurity about looks is a desired outcome for advertisers, who then offer products that promise to correct the perceived deficiency. Because the thin- ideal is unrealistic for most females (fewer than 3% of females have the natural physique of most fashion models, just as a sculpted, muscular physique is not common to most males), the prevalence of such images in advertising has been especially successful in generating appearance anxiety. As a result, excessive preoccupation with the “right” look, and the belief that slimness is an essential criterion for it, has become normative. In this curriculum you will find three lessons (Building Blocks) to help students develop resiliency in the face of this myth, as follows:

Myth 1, based on valuing image over substance: “How I look” is more important than “who I am.” An essential criterion for the “right” look is a thin/lean body.

Children routinely learn that beauty is only skin deep, and you can’t judge a book by its cover. But today’s students must be prepared to defend themselves in light of another adage: One picture is worth a thousand words. Since the explosion of visual media in the late 1950s, people no longer assume that other ordinary-looking people should be the basis for comparing their looks. Instead, millions of images of extraordinarily photogenic models all chosen for a particular “look” have revolutionized the value placed on appearances in general and have created a mandate for a slim or lean appearance in particular. 

As children enter puberty, it is developmentally normal for them to begin to identify less with parents regarding certain issues and more with friends, especially regarding what looks good and is considered “cool” or socially desirable. Belonging means fitting in, and whatever is perceived as normal carries tremendous value. Playing on this human need for inclusion, intensive marketing of a generally unattainable, slim/lean beauty ideal as if this look was normal, especially for girls, but increasingly boys, has been very effective in creating tremendous anxiety about appearance.  

Many people are not aware that the manufacturing of anxiety about social acceptability is a purposeful marketing strategy. Insecurity about looks is a desired outcome for advertisers, who then offer products that promise to correct the perceived deficiency. Because the thin- ideal is unrealistic for most females (fewer than 3% of females have the natural physique of most fashion models, just as a sculpted, muscular physique is not common to most males), the prevalence of such images in advertising has been especially successful in generating appearance anxiety. As a result, excessive preoccupation with the “right” look, and the belief that slimness is an essential criterion for it, has become normative. In this curriculum you will find three lessons (Building Blocks) to help students develop resiliency in the face of this myth, as follows: 

To resist this myth, teach students to understand and resist body objectification:  

  • Lesson 1:  Acquire historical perspective on today’s body image attitudes. Understand that an emphasis on an “ideal look” is a formula for unhappiness.
  • Lesson 2:  Develop a strong sense of identity based on a balance of inner qualities rather than on appearance.
  • Lesson 6: Become media literate and recognize advertising strategies. Think critically about media messages that encourage unrealistic, unhealthy body image attitudes and present low nutrient foods as the “cool way” to fulfill hunger needs. 

Myth 2, based on denial of biological diversity: Anyone can be slim if he or she works at it. Fatter people inevitably eat too much and/or are inactive. Fat is bad/wrong.

For the thin-ideal to be widely embraced, facts pertaining to biological diversity of body size and shape must be dismissed, discounted, or denied. This denial has become pervasive. As a result children learn that fatter people “must be doing something wrong” (must be over-eating and/or sedentary). With this belief, prejudicial assumptions regarding fatness freely develop. As a result, weight stigma has become normative, and anxiety about weight and the need to control it is rampant.

Weight may be influenced by lifestyle choices, but the idea that weight can be “controlled” through healthy means over the long term is flawed. Only behavior can be controlled, and weight is not a behavior, but rather an outcome. In fact, weight is an outcome of highly complex variables, many of which are not in our power to choose. Because of this complexity, long-term efforts to manipulate weight frequently backfire. Healthy weight for a given individual is best determined by observing the outcome of stable, healthy eating and a physically active lifestyle over time. In this light, we see that “overweight” cannot be determined by appearance alone or by comparison to an external standard, even when we see that someone is fat. Individuals who eat well and are active and fit will have normal BMIs that are diverse, showing a natural distribution ranging from very thin to obese. This curriculum contains three lessons (Building Blocks) to help students develop resiliency in the face of this myth, as follows:

For resistance of Myth #2, teach students the biological principles of growth and size diversity:

  • Lesson 3:  Understand normal pubescent development, including the normal, expected addition of body fat that is common during this and other stages of life.
  • Lesson 4:  Respect and appreciate the genetic diversity of body shapes and sizes.
  • Lesson 5:  Understand how the internal weight regulatory system limits the extent of long-term, external control that is possible over weight.

