Do you love everyBODY? Are you an anti-fat bias educator?

When I was teaching at the secondary level I will never forget a specific teaching scenario and how it made me feel or the student concerned. I was teaching athletics (track & field) and within this school, all students were required to complete a lap of the track as part of an independent warm up for the content area. Now I won’t go into the debate here on why this is a monotonous warm-up and the 100 other warms up one could do, however because I was a student teacher, I was trying not to ‘rock the boat’! So I followed the departmental routines. There was one student, let’s call her Mandy, who continually struggled to do the lap run, often walking the 400 meters and to be honest I couldn’t blame her, running in circles is most boring to me too. My school-based mentor told me that I really needed to have a chat with her about her weight and it really wasn’t good that she is not able to run 400 meters without stopping. I didn’t feel overly comfortable doing this and so she said she would speak to her so I could ‘learn the ropes of difficult conversations.’ I listened for about two minutes and when I couldn’t listen any longer, I left. I felt uncomfortable for two reasons. Firstly, I felt that the student was targeted for not looking like her classmates or fitting the ‘norm’ and secondly the warm-up wasn’t innovative and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that my mentor had a prejudice anti-fat bias, which has been called several other things such as: weight stigma, weight bias, anti-fat attitudes, stereotyping, discrimination towards people perceived to be ‘fat’ (Daníelsdóttir, O’brien, & Ciao, 2010). But, I have always wondered how this situation has effected Mandy and have always attempted to avoid such practices when I was qualified and teaching myself. Did Mandy hate physical education? Was she conscious that she looked different? Was the curriculum inclusive for all students? Was she afraid of changing in front of her peers? I always go back to what is the purpose of physical education? For me, it is not to combat health or obesity agendas and I feel strongly about keeping such agendas separate from physical education and taking a more critical approach to such topics within school. I spoke at length about this in last week’s blog and so I shall not rehearse that here: https://t.co/JzeP1DUkyd.

This incident has always made me wonder about Mandy and how our biases as a teacher affect/effect our students. Considering our knowledge is socially constructed, we require students to fit with conventional beauty and body types. As Shilling (2008, p. xiii) articulated “straying too far from physical perfection damages young people’s standing with their peers: those considered obese have more difficulty making friends, and are more subject to bullying on the basis of stereotypes involving the equation that fatness = laziness + stupidity.” Those that do have a ‘normal or thin’ body benefit from thin privilege (see for a short explanation on what this entails: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gak58BcuPh0. The extreme benefits that come with having a slender physique also have consequential detrimental effects for those that do not fit the mold. Many students end up having a fat phobia and self-loathing as evidenced later in this blog.

Our agenda system has adopted a human capital model that brings its own prejudices, biases, and discrimination towards not only our students but for us as educators. What we must be conscious of is the FACT we cannot all fit the societal norm(s) and nor should we be expected to. There is a reason that thousands of doctors are allowed to make money off of weight reduction, we have centers you can go and get your ‘fat’ shaken off (vibro machines), and we have pills you can take to make you thin. Any young person only has to pick up a magazine and see what the new size norm is now – and yes… it is getting thinner and thinner by the day the older I get. It worries me that our capitalist society benefits from making people feel like they need to look good, in turn creating a set of desires and profit off of encouraging them to buy lots goods/treatments for their self-worth. On my drive to the supermarket, I tackle driving past Taco Mama, Burger King, Mc Donald’s, Chipotle, Panda Express, What-a-burger, Subway, and Chick-fil-A, which are cleverly located on route to my final destination (and seemingly en route to any destination). I am fortunate, as my plant-based diet allows me to navigate around these stores quite easily but how many others drive into these stores only to loathe themselves afterward? How many students are taught about how clever towns are structured in their physical education class and how this effects what we consume and subsequently what we look like? How many students are encouraged to think about the fact these stores are walking distance from certain communities, whereas the supermarkets are located in more privileged communities that are a drive-away?

The time has come to be critical. When are we going to love everyBODY? and when are you going to take action regarding sociocultural issues for everyBODY in your community for a more socially-just and equitable society?

The rest of this blog takes you through some of my physical education community views on this topic. They come from a variety of perspectives, therefore, I will allow you to interpret their work as you wish. I thank my physical education friends for their contributions, their brutal honesty, and their dedication to praxis in our field. I hope you too will love everyBODY and read on.

