Health class in school is an experience few of us would like to repeat, I’m sure. Though it’s been a good many years since I was subjected to the joys of health education, I continue to think about the types of lessons I had, particularly about eating disorders, and how lacking these were. I can only imagine that things have gotten progressively worse with the focus on the “obesity epidemic” that is so pervasive today.
In one of my favourite articles ever, Pinhas et al. (2013) outline some issues with healthy curricula related to “healthy eating” in schools in the wake of obesity rhetoric. These include:
- The simplistic “energy in, energy out” message can be highly problematic for some children, who may take this to mean they need to engage in restrictive behaviours
- Without addressing weight stigmatization in schools, messages about health hold little purchase, and tend to generate simplistic readings of body size as equal to weight
However, this article is not the focus of this post (plot twist!). Here, I’ll write about another of my favourite articles by Van Der Schee & Gard (2014) about health promotion in schools more generally. The article is not about eating disorder prevention per se, but I hope you’ll bear with me. The messages hold for eating disorder prevention as well, and highlight a nuance I may not have fully introduced into earlier posts I’ve written about teachers and prevention: namely, that teachers delivering prevention also live in this body-toxic, weight stigmatizing, and neoliberal world.
As Pinhas et al. point out, we really need to be thinking ecologically (that is, beyond the individual) if we want to make gains in actually promoting health in our efforts at health promotion. Let’s look at the environment in which teachers are expected to deliver “healthy eating” messages to know more about what we can do to (systemically) support positive school ecologies.
Teachers & Prevention
As I’ve noted before, it is really important to think about who is teaching prevention. Teachers, like other people, are not immune to the largely weight-toxic messages circulating in our society, particularly around anti-obesity. As schools are often a site of public health interventions, Vander Schee & Gard argue that we might also look at what the impact of needing to teach certain health curricula.
Vander Schee & Gard are writing about health curricula in general, but their article gives us some insight into how health policies and teachings are never neutral or a-political and about how bodies (including those of students and those of teachers) are policed. They conducted a critical discourse analysis of policy documents to look at how teachers are expected to be healthy, how this is measured, and what happens when teachers or students are labelled unhealthy in the school context. To me, this study helps to further underwrite the importance of looking at how “health” operates in school contexts (so often sites of eating disorder prevention) and what the impact of this is on people in different bodies.
In their analysis, the authors found that teacher health was described in three ways:
1.The teacher as a role model
Teachers were expected to act in certain ways congruent with expected “health,” including watching food intake when eating with students. Not only was this presented as extremely important, but the authors also noted that there was an assumption operating in policy documents that teachers could use academic curricula to model healthy behaviours (for instance, by making a math problem about apples instead of donuts).
2. The teacher as a fiscal liability
Interestingly, the health of teachers was also tied into larger economic issues in education; “wellness” initiatives might serve to urge teachers to lose weight or change behaviours as a way to make individual teachers responsible for both the physical and financial success of the school.
3. The teacher as an instrument of policy compliance
Teachers were also expected to be those who work “on the ground” to bring policy into reality, for example by enforcing bans on certain food items.
Together, this works up a self-surveilling atmosphere in which teachers are expected to model health in a way that trickles down to schoolchildren. But what if the “health” being peddled isn’t so healthy, or if the teachers have their own notions of “healthy behaviour” that are themselves disordered? Thinking back to other posts I’ve written about prevention, some teachers (notably, phys-ed teachers) may even be at an increased risk for distorted attitudes or behaviours around food.
What I’m getting at here is that when we think prevention or even health promotion, we need to seriously consider impacts on all members of an ecology (such as the school environment beyond into society more generally). One of the important reasons to do this is to identify when messages might be harmful to children, as noted in Pinhas et al.’s important study.
This study also reveals, however, how others become caught up in the nexus of taken-for-granted ideas about health as equated to size and morality. Teachers themselves may feel extreme pressure and conflict in delivering the messages expected of them in our sociopolitical environment. The overwhelming emphasis is control over and regulation of bodies — bodies of teachers and bodies of students alike. As Vander Schee & Gard write,
“Even well-intentioned policies and practices are often predicated on a desire to measure, assess, and compare student bodies” (p. 211)
You might be wondering if I’ve forgotten that environments of bodily surveillance and problematic talk about health will not necessarily cause eating disorders. Andrea, you might say, if this is tied to eating disorders, wouldn’t everyone who experienced this kind of bodily treatment get an eating disorder? Of course I’m aware that this kind of school environment does not cause eating disorders. But it doesn’t help anyone.
I actually think one of the most helpful things about this article is how it goes very far beyond looking at appearance ideals and how these subtly sneak in everywhere. Rather than focusing on idealization of thinness, Vander Schee & Gard look at the ways in which neoliberalism is upheld in school health promotion — for instance, through the “teachers as fiscal liability” theme.
This helps us to better understand why such messages continue, despite our knowledge that they aren’t really helping anyone’s self esteem: they are helping the bottom line (not that bottom line, the financial one). Understanding how bodies are surveilled in sociopolitical environments is critically important for us to really begin to work systemically to build environments that divorce food and morals and body size and health. I feel this is an important goal; while not everyone who experiences this curriculum will get an eating disorder, isn’t it worth unearthing the problematics in case we can prevent even a single distressful relationship with food, weight, shape, and bodies?
Schee, C., & Gard, M. (2013). Healthy, happy and ready to teach, or why kids can’t learn from fat teachers: the discursive politics of school reform and teacher health Critical Public Health, 24 (2), 210-225 DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2013.828152