Study Shows Schools Need More Body Positivity

grade on curveHere’s the phrase I want you to remember while we talk about a study that is getting some press:  “Researchers admit there are other influences that they did not measure including the students’ self-esteem, how much school they missed and what kind of school environment they had.”

A study of kids in Britain found that girls classified as “obese” tended to get grades in English, math and science that were the equivalent of a D compared to girls who are considered “healthy weight”  who got the equivalent of a C.

Obviously the concept of “healthy weight” is flawed since there are people with various health issues at various sizes and there is no size that you can attain at which you’ll be immortal unless you get hit by a bus. Still, let’s look deeper at the study.

The study subjects were all from the Bristol area.  They were assigned a body size value at 11, 13 and 16 and their national test grades were analyzed at those ages.

The study took socio-economic class and whether the girls’ mothers smoked in the first three months of pregnancy into account. But then there’s that paragraph: “Researchers admit there are other influences that they did not measure including the students’ self-esteem, how much school they missed and what kind of school environment they had.”

They chose not to take into account how living in an environment that tells girls that a fat body proves they are lazy, weak willed, immoral, and unhealthy might affect academic performance.  They chose to ignore the prevalence of appearance-based bullying and how that might affect girls (like distracting them, or causing them to stay out of school or skip class, or causing them to avoid drawing attention to themselves by doing things like participating in class or asking questions).  They chose to ignore research  that shows:

  • 47 percent of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures
  • 69 percent of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape
  • 42 percent of first-to-third grade girls want to be thinner
  • 81 percent of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat

I wonder how many of the girls in the study are on diets and how being undernourished and constantly hungry might affect academic performance?  These seem like the kind of things that might affect grades.  The researchers ignored the fact that fat boys didn’t have the same correlation to lower grades and, instead of looking to a world that makes girls terrified of being or getting fat, they decided to blame the girls’ bodies:

Professor John Reilly of Strathclyde, the lead investigator, concludes: ”Further work is needed to understand why obesity is negatively related to academic attainment, but it is clear that teenagers, parents and policy-makers in education and public health should be aware of the lifelong educational and economic impact of obesity.”

What seems clear to me is that teenagers, parents, and policy-makers in education and public health should be aware of the lifelong educational and economic impact of body shaming, fat phobia, and so-called health campaigns that shame some kids for how they look, thereby support the bullying and stigmatizing of fat kids.

We can have a complete discussion about kids’ health without shaming any of them for how they look. By focusing on developing body confidence,  a life-long love of habits that support health, and a blame free, shame free approach to healthcare, we can support all kids to develop to their full potential and avoid a life of yo yo diets, body hatred, low self-esteem, and the relentless pursuit of a stereotype of beauty masquerading as health with all of the “educational and economic impacts” that come along with that.

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23 thoughts on “Study Shows Schools Need More Body Positivity

  1. Thank you for this! I absolutely agree that bullying and shaming fat kids is the problem and the reason for lower grades. And this made me think of another problem school has in my opinion and as I myself experienced: Physical Education. When I was at school, grades in PE were made like this: The teacher had a chart. We had to do the required exercises, and depending on how well or how fast you had done, your grade was read from the chart. And nothing has ever changed in this system till today, and my much younger sister had exactly the same problems with this. Nobody cared about the sheer ability a pupil had to do certain things, or how hard he or she tried according to his/her abilities, if you weren’t able to swim as fast as the chart said you should have, you got a lower grade. I fell from the high bar once because I was forced to do an exercise I simply was not able to do (yet) and since then panicked when I should go up there again (hooray, another low grade in PE!). In my class was a very sporty girl who had attended in like every sports club our small town ever had, and my PE teacher just loved her. So you would have to achieve her level to get an A (or a 1 in Germany) – and nobody could, no matter how hard you tried. PE was very frustrating, not just for me, and though I had always loved to move and exercise and dance, PE class destroyed this for years and in some form forever. I think, PE at school should be done very differently: Children should be encouraged to exercise because it makes you feel good, because it is FUN – not to feel ashamed because you cannot do certain things and get a low grade for it. PE killed the fun in it. Maybe there shouldn’t be grades in PE at all, or, if there have to, the abilities of every pupil should be considered as well as how hard he/she tries, and not according to a chart.
    I am absolutely sure that shaming, bullying and low self-esteem are the keys to lower grades, for the reasons you said.

