Westminster University promotes itself with the strap line: ' Educating mind, body and spirit...since 1838' and one of the best selling sports companies uses the latinate the motto of Anima Sana In Corpore Sano as illustration that physical perfection portrays inner well-being and excellence.
The marriage of the physical and the mental in human beings is not new, but the dangers of suggesting that outwards appearance of perfection equates to emotional well-being is becoming far more obvious in British Schools.
Finding a balance in a young boy's life
Sian Griffith's article in the Sunday Times (24th March) 'Obsession, by Becks' highlights current anxiety surrounding adolescents over exercising. It seems like only yesterday when the papers were full of Jamie's concerns for healthy eaters and Daley Thompson promoted the need for fitness in students. The see-sawing adult preaching to the young is in danger of hypocrisy: what all grown ups need to see is that teenage life can be and often is obsessive, indulgent and inward looking. Our key misconception is that we think young pupil hear and weigh every word we say thoughtfully and with objectivity: we forget that, just like us, media images, emotive words and gossip drives our thoughts and actions far more than the rational and learned words of a well-informed researcher.
Right now, British society for teenage boys is a difficult hybrid of the traditional 'boy-code' and alarmingly quick-flourishing of the idealised male form in magazines, on tv and on the web. The American researcher, Pollack, stated that '...Euro-American culture has established a boy code which may shame young boys into extremes of self-containment, toughness, stoicism and independence...shames boys away from their basic and natural human need for interdependence, emotional vulnerability and human connection when they need it most, in adolescence.' This is why Griffith's article on 'body-image' for boys needs special note- young men are subject to impossible social demands, the like of which they have never been subject to before and these demands to look perfect have the potential to cause just as much harm as the photo-shopped glossy snaps of size zero supermodels have done for girls.
High achieving schools have been aware of the greater potential of very bright girls suffering with anorexia, but we need to realise that these days boys in such elitist schools don't just feel that they need to be perfect academically, but they have to look the part on the sports' fields, in the changing rooms and on their profile page too. It has gone way beyond the clothing labels teenagers wear; in some ways it's become far more democratic- the misplaced belief is that any child who works hard enough in the gym can look like David Beckman.
Despite whether this is factually accurate, boys believe that it is possible. What's more our 21st Century 'boy code' promotes exercise as a means of managing emotions, especially male anger. Rather than encouraging pupils to articulate their frustrations and emotional upsets, our society encourages individual, competitive exercise: pushing yourself to exhaustion, over exercising, under eating, desperately aspiring and remaining emotionally mute.
There's almost a taboo around this subject: our school's PSHE lessons can illuminate dieting in girls, but we are yet to speak openly about boys' over exercising, drinking protein shakes, the fanciful media images that drive them, the emotions this exercise thrives on and the mixed messages that all post-Victorian educators offer when unconsciously linking moral and mental purity with corporal athleticism.