Reshaping Body Image

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Objectives: 

  • To increase awareness about the source of beliefs about body size and shape
  • To foster an understanding of body image as a social construction
  • To encourage an acceptance of self and others with regard to body size and appearance

Materials Needed: 

  • Reshaping Body Image PDF presentation, to print as handouts or print for use on an overhead projector; also available as a PowerPoint
  • Index cards or scrap paper
  • Chart paper
  • Markers or pens

In this lesson, students consider where we get our ideas about body image and investigate various influences, including culture, family and media. Using images from different historical periods and cultures, students are then challenged to understand and move beyond current social norms about physical size and appearance. The lesson concludes with a reflection on the impact of size bias on all people, and ways to emphasize the internal rather than external qualities of others.

PROCEDURE
NOTE: This lesson asks students to talk openly about the way that overweight and obese people are treated in our society. Since the subject matter is sensitive, consider whether there are students in your class who may feel self-conscious, and whether your students are mature enough to handle this topic, before implementing the lesson. The lesson may be adapted to omit the most delicate area of discussion by skipping steps 1-3.

1. Give each student an index card or a piece of scrap paper. Tell students that you are going to display several images of different people for just a few seconds each. Instruct them to write down their first impressions of the person/people in each photo -- the words that come immediately to mind. Tell students that they should not write their names on their paper and that their thoughts will remain confidential.

2. Project pages 1-5 from the Reshaping Body Image PDF or PowerPoint. Show each photo for about 3-5 seconds. After displaying all images, discuss the following questions:

  • What were some of the first words that came to mind about these people?

  • Did you have any impressions about the health and happiness of each person? What were they?

  • Did you have any impressions about the level of intelligence or success of each person? What were they?

  • Did you write down any words about how attractive or unattractive each person is? What words did you use?

  • Did you write down any words about the body size or shape of each person? Which ones? What words did you use to describe their bodies?

  • Were your “first impressions” of the women different from your feelings about the men? How about the white people as compared to the people of color?

Ask if there is anyone who did not think about the size of these people. Point out that although each person looks happy, healthy or active, the first impression that many people will have is about their body size.

3. Ask students to consider where we get our ideas about what body shape and size is attractive and healthy. Draw a circle on the board or a sheet of chart paper and write "BODY IMAGE SHAPED BY…" in the center. Create a web of the students’ ideas (e.g., family, friends, culture, advertisements, toys, video games, TV, movies, music, magazines, etc.)

4. Divide students into small groups of 3-5 and assign each group one of the topics from the web. Direct each group to discuss the ways in which that category has shaped our ideas about body image and our perceptions about people who fall outside what is considered “normal” or attractive. Have each group select a recorder to write down the group’s ideas and a reporter to share back to the whole class later. Allow groups 10-15 minutes for discussion.

Reconvene the class and ask each reporter to share the highlights of the group discussion. List salient points on the web next to the appropriate categories.

5. Tell students that ideas in our society about body image are so ingrained that most of us take them for granted and accept them as natural and normal. This might lead us to internalize negative concepts about ourselves and others, such as feeling like a bad person for being overweight or thinking that thin people are the most worthy friends. Ideas about body image, however, are not fixed or universal, and vary depending upon the time and place.

6. Show students slides 6-10 from the Reshaping Body Image PDF or PowerPoint presentation listed below to illustrate this idea. After viewing the images, discuss some of the following questions:

  • Which images surprised you? Why?

  • How have ideas about body image in our society changed over time? What do you think have caused these changes? Do you think they will shift again in the future?

  • How are ideas about body image different in other parts of the world? What do you think accounts for this?

  • How do you think that fixed ideas about body shape and size in U.S. culture influence you?

  • Do you think that bias against people because of their body size and shape is acceptable?

7. Ask students to silently reflect on how many times each day they judge (or hear others judge) their own or someone else’s size or appearance, and what effect these judgments have on us cumulatively and over time. Have students turn over the index card or sheet of paper from step #1 and write their responses to the following:

  • List at least two physical features that you like about yourself. How can you learn to accept and like your body?

  • How can we avoid judging others based on physical size or appearance, and emphasize internal over external qualities in others?

Ask for volunteers to share their responses to the second question. Write their responses on a sheet of chart paper and post them in the classroom so that they serve as an ongoing reminder of the ideas discussed throughout the lesson.

(Optional) Reinforce the themes discussed throughout the lesson by assigning students to research one or more of the topics in the extension activities below.

Extension Activity: 

1. Body fat has a negative connotation in our society, but fat is actually essential for the proper functioning of the body. Have students research why our bodies need fat and what happens if a person does not have enough fat. Ask them to find out how much fat is considered healthy for a teenage boy and girl, and if it is possible to be overweight and healthy.

2. Have students research the ways in which biology and genetics determine body size and shape. Ask them to find out if being overweight or obese is a function of behavior only (overeating, lack of exercise, etc.) or if biological factors are also a cause. Ask students to consider if it is healthy, or even possible, for all people to attain and maintain a thin body according to current societal standards?

3. Assign students to look into one or more of the following common beliefs about obesity, and to determine what is myth and what is fact when it comes to obesity:

  • Overeating is the cause of obesity; obese people eat more than non-obese people
  • Obese people are lazy and unfit
  • Body fat is unhealthy; you can’t be overweight and healthy
  • Obese people are at greater risk for disease and a shorter life expectancy
  • Weight loss improves health and lengthens life
  • Long term treatment for obesity through dieting is successful