Teachers Need To Be Body Positive Too

by Caila Smith

Trigger warning: eating disorder

I was a cheerleader for almost all of my teenage years. I cheered for my high school for a bit, but I spent most of my time on a traveling team. My outfit was a two-piece that made me uncomfortable as someone who tried to hide any imperfection on my body and wasn’t very body positive.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that one time when my coach hollered at me, “Smith! My lord, suck in that gut, girl!”

Almost all of the girls laughed, including me. Though, I didn’t find it very funny at all. I was on my period, bloated, and not feeling the greatest — physically or mentally. It didn’t matter what was going on. I was a child being shamed for my body in front of twenty girls by an adult. What nobody knew was I had made myself throw up before practice, and his comment made me want to throw up again.

I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t insecure about my body as a kid. I wasn’t overweight by any means, but I wasn’t itty-bitty. The thing was, itty-bitty was the very thing I wanted to be.

The small girls got more attention in school. It seemed like the boys liked them more, too. Hell, it felt like most of the teachers I had preferred them, as well. I thought they were, overall, prettier than someone like me. Because it felt like the only “right” way to have a body was to have a thin body.

I can’t say what drove me to an eating disorder exactly. Who can, though? All I know is that it was a slow progression brought on by a lifetime of feeling negatively towards my own body. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I never had anybody to model what being body positive looked like.

It wasn’t that I had an awful childhood — I didn’t. My mom was great while I was growing up. My weight was a non-issue to her, something she never brought up. She told me how beautiful I was whenever she had the chance. But it’s funny how those words mean so little when you hear them from your mom as a teenager. I used to tell her, “Yeah, but you have to say that.”

I grew up hearing her speak poorly about her own body. She went from diet to diet quite often. She’d look in the mirror in an unsatisfied kind of a way whenever she put on a shirt that fit a little too snug around the center. She used to hide behind me in photos to hide what she might call a “problem area.”

As I got older, I started to see her “imperfections” mirrored in me. I saw her complaints on my own body; her insecurities became my insecurities. How can someone believe they are beautiful when they see a pouch on their belly that resembles the one you’ve complained about for years?

Some kids don’t have adults at home who can teach them how to be body positive. I’m not blaming parents, either. We’ve been born into a world that tells us we should be thin, but not too thin. Busty, but not too busty. Curvy, but not too curvy. (You get the point.)

Parents can’t give their kids what they don’t have for themselves. We need to find a way to make sure that this cycle stops repeating. What better place to make sure kids are getting some positivity than at school?

Kids spend three-fourths of the year at school. Schools are regularly the birthplace of these negative perceptions. Classrooms need to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to putting others down for appearances. School staff need to be looking out for these things, too. Because I assure you, they are happening.

Bullies at school are dragging other children into a toxic world that puts one over another because of their looks. It is causing staggering rates of mental health issues, eating disorders, and suicides, and, for the love, it has to matter.

We need to lose BMI tracking in P.E. class. Books, toys, apps, and shows need to be inclusive of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Educators and school staff do not need to integrate their diets into the classroom. Everyone repeat after me: diet culture is toxic. Unrealistic beauty standards need to be pointed out to kids when seen in a classroom setting. And unless a penis or vagina is visible, dress codes have got to go.

It’s unfair how people of certain genders and body types have become a target. It speaks volumes about how the school system decides which bodies are appropriate and which aren’t. How about we stop sexualizing and shaming kids for the way they choose to express themselves?

It’s hard being a kid with any type of body, let alone having one with differences others are quick to point out. Maybe the best thing we can do to create a body-positive environment for kids is to not talk about their bodies individually at all. Let them lead that discussion, and make sure you’re equipped to handle it in a way that won’t leave them emotionally scarred when that time comes.

Kids need a place to safely land from a world that tells them they will never be enough. If nothing else, they need educators who can let them know that they are free to take up as much or as little space as they need. We need to be teaching them that their appearance and size are not a burden.

All shapes, sizes, and colors bring equal value to this world.