Monday, September 14, 2009

Open House

Last week I attended Parent's Night at my son's high school. I always look forward to getting a firsthand view of my children's teachers so that I can have a better sense of what their life is like during all those hours they spend away from home. While gym class isn't high on my priority list of exciting presentations, I was looking forward to seeing Mr. P. who I've known from previous years.

I entered the big gym and chatted with some of the parents that I knew. Mr. P. started the typical shpiel about what types of activities the students would do throughout the year, the importance of attendance, and what it's like to work with Freshman boys. That's when my ears perked up.

After telling us that he comes off as a tough guy in the beginning - even though he's actually a pretty low-key kind of guy - he offered his philosophy for making physical education a positive experience for everyone.

He told the parents that he will absolutely not tolerate any negative comments about weight. He stated that people naturally come in different shapes and sizes, and that by the time the swimming unit comes around next spring he wants everybody - yes, he meant Every Body - to feel comfortable and have fun. By letting the boys know his expectations from the outset, he believes he can encourage a safe environment for each and every student.

Wow! Did I hear that correctly? I have to admit that when I attend PE, Consumer Ed, and Health classes at various open houses, I usually brace myself for some comments about staying fit to prevent obesity or eating healthy foods to prevent obesity. (I'm all for fitness and understanding nutrition - but I want it to come from a positive place that promotes wellness for all children, rather than from a fear of getting fat that stigmatizes larger students.) I'm generally pleased when no comments are made about body size, but to hear a message to the kids and parents that supports size diversity is downright inspirational!

And it got me thinking. Can you imagine if every single teacher had a "no tolerance policy" regarding bullying, teasing and making negative comments about weight? What if they took that next step and regularly referred to the wonderful variations among all human beings, including body shape and size? Wouldn't that promote self- esteem for all students and help all of our children grow into more compassionate adults?

Here's my next question: How did Mr. P. become so enlightened? After the presentation, in the brief moment I had to greet him, I thanked him for his words and told him how wonderful I thought it was that he teaches his students about size diversity. He seemed pleased to hear my compliment; I couldn't tell if he realized that what he is saying is quite different from the usual messages that are given both overtly and covertly to students about body size.

Or so I think. After we left the open house, I told my husband how impressed I was by Mr. P., and how rare it is to hear a teacher promote the idea that people come in different shapes in sizes.

My husband's response was, "How do you know that? How do you know there aren't a lot of teachers out there who have a size positive attitude?"

Well, there was the Report on Size Discrimination put out by the National Educational Association in 1993, which concluded that within school systems, large students experienced "ongoing prejudice, unnoticed discrimination and almost constant harassment," while teachers experienced "socially acceptable yet outrageous insensitivity and rudeness" regarding their own weight.

But that was in 1993 so perhaps things have improved since then. Yet in my work with clients, at workshops and conferences, and among my colleagues dedicated to Health At Every Size, I've hear innumerable stories of harassment at the hands of gym teachers because of weight, leaving these former students feeling shamed, embarrassed and humiliated. At the same time, I know that there have been some wonderful curricula developed in recent years to teach body-esteem to students - and teachers - that may changing attitudes toward fat and tolerance of negative comments about body size.

So here's my question for you: Is Mr. P. one in a million? Or is he part of a new trend? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Eat well! Live well! Be well!


billfabrey said...

Great blog! It is perfectly understandable how one might expect a PE teacher to be fatphobic, since that seems typical of stories about fat kids' experiences in school. Yet, we should not judge every teacher based on the stereotype. This guy is wonderful, and he may be more aware of how unusual his approach is than he lets on. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to live up to "standards" that are propagated in schools, and someone in his position might well be apprehensive about getting a reputation as having a "permissive" attitude about obesity,

I once complimented an MD for his sensitive and humane way he dealt with a partner of mine who injured her ankle in a fall when a flimsy gangplank broke under her weight. His response was to apologize to me for what he knew to be hostility of some of his colleagues in the profession towards larger patients.

I have spoken with doctors who, after long experience with real patients, no longer hassle patients about their weight, say that they feel that if a fat patient could have lost weight permanently, they would have done so already!

So your husband is right to ask the question he did.

--Bill Fabrey
Woodstock, NY

Debbie Gross, LCSW said...

What an inspirational message! I have not heard of another teacher, especially a gym teacher, who spoke so supportively about size diversity and acceptance. Kudos to Mr. P!

I wish more people would encourage self-esteem in one another instead of criticizing differences. Then people like Mr. P will be the standard instead of the rarity.

Diet Survivors Group said...

Bill and Debbie, Thanks so much for your comments. I just want to figure out what gets people to think size positively, and bottle it! Or better yet, maybe we can put it in the water supply and spread to one and all...Okay, I know I'm getting a bit carried away!

In the end, as we embrace the message size diversity one teacher/doctor/citizen at a time, reason will prevail.

Elizabeth Patch said...

My day gig is that of a high school art teacher.
(I am an author/illustrator whose topic is positive art for the plus size majority) Our school has a zero tolerance policy for bullying, which includes teasing about size! AND our team of PE teachers includes several male and female teachers who are living proof of "fat & fit". (And our "drug counselor" also has training to deal with eating disorders.) Of course, we can't stop bullying 24/7, and the problem of cyber-bullying (on Facebook, texting, etc) is really awful and largely out of our control. But promoting healthy activity for all sizes is not as unusual as you may think!