    1. OMG yes. I hated PE in school. We had that stupid “Presidential Fitness Test”. Even though I was a competitive swimmer, I couldn’t run. I would have what I thought was an asthma attack every time I started to run. Thinking back on it now, I’m pretty sure it was anxiety. The day of the mile run when I was 10 was heartbreaking. The coach made everyone sit around and watch me struggle around the field. They were all laughing and he was egging them on trying to “encourage me”. I was sobbing my head off and hyperventilating by the time I finished. I found my journal entry from that day and my anger at the fact that I was humiliated was also coupled with the confusion about my lack of running ability. “I can swim circles around those same people in the pool, but since I can’t run I’m a failure”. My mom did nothing about it. I got my first grade below an A that year. In PE because my coach was a giant tool. And it instilled in me anxiety and absolute loathing of running that has followed me almost 30 years later. That can not be healthy for any kid. 😦

      1. Hated that stupid test. It was just a tool for sports coaches to find athletic kids and weed out the rest.

      2. it could also have been exercise induced asthma.that kind of asthma does not crop up with every type of exercise, but certain types can trigger it. Running is a big trigger. Swimming, because it’s done in the most environment often does not

    2. This resonates with me so deeply. I have cerebral palsy, & with it many problems with balance, strength, agility, coordination, motor skills, etc. Many things I can only do with great difficulty & not very well, some things I cannot do at all. I have been active all my life & walk everywhere most of the time, but PE was a nightmare. I was forced to TRY to do everything that the able-bodied kids did & I was graded as if I were able-bodied & just lazy or not trying hard enough. I cannot do tumbling, or jumping over a pommel horse, I cannot climb a rope, & I cannot run & virtually always trip & fall if I try to run. However, no one acknowledged these facts or gave me credit for trying & doing the best I could. I was always pretty much a bullied, ostracized outcast in school, & nowhere was this more true than in PE class. Rather than teaching a love of movement, PE class instills a fear & hatred of it & a feeling of incompetence & lack of worth for many people.

      1. I am sorry to hear that. And that’s exactly what I mean: In school you are not judged by what you are able to do and how well you do WITHIN your personal abilities, or even if you improve your skills, as long as the teacher thinks it’s not enough – and my feeling and experience was, most PE teachers simply don’t like fat kids and are filled with prejudice against them. So they finally make them hate every form of exercise… how is any child supposed to like any form of movement if a teacher encourages the rest of the class to mock the kid when he/she tries? And this shall be called “pedagogic skills” and “teaching ability”? Ugh!

    3. Wow. I’m glad my PE classes weren’t like that. They weren’t perfect by any means, but throughout school I had PE teachers who were very supportive of students. Our grades weren’t based on our ability but participation and written test grades (we were quizzed on the terms and rules of whatever activity we’d been doing over the previous month). All the pressure and negativity in that class tended to come from other students instead which still sucked but not as badly as if the teachers had joined in.

  2. And there was me thinking that researchers were supposed to correct for confounding influences, not just shrug and go ‘Well maybe there are some, but we didn’t really check’

  3. Thank you Ragen for tackling this subject. I was so angry when I read this because they even stated in the article itself that they didn’t take certain things into account. But “Study with incomplete evidence shows some made up conclusion so you should be aware that OMG FAT GIRLS ARE STUPID”.

    I have been a fat girl since I was 6 years old, but I worked my butt off at school, because I could do it. However, every semester you were allowed a certain amount of days to be absent. I had this calculated on my wall, because I was absent every single allotted day. I was out so many days with “headaches” that my mom thought I was suffering from a brain tumor. She couldn’t believe that I was actually not wanting to be at school because of how I was treated. “Oh it can’t be that bad”, etc. It sucked because I LOVED learning. I used to love school until I was about 10 years old. The bullying I got from fellow students was unbelievable and I had very few people who believed me. By the time I got to high school, I spent most of my lunch breaks hiding out in the bathroom or the math teacher’s room so that I didn’t have to deal with the terror of the cafeteria. School sucked for me, but I got through it because I had no other option. I had to work hard because it was my only way out.

