Picture the scene. I've just taught a co-ed year seven class, at an endearingly lovely state school, in the posh end of Hertfordshire. The teachers have whipped the students (and themselves) into a state of frenzy, convinced they have a 'celeb' in their midst (largely based on my regular appearances on Radio 5 and the fact that I know Gok Wan, I am later to discover). Now, it's discussion time. A time to reflect on what they've just learned.
Clearly keen to illustrate their pupils' second-to-none knowledge of current affairs (there was a copy of the Telegraph in the lunch hall. The Telegraph! Couldn't work out if it had been strategically placed for my benefit or whether these young people really did have an extraordinary intellectual thirst for all things relating to cricket), a teacher boldly declares "now, you ALL saw the report this week on the news about the APPG on Body Image and how many people don't like themselves and it's leading to depression. Didn't you? Well, Natasha has spoken in Parliament! (no newness of awe from my audience - they're all far more impressed by the Gok thing). So why don't you ask her all about it?"
"What exactly IS the APPG on Body Image?" one of my 11-year-olds asks. Gave a perfunctory dictionary style description, but additionally added: "it's basically where many people who know quite a lot about body image get together in a room and speak rather forcefully about stuff they believe is unfair. Then someone writes it all down and some politicians work out what can be done about those unfair things".
"But. Excuse me Miss. What ARE the politicians going to do, exactly?" asked one of my small charges, in a way which made me think she may be Jeremy Paxman's protégée. "Well, they've recommended that people like me come in to every single school in the whole country to chat about the things we've discussed today".
She nodded sagely. "That's good" she said, eeking out the word 'good' so it became "goooooood", (she'd now meandered into Bond villain territory). "You're a good role model, I think. I'm going to tell my Mum about you".
"Aw. Cheers." I replied, resisting the urge to enquire further. (One must never fish for compliments around children, they're incredibly shrewd about that sort of thing).
"Didn't they say that we're not allowed to call someone 'fat' anymore or we'll be put in jail?" said a boy, who had hitherto been silent. Caught between the importance of praising him for his sole contribution and pointing out the inaccuracies in his statement I said "well, sort of....." before we discussed how it's probably best not to make assumptions about people because of their size. We all agreed that it wouldn't be good if you couldn't get a job simply because you were fat and that making comments about people's weight, whether they might seem large or small to us, could be very hurtful.
"It can cause depression!" said another one of the boys, nodding in a slow, deliberate way I was fairly sure he'd copied directly from his Dad.
"And who knows what depression is?"
They all did, their PSHE programme had served them well.
"Now, the report also looked at the effects of the Media" chimes in affable teacher. "Remember when Natasha talked about airbrushing and adverts?"
*Big, communal nod. More hands up.*
"But, Miss? Isn't that a bit stupid?"
'Hurrah! A small champion for the benevolent sections of the media', my inner journalist thought. In reality I said: "Interesting. And why do you think that?"
"Well.....why would you want to look like a picture that's in a magazine? It looks stupid. And, like, you showed us how they make it look different from the model or whatever. They don't even look real."
I was astounded. This is so different from the familiar 'Gossip School' territory of 14+ year olds, where I am told with terrifying regularity "yes, Miss, we know it's been airbrushed, but it still gives us something to aspire to".
I began teaching 11 -14 year olds this term (having previously aimed my classes at 14-18 year olds only) after numerous requests from teachers and parents. But here's what I'm finding: Particularly at the lower end of that spectrum, they're ever so body-smart. They know far more than we, poor, confused, body weary adults do. They have innate confidence. Yes, there's the odd one or two in the class who perhaps have been subject to too much body grumbling from the adults around them, or who have been bullied by their peers for an aspect of their physical appearance, who are tragically, heart-breakingly, uber critical of themselves. But as for the majority, they're on board the body confidence bus. It's somewhere between the ages of 11 and 14 that they fall off and are left to navigate the aggressive traffic of negative messages persuading them to conform to a terrifyingly narrow beauty ideal on foot, alone.
Walk into a classroom of 14 + year olds and you'll see the devastating consequences. What was once common-or-garden teenage angst now has a new a frightening face, exacerbated by the constant and oppressive presence of the internet, materialism, broken homes, exam stress, airbrushing, celebrity worship culture, cheap diet drugs... Oh so many, inextricable factors which cumulatively mean that there has, in my opinion, never been a tougher time to be a UK teen.
It's not every day the government publishes a report recommending that what you do for a living becomes mandatory in every UK school. Am I talking myself out of the newly created portion of my job? No. Because, having taught more than 10,000 14-18 year olds I know, with a saddening certainty, that these 11-year-olds WILL have had their body image and self-worth negatively impacted by the time they reach year 9. Whilst at 14 you are unravelling already evident body confidence related damage, at 11 your role is to convince students that what they think right now, that calling people fat is wrong and aspiring to airbrushed images is 'stupid', is absolutely spot-on. However much they might be persuaded otherwise.
Self-esteem classes can provide British young people with the suit of armour they so desperately need, before they're sent into the world to do battle with insecurity which will be deliberately exacerbated by companies with millions of pounds at their disposal in a quest to turn them into lifelong consumers. The resultant body hatred, eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, bullying and depression is robbing British young people of their potential.
And that is why self-esteem lessons aren't an 'optional extra' in our children's education. They're absolutely crucial.
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