If We Really Cared About Kids’ Health

Wrong RoadYesterday I blogged about a terrible program designed to give kids a grade for their body size. Unfortunately this is not the first experiment foisted upon children.  I think that some of the people behind these programs may actually care about children’s health, but that doesn’t excuse their irresponsibility.  Still, I don’t want to criticize without offering suggestions.  So if we really care about kids health here are some things that we could do:

Foster Healthy Relationships Between Kids and Their Bodies

Someone told me today that their school weighed kids and wrote their weights up on the wall. When the kids with low and high weights got (so very predictably) bullied, they were told that the bullying shouldn’t bother them because they were too young to worry about their weight.  That’s exactly what we don’t want to do.  It’s time for school to stop creating situations that enable bullies, and then blame the victims and excuse themselves by saying that bullying shouldn’t happen.

Health is a complicated thing, it’s difficult to define and difficult to measure. That doesn’t make it ok for schools to ignore those facts and just lazily and inaccurately substitute body size for health. Kids don’t take care of things that they hate, and that includes their bodies.  Helping kids have a healthy relationship with their bodies helps them see those bodies as worthy of care.  Trying to get kids to hate themselves healthy (or allowing other kids to “bully them healthy”) isn’t the way to go.

Foster Health Relationships between Kids and Movement

I work a lot with people who are trying to repair their relationships with movement after a messy breakup with exercise.  Typically this came at the hands of gym class (dodge ball, the President’s Physical Fitness Test, and asshole PE teachers I’m looking at you.)  Wouldn’t it be great if people weren’t pushed into hating the whole idea of movement from the start? Nobody is obligated to exercise, but everyone should have options for joyful movement made available to them as kids.  I’m for physical education that comes with tons of options, where kids are encouraged to try and then if they don’t like something try something else.

I’m for having competitive sports leagues as well as non-competitive leagues where kids who want to play for fun can do that. I’m for exposing kids to “non-traditional” movement – video games, larping, marching band, swing choir, gardening etc. I think it’s important to understand that some people never really enjoy fitness and that’s totally fine, we won’t convince kids who hate it to love it by creating a situation where they feel like failures and are ridiculed and are taught to hate their bodies, or where they are made to believe that exercise is punishment for their body size.  We won’t make kids healthier by continuing to insist that what we are doing works while actively ignoring tons of people who are saying “Gym class was fucking terrible!”

Foster Healthy Relationships Between Kids and Food

First of all, I think our focus should be on making sure that all kids have enough food to eat that nourishes them and that they enjoy, rather than trying to manipulate the height/weight ratios of kids. Again, I work with tons of people who are trying to fix a relationship with food has been really messed up, and it doesn’t have to be that way. We could help kids try a wide variety of food, and learn to trust their hunger and fullness signals.  We could stop food moralization, we could give kids good information, and support to make choices that take care of them.

We could stop defending that completely ridiculous idea that it’s not stigmatizing or damaging to tell fat kids that the world will be better when kids who look like them don’t exist.  We could look at the results of the experiments that have been tried and we could make the informed decision that what we are doing not only doesn’t make kids healthier but, in fact, is damaging their health. The people involved in implementing these programs could find a way to care more about their kids than about saving face by insisting that it’s anybody’s fault but theirs that programs that are supposed to be about making kids healthy are leaving them with deeply held body shame, hating movement and terrified of food.  We can do better, and we should.

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16 thoughts on “If We Really Cared About Kids’ Health

  1. As sad as it is, I can’t say it surprises me that people are willing to grade kids for their fitness levels/body weight. Fostering healthy relationships between all people and all body types is crucial. So many people, not just kids, have terrible body image issues, and we must all pull together to help solve this issue. You never know how your words are affecting others.

  2. posture. did anyone other than yr weary correspondent, here, have to go to that? i was always the youngest person in the class & often the tallest [neither of which lasted into decrepit adulthood].

    posture was for people who somehow walked wrong, ie: wanted to avoid people saying stupid things to me & a guy who was obsessed with beating me up, so i always looked down— bad for the shoulders, you know. gives you scoliosis, or something. i dont have scoliosis.

    but they yanked a few of us weirdos out of class for this idiocy, & i will never forget it. how could they think that this singling out would lead to anything other than EVEN MORE attacks by one’s peers i know not. & i’m talking [the few years i was in] elementary school; the president’s medal for having the appropriate body & the skills that go with it didnt show until junior high. thats when they told me to run the track & i walked it, spent all period walking it.

    oh this stuff was hateful— it was like a preamble to the worst of real life.