    So until they take bullying and shame into account, any “study” is completely worthless in my opinion. But actually admitting that the study really proves that they don’t know how to do research doesn’t make a very good headline. I expected more from the BBC when they reported this yesterday.

    1. This put tears in my eyes. The same thing happened to me, down to calculating how many days I could skip without being held back. I never knew what sick shit the bullies were going to do to me, only that I’d rather not be there for it. My grades in subjects that didn’t come naturally to me took a hit because of that (although being A Nerd, that meant I got B’s in some classes where I probably could have pulled off A’s had bullies not rendered me in literal and non-hyperbolic fear for my life- and, yes, it most certainly *was* “that bad”).

      But I guess, “Bullying contributes to a drop in grades among fat girls” as a headline doesn’t stroke as many thin cocks and egos.

    2. I hear you, I was probably the only kid in my class who actively hated recess and lunch during elementary and middle school. I bolted my lunch alone and spent the rest of the period in the library. Every now and then the librarian would kick me out for whatever reason, so I would find a corner somewhere to read my book or hang out with the one yard duty (the people who supervise the schoolyard to make sure the kids don’t kill one another or run in no-running zones) who liked me. Blanca, I still remember her name. Looking back, she most likely saw that I was being bullied but didn’t have the authority to do anything about it other than be nice to me. :/ Girl bullies are adept at tormenting other kids without actually breaking any rules.

      Oh, and I got A’s in everything but PE and math. Mainly because I saw my grades as the only good, worthwhile part of myself, because I was fat, clumsy, and socially awkward.

  4. Oh, another thing came to my mind, concerning studies in general. My mom is a physiotherapist, and she reads lots and lots of studies on different health related subjects and she told me an interesting thing: In Germany (I don’t know how other countries deal with this, but my guess is, it’s similar) studies are only published if they come to the conclusion they want to come to, that is, a study is only considered a success if it can prove what it wanted to prove. Studies that come to a different conclusion or if a study proofs something wrong that wasn’t intended to are never published because they are considered a failure, never mind the fact that it can be very valuable information to learn something is wrong. Since now I wonder if any study is worth the paper it is written on…
    Does anyone know about other countries and their “study policy”?

    1. That’s some seriously scary business. The whole purpose of science (in scientific method classes) is to disprove something, and learn from mistakes. If no one sees the mistakes, then how can you learn?

      This is a slippery slope.

      1. That’s exactly what I thought… you can learn so much from mistakes. But what do you learn at all by just proving what you already knew? It’s like that study that came to the conclusion that holding hands relieves anxiety and that sleeping helps when you are tired (not joking, I read about these)

  5. My brilliant, severely asthmatic, “obese BMI” 20 year old daughter told me this week she wants to change her first name because she associates it with being picked on at school. She was consistently asked to go beyond her abilities in PE–at one point having to be taken off the field by car because she was wheezing too hard to walk despite having inhaler in hand. She was salutatorian of her class due to an A- in art–and because I got her exempted from PE after the above incident. Put her in a pool or Tai Kwon Do class & she does fine. Running a track in cold mold or pollen filled air, not so much, and it’s not like the school didn’t know this. Grr! Added to the PE stuff, she was also picked on for having good grades. She excelled anyway, but lied to her friends & said grades were lower than they were. Sad.

  6. I don’t know what phys. ed. is generally like in the U.S. I live in Canada and I’m in my early twenties, and my phys. ed experience was thankfully very different. As I went through school, you weren’t graded on skill or aptitude in p.e. but participation. So as long as you tried whatever it was that was being done, as long as you participated, you could suck at it worse than a penguin sucks at flying, and it would not count against you.
    Of course I can’t speak to what it would have been like going through this environment as a fat kid. I was always skinny. But certainly gym class did seem to be a place where people were more conscious of their own and others’ bodies. And though I was fortunate to be graded on participation rather than skill, I still hated phys. ed. and often didn’t want to even participate. I liked playing outside and running around with my friends, I liked riding my bike, I liked jump-rope. But I hated sports and gymnastics, I had no skill in them at all, and I always felt very self-conscious having to try to do these things in front of all the other kids, especially since all of them were better at it than I was (at least, so it seemed to me at the time). I also had a phobia of getting whacked in the face with a large ball, so that I never did anything in basketball except follow everyone else back and forth across the gym, and I would not play volleyball at all.
    Sometimes other kids would reassure me, saying, “well, you don’t really need exercise, Samantha, you’re so skinny.” Which of course, was not true and I knew it. In the upper elementary school grades, other girls sometimes commented on my body in the change room. “You’re so skinny, Samantha” and then when I’d avoid eye contact and try to hide in a bathroom stall, “It’s a good thing!” And they really did mean it as a compliment. But I was self-conscious of being small, and I didn’t like the idea of other girls my age looking at my body and thinking they should be my size. I always knew I was “underweight” for lack of a better term.
    I can’t imagine how much my phys. ed. anxieties would have been compounded had I been “overweight” though. I hated feeling like I was on display, and I was self-conscious about my body size, but I certainly didn’t hate or feel shame about my body. Once gym class was over, I was relieved of all the negative emotions and could move on with my day. I’m sure if I had been fat, those emotions would have carried over to other aspects of my life, because you can leave gym class, but you can’t leave your body, and if you learn to be ashamed of and hate your body, how do you escape?

