Mental Health

Creating a Body-Positive Classroom

Positive representations of all body types could help alleviate the stigma that many students with larger bodies feel.

November 27, 2019
photocritical / iStock

Classrooms are planned and arranged by the school and the individual teacher. In what ways are modern classrooms physically and academically also designed by and for the thin ideal body? Our pedagogy has evolved and updated to reflect the idea that content and curriculum cannot be one-size-fits-all, so why haven’t our classroom spaces, and the materials within them, caught up with this fact?

Can we create spaces that acknowledge and honor students’ size diversity and meet their bodies where they are, here and now?

As a researcher and body-positive advocate, I’ve been asked many times whether these questions ignore students’ health. Those who ask me this also argue that if we encourage and “allow” fatness to be visible, it will condone unhealthiness and might actually glorify obesity.

But don’t we already glorify thinness? And hasn’t that caused harm, too?

Promoting thinness as an ideal, as something to aspire to, as the right way for a body to exist, is counter to the cultivation of positive body image. Common Sense Media reported in 2015 that more than half of girls and a third of boys ages 6 to 8 believed they should be thinner. And fat people continue to be commonly associated with negative traits such as laziness, lack of leadership, and lack of intelligence. All of this points to an environment in which students with larger bodies feel stigmatized.

People often assume things about others, and when it comes to weight bias and weight stigma, our students who aren’t thin often suffer from these assumptions the most. Our students, and our world, are obsessed with a fear of fatness, and positive or even neutral representations of all body types could very well alleviate the stigma that fat students feel.

Countering These Perceptions in the Classroom

If you teach math, you can make your class a place where your students don’t have to do problems that focus on food or the rate of weight change in people. If you teach health or physical education, you can avoid asking your students to do body mass index charts or weigh-ins. Instead you can talk about health-enhancing behaviors, mental health, healthy relationships with food and peers, and nutrient-dense foods, and show students modifications for exercises that allow all bodies to move joyfully.

In the context of my subject area, English, making available representations of fat bodies in either a positive or neutral context—that is, fat characters succeeding and doing amazing things without spending chapter after chapter trying to pursue thinness—says to our students: There is more to fat people than repressed trauma, poor body image, self-loathing, and bingeing episodes. Some good options:

  • Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
  • Fat Angie by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
  • Dietland by Sarai Walker
  • My Ideal Boyfriend Is a Croissant by Laura Dockrill

These are simple ways that we can shift our understanding of size-diverse people and the conversations we have about them throughout the curriculum. A classroom that acknowledges and seeks to combat weight stigma gives all students access to curriculum and content that not only challenges the default notion that thin equals healthy, but offers counterarguments to that idea.

Some Questions to Consider

It’s important to check our out-loud self-talk as well as our curriculum and class materials. Do you shame yourself for what you brought for lunch in front of the students you teach? Does your textbook moralize fat or have outdated information about body mass index? Does your classroom library include body-positive books like the ones mentioned above?

It’s also important to look at our classrooms, especially our furniture. Do you have desks with separated seats so that all students can make themselves comfortable? Are your desks far apart enough to accommodate the easy transition of your students in and out of the classroom?

All of these questions are a great starting place for making your classroom weight-inclusive. They’re points of consideration that I use when setting up my classroom. In general, however, weight is often overlooked when teachers talk about diversity because weight and fatness are seen as an individual problem, even among the most progressive of educators.

Our culture has taught us that a person’s fatness is correlated with their own moral failure rather than an outcome of all the factors that contribute to where, how, and why we carry weight—our genes, the quality of our physical environment, and the amount of adversity or stress we experience. We can counter that in our classrooms.

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  • Classroom Management

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