  3. Having endured K-12 in a sports-mad school, I’m for removing all team sports from the curriculum. I got graded for not being good enough to play basketball for the school. Or soccer. Or baseball. Or relay racing. Or …

    At the very, very least, make sure that the P.E. teacher IS NOT EVER A COACH FOR ANY TYPE OF INTERMURAL SCHOOL TEAM EVER.

    1. I completely agree with this. The kids who want to play team sports can do so outside of school (as most of them already do) — there’s no way to make forced team sports anything but sheer, pure HELL for the kids who are clumsy, or slow runners, or unathletic in whatever way. Adults should not discount the psychological pain of being the kid who is ALWAYS mocked, taunted, picked last, bullied , every day, day in and day out, year in and year out, in the forced misery of team “sports.” Throughout 5th and 6th grade, my daily hell was such that I seriously wanted to die, and the teachers did nothing at all, NOTHING, to protect me from my tormenters. The damage those years did to my sense of self is incalculable, and I still hate the very thought of competitive sports.

      1. In the beginning, I wasn’t even visibly badfat; I was just clumsy in anything that wasn’t a patterned activity such as folkdance. And slow. And completely without the extra gear that other people seem to have. And unable to do anything on a balance beam besides balance on it–very carefully. And too weak to vault over anything or climb that damn rope.

        And all of this was treated as my fault. If it’s physical education, shouldn’t the teachers, you know, educate? I finally took matters into my own hands in high school and signed up for the weight training elective, only to discover that it was supposed to be for boys, and only those who were already athletic. Somebody like me, who just wanted to get stronger, like I’d been commanded to do–completely without guidance or assistance–for years? I was some kind of freak.

        1. Same here. When I look at pictures of myself as a child, I’m startled to see that I was NOT fat; a very little chubby, but that’s all. But I was called “fat” so often by the bullies that I believed it — and dieted my way up to my current weight. Like you, as a child I was just clumsy, slow, unable to balance on my feet (though I was a very good horsewoman and had no problem balancing on horseback), unable to throw or catch a ball, unable to vault, in my case unable to learn dance patterns without extreme difficulty, completely ungraceful … I could never even learn to jump rope. And yes, this was all treated as my *fault*, as though I’d chosen to be clumsy and uncoordinated. Yeah, right, sure.

          1. “What, you STILL don’t magically know how to do the thing you couldn’t do last year, and the year before that, and the year before that? You STILL haven’t magically grown the muscle mass or the lung capacity or the lower resting heart rate or the reflexes you need in order to keep up with the class? Ugh, why am I stuck with you? I told you that your body had to totally change; it was up to you to figure out how. What do you think I am, a teacher? Here’s your D.”

  4. One of my PE teachers (in the UK) had her total comeuppance one day, when she thought she’d humiliate a friend of mine. My friend was a bit taller than average, and although not “fat”, she wasn’t skinny, either. We were supposed to learn to perform a gate vault, where you have one beam above another, and stand on the lower beam, reach down over the top beam with one hand, and then swing your legs over the top beam to land, preferably upright, on the floor. The teacher stood in front of my friend, who was now clinging on to the top beam as she waited for the order to vault. She was never an ace athlete, or ever more than average at physical things, rather like me! Our teacher was right handed, and demonstrated, whilst standing safely on the ground, how you should bring your hand down on to the lower beam, and then “flip your legs over”. My friend was left handed. Our teacher never bothered to ask her, though, if she was left or right handed. “Off you go!” she barked, still standing about five feet from the beams. My friend put her left hand across and down, and heaved her legs over, bless her, and clobbered the teacher beautifully around the ear! Of course, she was mortified, as she’d obviously not meant to do such a thing, but the teacher verbally laid into her, shouting that she should have said she was left handed, and that she should have done this, that and the other. No matter that my friend was now in tears, whilst many of the rest of the class were trying really hard not to celebrate this humiliation of the teacher for a change! Of course, the teacher was actually angry with herself for not asking whether the poor girl was left or right handed. It should also be borne in mind that we had several far more athletic and able girls in the class who could very easily, and far more confidently, have performed the demonstration. Our teacher really did like to pick on some poor soul who she felt was a “slacker”.

