Body Image Education

19/07/2011 14:12 BST | Updated 17/09/2011 10:12 BST

The overwhelming onslaught of idealised images in the media is promoting an unrealistic and unhealthy definition of beauty, and this is affecting children as much as it is adults. Roughly a third of adolescent boys (34%) and half of girls (49%)[1] have been on a diet in an attempt to change the way they look, and with over half of 14-16 year olds citing media influence as the main reason for dieting[2], there is an urgent need to address this problem before it consumes a whole generation.

That is why today in Parliament I will be asking the Government to incorporate body image education into the classroom. School years are formative to children's intellectual development, equipping them for further study, work and adult life; but they have an equally important role to play in developing young people's confidence and self-esteem.

Introducing the issue of body confidence to the classroom is vital if we want to break the destructive cycle of thought our looks-obsessed culture is imposing on young people. On a daily basis the media bombards us with bodies airbrushed to biologically impossible proportions, and young people have responded to this by taking increasingly drastic measures. More and more of them are resorting to extreme dieting, and the incidence of eating disorders among young people is sharply rising. Children are growing up with the idea that body dissatisfaction is a rite of passage, and this needs to stop.

The work of individuals and organisations across the country has already demonstrated the breadth of information and advice schools could provide to help young people to rationalise insecurities, question media stereotypes and increase their self-confidence. Gok Wan has continued to rally support for bringing an hour of body image education to the classroom per term, recently staging a mass body image education lesson outside Parliament. Body Gossip, a national campaign seeking to improve body image, developed a 'Gossip School', which tours the country teaching body confidence and self-esteem in schools and colleges. The scheme has been met with overwhelmingly positive feedback; in one testimonial a young girl commented that the programme 'made me accept my own body how it is'. This is the key objective of body image lessons.

As a society, we need to open up a conversation about our bodies. We need to ensure that body image and media literacy education remain high up on the political agenda by encouraging initiatives like those organised by Body Gossip. The Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England is conducting research into the most effective interventions to increase body confidence. We should learn from that academic research and share its findings widely in the educational community, and equip our teachers with the tools to help young people develop their own body confidence.

1. YMCA survey with Centre for Appearance Research; 'The Body of Public Opinion: Attitudes to body image in the UK' 2011

2. Girl Guiding UK Girls' Attitudes Survey 2010