Teacher: Justin Schleider @SchleiderJustin: I have an anti-fat bias. I don’t know when it started. It might have been when I started identifying who I thought was attractive and who I didn’t. It may have been when my parents called me Gutstin when I got chunky. Perhaps it was from playing sports and wrestling where extra weight was looked at as being a barrier to success. Some of my bias comes from the idea that I used to believe that people could control their weight. I would categorize them. When I categorized someone who was overweight, I would automatically assume they didn’t control what they ate or they didn’t exercise at all. We know that this is not necessarily the truth. We also know that socio-economic class affects food choices as well. Either way, I have worked for years to see bodies as only being vessels for a soul. I try to think how does the Dalai Lama see people? He has to see beyond the vessel. I know that is a lofty goal to shoot for. What is worrisome is how this bias could affect my students. I attempt to treat all my students equally. In reality, it is impossible to do this. We naturally like some students more than others. To be honest some students are more likable than others. One thing I do know is that physically I don’t push my students to work harder than they are ready to. I am not a personal trainer. My job is to vary the activity so that each student will have to work to succeed but that the goal is never too high to achieve. This allows students to enjoy my class regardless of their physical ability which may be hampered by their weight. I also believe that I work hard to establish relationships with all my students regardless of how they look or what they weigh. I know I am successful at this because I survey my students every trimester and ask them how much they believe I like them and how much they enjoy my class. The data has not shown that my students who are overweight have a negative association with either me or my class. Either way, this is something I am aware of and am constantly making sure that I am working hard to make sure my students are not negatively impacted by my shortcomings.

Teacher Educator: Dr. Kymm Ballard @KymmBallard: @KymmBallard: Believe it or not, I can’t remember having a lot of self- esteem since the 9th or 10th grade in high school. I know many of you that know me don’t really see that in my public life. I wasn’t always fat but I believe several events in my life eventually changed my opinion from taking care of myself and trying to look pretty to anything BUT that. In my life, it invited abuse. So being overweight to obese was a safety net in some ways. While it wasn’t my goal, stress eating became my savior (or so I thought). I ate to punish myself because I couldn’t say anything and drank to feel better. Being abused in many various ways not all one type of abuse – role models of all types in my life or what should have been, were taking advantage of my trust and naivety to abuse me. People I thought I could trust- I couldn’t. I associated it with being attracted to me and I remember thinking as a young girl – “I don’t want to be pretty!” I don’t want people feeling this way or doing this to me. As I aged, I quit taking care of me because I didn’t love me and vowed to keep silent. The silence became my stress eating. As I became more fat the more I felt like people saw my personality, saw me, but without the abuse. It actually was the best I had felt in a long time. I went on to make a nice career for myself except one thing – I was fat and it’s unacceptable in our profession. Abuse, lack of self-esteem, silenced all played a role in my obesity. I have currently lost 33 lbs this year in a healthy way and part of it is learning to love myself. My pastor helped a lot and is showing me how my professional life and personal life are different. Publicly I am strong, caring, and have it together. Personally, I hide away from people and have no self-esteem based on my past and my weight. That was my bias – fat was not pretty and people won’t be attracted to you to abuse you. Based on my experience. I also saw how people looked and judged me being fat and a national leader. All the while I stress ate in silence. Did they really accept me? I would walk into places sometimes embarrassed to say what my job was, my major, or my role at the time. I could see the look in their eyes because everyone who “knew” what to do should be “doing” it or they were just lazy or stupid. People forgot that knowledge doesn’t necessarily change behavior. If so, we could teach physical education in a class. I would read on social media how “we” all had to role model “fitness” all the while thinking if I did I would be abused again. No one knew of my story, until now. Every person is like a different Novel…. everyone has a story to tell and no one should be judged, even fat people.

Teacher: Kennedra Tucker @MsTuckerRocksPE: I originally started my college career specifically wanting to help children who were overweight and obese. A college professor convinced me to pursue a career as a Physical Educator. She said I could help all students regardless of their body composition. Fast forward 16 years later, and I am still committed to the cause of helping children who are overweight. However, my focus has shifted to encouraging students to engage in physical activity daily and to enjoy it for the rest of their lives. Do I have an anti-fat bias? No. However, I am concerned when I see students who are overweight because I think of the health challenges that they may incur because of it. I think about childhood diabetes and hypertension. I think of other students teasing students who are considered overweight. I wonder if those students who are overweight are experiencing low self-esteem as a result of the bullying. I absolutely think there is an anti-fat bias in our society toward Physical Education teachers. I have heard people say, “how can that person be a PE teacher when they’re overweight?”  That then leads to comments about how the teacher should be working out with students and how the teacher’s lack of fitness can’t possibly motivate students. People make the assumptions that PE teachers who are not slim and do not have the traditional fit appearance of someone with bulging muscles cannot possibly provide a quality PE program to students. But, that is simply not true.