  5. I would have loved, loved, loved to have had some PE choices. I would have been delighted to take yoga, swimming (our school had a swim team but no pool), hiking, strength training (all of which I happily took in college). But no, it was one-size-fits-all PE, with heavy emphasis on team sports (with no training on the rules, leaving me clueless), running, president’s physical fitness, and punitive exercises like line soccer (shudder!) and dancing (which was either boy-chooses-girl or girl-chooses-boy, and either way it was a nightmare for an unpopular girl like me. I wasn’t particularly fat then, but I was weird, which is just as bad, and bad at being a girl: I liked boys’ clothes and hated makeup and fussing over my hair, and I still do).

    I had poorly controlled asthma, and for many years I had to endure this stupid scenario: my doctor should write a note saying that I had to be allowed to stop whenever I felt I needed to, but I could participate until then.

    Oh NO. Can’t let her be in charge of knowing what her body feels like! Every year the school disdainfully told my mom that I couldn’t be allowed to CHOOSE, that other kids had asthma, that I might just beg off because I wanted to rather than because I couldn’t breathe.
    So every year my doctor sighed and wrote a note excusing me entirely from gym.
    The catch-22 here is that, because I was excused from gym, I wasn’t allowed to read, study, go to the library: I had to get into my gym uniform, sit in the bleachers, and watch the other kids be tortured, to inspire me to stop having severe asthma, I guess.
    It was pretty evil: they set it up so I couldnt

    1. …participate, then punished me for not participating.

      I felt pretty alien anyway, and sitting there feeling weird and ashamed and angry and bored didn’t help. I ended up HATING everything to do with physical fitness (thanks to the gym teacher who, three times a week, made this remark: “all right, everybody form a line–except Elisabeth, of course), when it turned out eventually that there were so many forms of movement that I love.
      I might have even enjoyed team sports if someone had taught me the rules and not been abusive because I wasn’t good at them off the bat. I would certainly have enjoyed dancing (I was a belly dancer years later) if it didn’t involve public humiliation). And I might have passed the fucking President’s Physical Fitness Test once if anyone had conditioned me for it.

  6. AMEN AMEN! I was convinced that I hated exercise since high school. Only recently did I realize that no, I love moving my body, I just hated gym class (and all the uncomfortable situations that came with being a fat girl in a class full of thin children who were always going to be better than me at the size-ist activities that we were expected to perform). Occasionally I think about how much better gym class would have been if we had done different types of physical activities, or if I hadn’t been conditioned to be so self-conscious about how my body looked when in motion (God forbid my fat jiggle when I move!), or if the class had been full of people with bodies more similar to mine.

  7. My lungs have always been my weak point, that and depth perception. I was miserable at anything involving stamina (running laps, oh god) or catching/throwing a ball. And those were most of the PE activities we did, naturally. I could, and still can, sprint short distances, and I was actually quite good at avoiding the dodgeball. The other team would try targeting me- fat girl is a good target, right?- and I’d spin out of the way at the last minute. Eventually my team would catch on and the kids good at catching would lurk behind me. Good times.

    I like swimming and I’m good at it, but for some reason we never did that. Maybe because we would be damp in our next class? But we got all sweaty in running laps and whatever the day’s ball game was. I was flexible and might have been good at yoga or some kind of one-person dance, but nope. Laps and ball games with the occasional capture the flag. Maybe if I’d had more choices I wouldn’t dread the idea of exercise now. ( Except swimming. Swimming is fun! Fuck the haters who think fat people shouldn’t wear swimsuits, they don’t get to dictate my life.)

  8. It was over 30 years ago. And I still hate her. My high school gym teacher never provided instruction for anything. But she provided plenty of ridicule and shaming. I’ve not recovered any joy in movement and it galls me that she therefore wins.

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