Teaching body positivity in the classroom is more important than ever

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

A recent survey found Aussie teens are struggling with their body image, sparking the call for more education about body positivity in the classroom.

national survey by the NIB Foundation, in partnership with Butterfly Foundation, earlier this year found that a whopping 90 per cent of teenage students were “concerned” about their body image, with one in three (38 per cent) being “extremely concerned”.

The study involved more than 1,600 young Australians between the ages of 12 and 18. The results paint a bleak picture of students’ self-efficacy, with almost 45 per cent of young people dissatisfied with their body looks.

Nearly 70 per cent of young people said they had experienced appearance-related teasing, with 73 per cent of these saying they’d experienced it at school. 

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Two-thirds of young people said their body image stopped them from doing physical activities. 

According to Butterfly Foundation researchers, poor body image can lead to students experiencing lower self-esteem, higher instances of eating disorders, and mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety.

The research also showed social media played a massive role in young people’s body dissatisfaction, as frequent users reported “poorer body appreciation” and “greater life disengagement”. 

Why body positivity matters in the classroom

Despite body image’s massive impact on student mental health, it’s a topic K-12 schools rarely cover. 

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In that same study, one in two (50 per cent) young people said that their body image had, at some point, prevented them from simply raising their hand in class, with one-third (36 per cent) also saying it stopped them from giving an opinion or standing up for themselves. 

It’s clear a poor body image can have an enormous effect on a student’s physical, psychological, and social health and even take a toll on their education. 

How teachers can help

Teachers may play a bigger role in shaping the attitudes of their class than they realise. By acting as an educator, mentor, confidant, role model, and sometimes friend, you can help provide support for struggling students seeking inspiration to handle thoughts on body image.

It’s a daunting task – and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly by those shaping the future of young Australians.

While helping young people build a healthy relationship with their bodies can be challenging, teachers can do some simple things to make a difference:

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Be a positive role model

Teachers should demonstrate first-hand what a positive body image looks and sounds like in the classroom. Lead by example and choose to speak kindly about your own and other people’s bodies. Try not to engage in appearance-related talk and do things that make you feel good in your own body. 

Implement and integrate body-positive resources 

Research shows that building awareness in students is vital in combatting poor body image. When selecting resources, look for ones that develop media literacy skills, challenge pressures to conform to certain appearance ideals, reduce body comparisons and appearance-related talk, build resilience, and develop personal identity and self-esteem.

Programs like Body Safety Australia are great resources that allow students to reflect on their physical, emotional, and mental health. Specifically designed for teens, these digital tools prompt students to recognise their own values and understand how the message from media and society influence their perceptions.

Foster a positive body image and an inclusive environment for all

Extend your efforts beyond the curriculum to create an environment where students and staff celebrate diversity and show respect for body shapes of all sizes. 

Consider looking at your policy around appearance-related bullying, the opportunities presented for non-competitive physical activity, and whether the school uniform is inclusive of all body types.

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Avoid scare tactics

Take a ‘do no harm’ approach and avoid discussing harmful behaviours, weight/shape/size, or specific eating styles. Instead, turn your focus towards reducing stigma, understanding influences, accessing available support, and encouraging help-seeking. 

Have students lead discussions and activities

Create a safe and positive environment where students can take ownership of the issue for themselves and their peers. 

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.