Myth 3, based on denial of the universal effects of externally prescribed hunger regulation: Dieting is an effective weight-loss strategy. 

Whether for appearance or health, when a prescribed size or prevention of a size is culturally mandated, a means to attain it is needed. Because restrictive eating results in weight loss in the short run, this is routinely used as evidence to support the belief that anyone could be slim(mer) if he or she worked at it through diet and exercise. Denial of the well-documented, long-term, counterproductive effects of dieting for weight loss is essential to support the drive to be thin. Most people, including many medical providers, continue to blame a dieter’s lack of willpower rather than accept that the method is intrinsically flawed. Erroneous beliefs about the effectiveness of dieting are boldly transmitted without qualifiers side by side with the thinness schema, creating dual pressures for an unsuspecting public who have not been educated about the reliable and predictable outcomes.
Long-term efforts to “control” hunger by overriding internal hunger cues are counterproductive. Hunger demands to be fed and will subside naturally when it is satisfied. This curriculum includes one lesson (Building Block) to help students develop resiliency in the face of this myth, as follows:

For resistance of Myth #3, teach children the facts about dieting for weight loss:

  • Lesson 7: Recognize that there are predictable, counterproductive results when hunger is restricted according to an external plan. 

Myth 4, based on discounting the value of health; complacency about lifestyle choices that do not result in the desired look:  Eat, drink, and be merry!  Healthy choices (for health’s sake) are too much work.

In a social context in which appearance, the drive to be thin, denial of size diversity, and the diet mentality dominate, the importance of eating well and fitness for health and well-being is easily lost. Too many children today grow up to believe the main reason to eat well and be physically active is to control weight. But the American promise of a slim physique as the reward for a healthy lifestyle has backfired. In this light, “Why bother?” seems a reasonable response.

Likewise, when weight loss is promoted as the goal of balanced nutrition and exercise, these may seem unimportant for people who are naturally slim. This conclusion leaves this group more vulnerable to seduction by an ever expanding array of low-nutrient “entertainment foods” as the foundation for their eating. Promotion of nutritionally dense food and fitness as a means to weight loss undermines health as a value in its own right for people of all sizes.

Eating well and maintaining an active lifestyle takes time and effort. If the primary purpose is to “control weight” we can expect what we've gotten: a nation growing less healthy and in many cases fatter on feelings of failure or complacency. Instead, students can be taught that health and well-being—not size or shape—are more reliable rewards for healthy choices. With this size-neutral, non-discriminatory goal, self-respect and body esteem, as well as nutritional health and physical fitness are achievable for every student at every size. This curriculum provides three lessons (Building Blocks) to help students develop resiliency in the face of this myth, as follows: 

To resist Myth #4, teach children of every size to embrace health as a value instead of size as a goal.

  • Lesson 8:  Eat well. Listen to internal cues, and satisfy hunger completely with a balanced variety of wholesome foods that provides the nutrients and energy your body needs. Enjoy all foods, including lower nutrient treats in ways that support your greatest purpose: a healthy, happy life.
  • Lesson 9:  Make movement a priority. Listen to the body’s need for enjoyable movement, and spend enough time and energy engaged in physical activity to maintain your body's fitness. Enjoy sedentary entertainment in limited doses that do not interfere with physical endurance, strength, vitality, and agility.
  • Lesson 10:  Accept the diverse sizes that result from healthy choices. Look for realistic role models that help you to feel good about who you are. Resist unhealthy and unrealistic pressures about prescribed weight standards, dieting, low-nutrient food choices, and sedentary entertainment.