An anti-bias trainer shares her techniques for fostering appreciation of different body types.
The stigmatization of fat people affects average-weight children as well as those who are overweight, according to Cathi Rodgveller of Seattle, Wash., who manages the "Kids Come in All Sizes" project of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination.
"The bully who yells across the cafeteria 'Hey, Fatso!' to a fat kid doesn't just hurt the fat kid, he hurts every boy and girl who hears it. He makes other fat kids afraid they'll be picked on next. And he makes thin kids afraid of getting fat."
This "fear of fat," Rodgveller says, can lead to eating disorders in boys as well as girls. Studies reveal that children as young as 9 and 10 obsess about their weight and try to diet, a practice that can be damaging to young bodies, which are still growing and changing.
To help alter these attitudes, Rodgveller conducts size diversity workshops for middle school girls. More so than boys, girls feel pressured to conform to a thin ideal. Studies indicate that 75 percent of girls view themselves as overweight, whereas 20 percent actually are. In fact, body dissatisfaction is so common among adolescent girls that researchers label it "normative discontent."
A large woman herself, Rodgveller blames the media and dieting industry for narrowing people's perception of what is considered attractive. During a typical workshop session, girls analyze media representations of beauty. They compare photographs of models in mainstream fashion magazines with those in Radiance, BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) and Belle, all of which feature plus-sized models. "We want them to see that glamour is a look, not a size," Rodgveller explains. Role-plays enable participants to try out strategies to combat teasing, such as banding together to confront tormentors.
These activities are balanced with information about exercise and healthy eating. "We teach kids that it's important to take care of ourselves and to learn to listen to our bodies," Rodgveller says. "We concentrate on encouraging kids to get exercise, to be out and enjoying themselves in physical ways, and not to be so chronically obsessed -- like most of society is -- about what we eat and how much we eat."
Girls in an array of sizes and shapes typically sign up to participate in her workshops, which are advertised through a school's counseling office. The workshop format can also be adapted for boys, Rodgveller says. Often, boys who are very thin -- as well as those who are very large -- suffer body image problems. She advises against mixed-gender grouping for the workshops, however, because of the personal nature of the discussions.
Rodgveller has witnessed the powerful impact the workshops can have on participants. She remembers one large 12-year-old girl looking in awe at a photograph of a plus-sized model. It was as if she had seen her own image reflected back in a positive way for the first time, Rodgveller remembers. "There was this sudden realization of 'You mean I can be beautiful? You mean I'm OK the way I am?'"
The girl's reaction encapsulates what the workshop is all about, Rodgveller says. "Our basic message is that any size you are can be a good size, and that people of all sizes deserve respect."