    1. I feel for you. Canadian gym sucks though. In jr high I felt very self conscious in the shorts that we all had to buy, and hated wearing them. My legs were huge by that time, and I believed they showed how awful I was.

      One time another girl asked to borrow my shirt, so I said to just lock the tray back up at the end of class, since I was leaving early for something. Come back Monday, my tray was still out and all my gym clothes were stolen. It took a year for the school to track down my clothes for me. We also had to get special permission to wear regular pants to gym class instead of the shorts. If you just showed up in them, you got docked marks.

      And about the participation thing, if you ever said you weren’t enjoying the game or hated it, you got a failing grade.

      They never took into account if you had an ED and that’s why you couldn’t function in gym class.

  7. (pounds head repeatedly against nearest wall)

    Of course girls are affected more strongly mentally by their weight because menstruation! Or deficient girl brains!

    Of course there is no need to look into obvious social constraints and pressures like weight bullying, early dieting, media shaming, etc. It’s the fat that causes the difference in grades and attendance… but boys are different because superior man brains! Or testicles! Or something,

    Pitiful excuses for research like this make the Baby Jesus weep endlessly into His Corn Flakes.

  8. I’m firmly convinced Physical Education needs to be graded on participation and tailored to cover the child’s abilities (those with disabilities or disorders that make things harder don’t have to achieve as much but have to put the effort in). Make it fun and a little challenging for everybody not a little challenging for the athletic kids and a nightmare for everyone else.

    Those that excel at sports can then join teams and trade training credits for PE grades as long as they keep their academic grades at a reasonable level.

    As for the rest of my education, when I was engaged and interested I got decent grades with minimal effort, when I wasn’t I scraped by. I almost failed a subject I liked because the teacher thought Technical Drawing was a boys subject and although he didn’t ignore me he didn’t engage me at all, I failed the preliminary exam so bad he told me it wasn’t worth sitting the exam. I studied at home with my mum (who knows little about the subject) encouraging me and I got up to a solid C – gotta wonder what I’d have got with a better teacher.

    Since fat has become short hand for lazy and stupid, I gotta wonder how many kids are being left behind because the teachers have low expectations which become self fulfilling prophecies. Deal with bullying so that kids aren’t afraid to come to school and engage them, find the ones that have problems that need extra support and make it available, find the ones that are bad at academic subjects but great with their hands and support them so they can find what they are good at. Encourage everyone to find their own greatness not try to shove everyone into a badly fitted mould.

  9. Err, so, is it weird that being fat (and having an unsafe home situation) drove me to be more focused on school? School was my best friend… kind of literally. Not that I’m advocating bullying, obviously, but I should see some people reading this study and coming out with “Hurrr, even science says fat people are stupid.” Yeeeeah, no. Fat only relates to smarts insofar as self-esteem is involved.

  10. I hated and was terrible at gym class. Nobody realized that my “corrected” hip dysplasia was the reason I ran with a limp and couldn’t sit cross-legged. (I also hated to run because boys laughed at my developing chest.)

    My teachers were kind. I always got a decent grade because I wore the uniform and looked as though I was trying. Strangely enough, my 8th grade gym teacher suggested that I counteract my klutziness by learning to dance and joining the school softball team (very small school– anyone who tried out would make the team). Maybe I should have listened to her…

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