Building a Healthy Body Image Can Be Fun

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Last month, I took students from my afterschool girls’ empowerment group to a leadership conference hosted by our Regional Office of Education. There, the girls explored body image issues, discussed individual meanings of success and heard llinois Senator Jennifer Bertino-Terrant and Representative Natalie Manley speak about their roads to success.

The greatness of the day was tempered a bit when the girls learned there would be an hour-long Zumba session. Zumba is the Latin dance and cardio exercise craze. As a lifelong dancer, I jumped on the Zumba bandwagon about a year ago when I found a class that fit into my schedule. My students, however, were not sold on the idea. When I told them they had to dress comfortably for the Zumba class, they all groaned loudly and asked if they had to do it.

"Yes, you have to do it!" I exclaimed, surprised that they were not as excited about it as I was. I thought these girls, who know every dance craze that goes viral, would love the opportunity to do Zumba at this conference. 

"I just don't understand why they would have us do Zumba," one girl protested. "Aren't we supposed to learn about good body image and carving a road to success?"

This comment struck me as interesting. Zumba is arguably one of the best exercises around—not only because it can burn a lot of calories in just one hour, but also because it promotes good body image and self-confidence. I love Zumba because my instructor and class members are always accepting, whether you are a terrible dancer or you have been dancing all your life, if you are skinny or curvy, male or female. If you come to a Zumba class and do your best, you’ll be celebrated for exercising and welcomed as part of the group.

I had to remember that my students are high schoolers and reluctant to try new things for fear of looking “foolish” in front of their peers. I explained that Zumba was an effective way to become active, build a good body image and become self-confident.

The girls accepted this explanation, and when the time came to dance, they actually enjoyed it. Some of them stood and watched for a time until they got some of the steps down, and others jumped right in, not afraid to give it a try. Either way, they had fun and started to understand how Zumba—and  exercise in general—can work to promote a healthy body image. 

At our group meeting after the conference, one of the girls remarked that she was most surprised that she really enjoyed the Zumba portion of the day. She even asked if we could get a Zumba instructor to come to school and teach a class to them before the school year is over. 

I'm glad that the girls enjoyed Zumba, and the conference as a whole. They learned a lot of things that will help them throughout their high school years and beyond, including how stepping out of your shell and trying something new can be fun and even help build a healthy body image.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.