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Do kids see all kinds of bodies represented in their textbooks?

Student journalist Jhankaar Purohit talks about body positive content (or the lack thereof) in classrooms!

Do kids see all kinds of bodies represented in their textbooks?

“It made me feel frustrated.”

“It makes me feel pathetic.”

“It shouldn’t be happening. Not in class. Not with children.”

While body shaming at school can often look like severe bullying, students and teachers who have experienced or seen it in a classroom environment have made these statements in the context of the friendly neighborhood ‘fat friend’ jokes. Or ‘skinny friend’ jokes. Or ‘flat friend’ jokes, “made in a lighthearted manner.” The list continues, but I’m sure you get the idea. We all know that feeling of being uncomfortable in your skin and how hard it can get to cope with the constant comments people make when you have a body that isn’t considered ideal in society. But body shaming, yet again, surprises us - being far more nuanced than we imagine it to be.

It often shows up, not just as comments from others, but also expectations from ourselves.  A study (Frederick and colleagues, 2007)  exploring levels of body dissatisfaction in men from Ukraine, Ghana, and the United States found that 90% of male US undergraduates believed their bodies were not good enough - a statistic estimated to be even higher for women from the same age group. This clearly shows that most bodies do not fit these societal ideals, the heroine chic (read more about this here; TW - body image and weight)  is an unachievable goal, and almost everyone you know (even that person with the perfect body you’re so envious of) is most likely unhappy with themselves.

Another research paper (Quittkat and colleagues, 2019) backs up what I heard from the much smaller sample size in my own surveys. Teachers like Ms. Archana Shekhawat, who’ve spent almost a decade interacting with students in a classroom setting have noticed how, “I haven’t faced this, but I do see that kids have this issue.” Further, people who have struggled with body shaming, including students like Rahil Roy from the 10th grade, and teachers like Ms. Raisinghani have shared that, “(instances of being body shamed) would make me feel bad before, but don’t affect me anymore” This tells us that people’s dissatisfaction with their bodies is the highest during their teenage, gradually decreasing as they get older.

So yes, it’s not just you.

As relieving as those six words sound, they also shed light on a larger problem - one that we all know of, one that almost all of us have experienced at some point in our lives. Body negativity. I’m also one of these people and realizing this unfortunate truth lead me to try and figure out how we can solve this issue.

Now, what better place to start - when on a quest to find tangible solutions to body shaming among young adults - than at school? After interviewing more than 20 peers, parents, and school faculty members of diverse gender and age groups -  I’ve realized that the solution lies within the primary cause of this massive issue. A lack of normalization and representation of different body types - meaning, kids don’t see all kinds of bodies represented in textbooks.

A few corrections to that statement actually, kids don’t see their bodies positively represented in textbooks, the videos they see in class, the way their peers speak to each other, and the classroom environment as a whole. Samkit Jain, a grade 10 student believes that “This portrays the ideal student who would be accepted by everyone as being only someone who’s thin and fits these standards.”  Not only are there no books or chapters within textbooks specifically on the topic of body positivity, but textbooks and class content in general also do not have body-inclusive images. This would look like a lack of pictures of plus size kids on the cover of textbooks, and only people with clear skin and straight hair portrayed as students inside these textbooks or videos as well.

“It all comes down to how you feel about yourself. You’re constantly telling yourself a story and if you’re the hero - others’ opinions don’t matter.”

This quote from Mr. Krishna Purohit - a teacher with half a decade of teaching experience - led me to realize how this story that we tell ourselves, especially as a student, is based on the environment we’re constantly in - our classroom.

Hence, the solution is to make the classroom an environment within which students grow to become body positive, or as stated by numerous students themselves, “to be proud of (their) body.” This can be done, firstly, through not labeling children - “Kids are often addressed as ‘the fat one,’ ‘the short one,’ ‘the not smart one,’ and these labels shouldn’t be there.”  When students are taught, from an early age, to not address each other using these labels and see their teachers not using these labels either - they grow to see each other as more than just their bodies and what they look like - to see each other as unique individuals.

This leads me to another vital solution. “If a student sees that sir is being body positive, he’ll think, why shouldn’t I?” Mr. Sanjeev Jadon, who’s been in the teaching industry for 16 years now, believes that teachers have a huge impact on their students’ lives and opinions - they are arguably the most influential and essential resource for content within classrooms. Them accepting students for who they are, and as beautifully phrased by a teacher for over a decade, Ms. Gunjan Raisinghani - providing a “non-judgemental ear,” and “being able to tweak in body positivity content within any class discussion,” can prove to significantly improve body positivity mindsets within students as well.

To conclude, teaching students about self-acceptance through textbooks that do have all kinds of bodies in them, videos that show real-world bodies, and providing them with individualized support through school-subsidized sessions with counselors, as well as having a general “hai toh hai” attitude can help students be truly positive about their bodies.

This wonderful feeling has been described by our interviewees far better than any phrase I could craft.

“Being happy in what you are.” Ms. Teena Bhargava, a teacher for 18 years.

“Being comfortable in your own skin.” Mr. Aditya Gupta, a teacher for almost 5 years.

“Being in love with yourself.” Ms. Himani Joshi, a teacher for 7 years.

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