Teacher Educator: Dillon Landi @DillonLandi: I interviewed Aspen (pseudonym) as part of my research with LGBTQIA students in health, physical activity, and education. Aspen (aged 16) is a transman who recently dropped out of school. This is a story about physical education. 

Dillon         Did you enjoy PE?

Aspen         I didn’t so much enjoy PE but knew I needed to take it in order to maintain sort of a skinnier physique because my school sort of socially it wasn’t really acceptable if you were stockier and I already had a large chest and sort of large ass and hips genetically. So any weight I put on was quite noticeable. So I took a lot of PE to try to sort of play it safe.

Dillon         So you took PE because you thought it would help you get a body that is desirable at school?

Aspen         Or at least express that I’m trying to because it seems silly now, but at the time it was sort of a defense mechanism. My weight wouldn’t be another thing for someone to pick on me for because people picked on the fact that I had glasses and because my hair was too matted and messy when it was long. Then when I cut my hair I was called a dyke or a lesbo…

Dillon         So if PE was a way to defend you from body shaming, would you say that PE was focused on shaping the body?

Aspen         Well it was in my school because of the way our teacher was and the way he quote and unquote motivated people. Rather than encouraging positivity he held over us the threat of failure and looked at the consequences of failing.

Dillon         Can you give me an example?

Aspen         Well when one of my classmates didn’t want to do an activity just because he didn’t want to. He was one of the popular kids and was sitting down just on his phone and so our teacher went up to him and went, “Come on get up. You don’t want to get fat.” So it wasn’t motivation but the threat of gaining something that was deemed and constructed as undesirable was used to make people work.

As a physical educator, you may cringe reading this story. I can honestly say this was just one of many. When physical education becomes about making students ‘fit’ or forcing kids be ‘physically active’, we are no longer an educational subject. Instead, we turn into ‘health promotion’ and should be removed from schools. As Aspen noted, the way his teacher approached the subject had a major effect on how students perceived physical education. Aspen has since dropped out of school… with the abuse he gets about his body and perceived identity, could you blame him? 

*Reach out to Dillon for recommended books on this topic*

Teacher: Stephanie Sandino @smsandino: Just the other day, one of my students brought up the point about physical educators who are “fat” and how it was hard for her to find them credible from a student’s perspective. Although this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this point being made, it got me thinking. In our adult brain, we process multiple possibilities- maybe that physical education teacher has an illness in which weight gain is a symptom, or perhaps they take medication that is causing weight gain. As we grow and live out experiences it allows us to put different lenses on as to how we view people, things, places and the world in general. In an adolescent’s brain, where was this comment stemming from? When thinking about my student’s emotions I always refer back to the movie “Inside Out,” they are just beginning to experience those compound emotions intermixed with the singular emotions that you can spot right away. Our students, like everyone else, live in a society that puts a certain amount of value in physical appearance. It’s everywhere– commercials on television, ads on the freeway, magazines at the store, films at the movies, music on the radio and the list can go on and on, right? At the junior high level especially, students are receptive to the world around them as they begin to build their identity. If one student thought that about a physical education teacher, I can only imagine what they think about each other and how it affects relationships and their social-emotional domain at a vulnerable time in their lives. It can be an everlasting impact! As a constant reflector, I turned my thoughts towards my practice. What am I doing to disrupt the fat bias? How do my students interact with each other and how does that affect the culture in our class? Are the relationships that I build with my students enough? Am I meeting them, where they are? Am I pushing them too much, or too little? If there is one thing I know, I know that I want all my students of all shapes and sizes to feel as comfortable and safe as possible in my classroom. It’s an important topic that is worth addressing in our classes as it can ultimately influence our movers in moving confidently and competently.

Questions for you:

  • How are you addressing your implicit and explicit biases in physical education/your subject area?
  • Are you all your students included, valued, loved, and appreciated in your class?
  • What activities encourage stigmatization? What are you going to do to prevent this or can you change the activity? E.g. fitness testing, BMI testing, singling out students to perform.

*As with any blog I attempt to give you a bite-size, there is much more I do not know about this topic like the Socratic paradox: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Videos to watch on this topic:

Plus-size? More like my size by Ashley Graham: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAgawjzimjc

What Comes After Loving Yourself? Advice from a Fat Fly Brown Girl by Yesika Salgado: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oP3STw2jC8

References AKA further reading:

Daníelsdóttir, S., O’brien, K. S., & Ciao, A. (2010). Anti-fat prejudice reduction: a review of published studies. Obesity facts3(1), 47-58.

Shilling, C. (2008). Body pedagogics, society and schooling. Education, Disordered Eating and Obesity Discourse. London: Routledge.

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