Protecting our young from too much body talk
When a young street dance troupe in south Bristol was having a picture taken earlier this summer, one girl was not happy when the photographer asked them all to raise their arms.
"Everyone will see my bingo wings," she squealed. I was shocked – I was into my sixth decade before I had heard of bingo wings and even now I'm not exactly sure what they are. But I do know they do not exist on perfectly ordinary pre-teen girls.
Sadly, the comment would not have come as a surprise to any teacher or parent of a child aged between five and 15.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, May 26 2013
Children today are so bombarded with images of so-called "perfect" bodies in the media that they are becoming conscious of their own looks and perceived deficiencies at an ever younger age.
The average child now watches as many as 40,000 adverts a year and it is said that a teenager sees more images of physical perfection in a day than previous generations saw in their whole adolescence.
By the age of 10, about a third of girls and more than a fifth of boys say that the way their bodies look is their number one worry. Ten is also the average age at which children start dieting.
So what can we do about it? Two Bristol teachers have been looking at ways to help mums and dads and schools combat the negative influences on children.
Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland wrote a book called Body Image in the Primary School and earlier this year they were honoured at the Houses of Parliament, among the first winners of the national Body Confidence Awards.
Ms Calland said: "We wanted to help build children's self-esteem and develop their resilience to the relentless media pressures that they face nowadays."
Their book is aimed at helping teachers to run body confidence lessons as part of their school's personal, social and health education, There are one-off classes on topics such as air-brushing of images as well as a full programme.
They decided to write it after realising that although secondary schools worked on such issues, there was a need that was not being addressed at primary level.
"Our book is the first and only book that has lessons designed to use with this age group of children. Supporting them at primary school helps them cope with the further pressures when they go on to secondary school," said Ms Calland.
The women have been into schools and worked with teachers as well as running sessions for parents.
They have found that some teachers are aware that the children's self-esteem is being affected but worry that focusing on appearance will draw attention to pupils who may be overweight or have a disfigurement.
But the advisers say those children will be aware of those issues anyway so it is better to bring them into the open and discuss them.
"We encourage the teachers to think about their own body confidence issues too," said Ms Calland.
Another area they address is that of eating sensibly, because there is concern that the success of the Healthy Schools agenda in highlighting obesity problems can encourage some children – and parents – to cut out certain foods that a growing body needs.
Ms Hutchinson and Ms Calland are now writing a book for parents to help them handle some of these tricky questions.
"The more we go into it, the more passionate we feel about it," said Ms Calland. "We have had parents and teachers telling us about primary school children who are stressing about what they should wear to school on non-uniform days or to a birthday party.
The women's work in schools including Cheddar Grove Primary and St Peter's Church of England Primary is being evaluated by the Centre of Appearance at the University of the West of England.
They have also worked with a number of independent girls' schools, which recognise that their students may face particular pressures. Among these is The Red Maids' School in Westbury-on-Trym where teacher Trish West, who is head of personal, social and health education, said: "This is a major theme within our PSHE programme and has a high place in general on the agenda at Red Maids'.
"Our pastoral team are very aware of the importance of raising self-esteem and the dangers of negative self-image on the girls' general well-being and their education .
"We work with the 'Dove' campaign for real beauty resources and have invested previously in experts coming to the school to deliver sessions for a number of year groups throughout the Junior and Senior schools, as well as teachers and parents.
"Each year group, from Year 7 to 10, has time regularly devoted to this subject and this year we have invited the B-eat – eating disorders team – to run a workshop for especially for our Year 7 and 9 students.
"Maintaining good two-way home-school communications on all pastoral issues is essential and part of our regular pastoral evenings for the parents of each year group refers to the work we do to support the emotional health and well-being of the girls."
Last year Ms Calland and Ms Hutchinson led a session at the national annual conference in Bristol of the Girls' Schools' Association, whose president Dr Helen Wright has been outspoken on the protection of childhood and the dangers of premature sexualisation of youngsters.
While a lack of confidence can lead children into obvious problems, such as eating disorders, it can also go deeper.
Ms Calland, a former secondary teacher, and Ms Hutchinson, who taught in primary schools, work for the behaviour support team at Bristol City Council and have found that low self-esteem is frequently linked to non attendance, disruptive behaviour and underachievement at school.
So, although the Education Secretary Michael Gove wants schools to focus on academic subjects rather than social and emotional aspects of learning, many teachers find that addressing the latter will help improve performance in the former.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group of Body Image earlier this summer called for body confidence to be put on the curriculum at English schools. It spent five months looking at the issue and said negative body image was an underlying cause of health problems and affected relationships, participation at school and progression at work.
Its vice chairman, Bristol West Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams, said children should not feel they had to aspire to unrealistic shapes and sizes.
"They should be more happy and confident with what nature has given them.
"This has got worse in the past decade or so, with lifestyle magazines and so-called reality TV and it is playing on people's minds more and more."