This week saw the Local Government Association's 'Healthy Weight, Healthy Futures' conference. Making the headlines following the event are comments from Councillor Richard Kemp, the LGA's Deputy Chairman for Wellbeing who suggested that heavier kids should take part in segregated PE classes so they won't be embarrassed about their bodies. He gave examples of classes that could be added to the school curriculum: 'Football for the obese', 'Swimming lessons for the obese'. He added that these classes would help 'overweight' children become fitter, without the embarrassment of working alongside their thinner peers, until they can eventually rejoin the rest of their class when they "get to a level where they are not ashamed of themselves so they can join in with normal activity."
These suggestions are well intentioned. But you know what they say about good intentions. This is both a misspecification of the root problem and a recipe for worsening body shame and weight stigma.
First are the assumptions. Fat children are unfit and thin children are fit. Um, not necessarily. Fat children can't do "normal activity". WTUF? Cllr Kemp is also quoted as saying that it is just "common sense" that fat kids will feel uncomfortable exercising alongside thinner students. Common, maybe. Sense, not so much.
There is no doubt that fat kids are often ashamed of their bodies. The scientific literature on this subject is extensive. But why? Where does this shame come from? Children are not born being embarrassed about fat bodies. These sentiments are learned. And they are learned early. How will segregating kids into "normal" and "fat" do anything to improve their views about their bodies? Or the views of the non-fat children about their fat classmates' bodies. Segregation simply reinforces the notion that fat bodies are "abnormal" and something to be ashamed of. I think we have enough of that already.
But perhaps the idea behind this is not to foster confidence in their fat bodies, but to turn them into thin bodies capable of exercise. I have news for you. Fat bodies are also capable of exercise. How about building their confidence so that they learn to love moving their bodies whatever they look like? Why perpetuate this idea that unless they become and remain thin, they are not exercise material? As it is, fat children quickly learn that exercise and fitness is not for people who look like them, except as a form of penance.
Other studies have shown that PE teachers hold more negative attitudes towards 'overweight' students, consider them stupid, lazy, and inept, and have low expectations for them. And a worrying finding is that these attitudes appear to become more entrenched during their teacher training.Not only does this create problems in the moment, but these negative assumptions and stereotypical beliefs will often translate into reduced exercise self-efficacy and become a self-fulfillingprophecy.
Low expectations are not the only problem. One study that conducted interviews with 'overweight' adolescents have shown that most experience weight-related name-calling and bullying during PE sessions. These start in the changing room, continue during team sports, and even when sitting out injured. Teens reported being called names like "earthquake", "tubbo", and "fat ape girl", having their abilities mocked, and being laughed at if they fell. Shockingly, a teacher was present in over half of the reported instances, and either ignored or laughed at the bulling, or suggested that an appropriate solution was for the victim to just ignore the bullying.
A small study published in the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education found that high school students whose BMI put them in the top 15th percentile for their age had been traumatized to the point of learned helplessness by their previous experiences of physical education and now avoided participation. Another study that looked at higher-weight adults' recollections of school physical education suggest that on the whole "fat phobia created extremely difficult situations that demanded constant psychic/emotional work, provided pitiful opportunities for learning, and numerous alienating and traumatic movement experiences." By adulthood, higher BMI is associated with more internalised weight stigma, less self-perceived physical competency, reduced motivation to exercise, and lower engagement in physical activity, and when they do take part in fitness activities, heavier women report less enjoyment and lower post-exercise energy levels than their thinner peers.
The idea of school PE should be to not only to force children to 'endure' the classes until they're old enough to give them up for good. The ultimate goal should be foster a good relationship with physical activity that sets the children up for a future in which an active lifestyle plays a part. Perhaps the solution to this is not to change the children but to change the environment.