I’ve had ‘school’ on my ideas list since not long after I started this blog back in February. I knew which of my own experiences I wanted to build the post around, but never got round to thinking how to articulate it.
Then in June @chintzcurtain tweeted this from a parents’ evening:
Year 11 is far too late to be talking to young people about their attitudes to their bodies. The Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital published the results of a 6000-strong study in the British Journal of Psychiatry last month which showed children as young as eight are showing signs of body dissatisfaction that can trigger eating disorder behaviours in adolescence. Researchers are recommending public health initiatives that focus on body image. If this is going to reach children of primary school age then schools have a huge role to play in that.
When I was nine my primary school teacher decided I needed to lose weight. She suggested to my Dad I go on a diet and regularly announced my ‘achievements’ to the whole school as a cause for celebration. I went to a tiny village school with only 30 pupils, my Mum had left home and the teacher was trying to be a female role model in my life. I’m sure she thought she was doing right by me, but before I hit double figures age-wise I’d already started to be defined by the figures on the scales.
What is odd is there was no real consideration from my teacher about my family’s lifestyle or my natural shape. We walked a lot as kids. From the moment we could toddle we were off walking the dog across the fields. My brother was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at five-years-old so we had a ludicrously healthy diet. Yes I was a portly little girl (and I am a portly woman!) but a lot of that was body shape and puppy fat, not a need to be put on a diet.
Happily I didn’t develop an eating disorder, but that early experience did set the tone for three decades of on and off dieting where I always felt that rush of pleasure when friends and I went to Boots to weigh ourselves during a lunch break, or when my loss was announced at ‘fat club’.
I put on weight again last year after running the London Marathon. More than one person warned me about the ‘marathon stone’ and I laughed at them. They were right. It is predictable I guess – however much you promise yourself you’ll stick to the running few people have the motivation keep up the weekly mileage that training for a marathon requires after the race has passed. But of course you’ve got used to the carb loading and the alcohol consumption creeps back up and your body makes your gluttony known in the pinch of a waistband. A couple of months back I decided the time was right to start shifting it again, but for the first time ever I am not weighing myself. I am exercising more and drinking less but I made a conscious decision that I was not going to be beholden to numbers, but that I was only going to judge myself on the fit of my favourite frock and how I felt when I pulled myself out of the pool.
And with that I’m going to (not very) neatly segue into my other point about school. Sport. Bloody sport. School does not always build a healthy love of exercise. Oh how I hated P.E. At 5’10” I should have been the best goal defender in netball; with my legs I should have nipped across the hockey pitch. But I have zero coordination, am clumsy, the speed of the balls always terrified me and I panic in team activities because I think I am going to let people down. I lived for summer term when swimming was on the timetable. With swimming it was all about the lengths, I was only competing against myself. I think this is why later in life I have come to love running so much; I happily plod away, writing stories in my head or working through problems, sometimes I am slow, sometimes I am really bloody slow, but that’s ok because nobody is waiting for me to pass or catch a ball.
If my P.E. teacher who yelled at me for not being able to cartwheel and made me stand in the playground in my leotard in January to “take six deep breaths and don’t yawn in my class again” had told me that 30 years on this would me I’d have rolled my teary eyes at her. I don’t know what school sport is like in 2015 but I hope someone tells young girls and boys that even if they don’t take naturally to school sport, they shouldn’t give up on finding what physical activities are right for them. The saddest legacy of school sport for me was that for years I was one of those people who carried the notion that exercise was something I should do rather than wanted to do. It took me years to see the fun in it.
So what made me finally ‘put pen to paper’ on all this? I read this in the Guardian this weekend.
“I am about to go to university and really want to have a proper relationship with someone, but I’m too embarrassed to have sex because of my droopy, ugly breasts. I can’t imagine ever taking my clothes off for anyone.”
I’m assuming this young woman is going to university at 18, but whether that’s out by a year or so because of gap years, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is incredibly incredibly sad. She should be excited about independence, freedom and the possibility of not-needing-to-worry-about-waking-up-the-parents-sex, not fretting about the shape of her breasts.
There is growing debate about the importance of SRE in schools and programmes like Sex in Class are taking it out of the broadsheet comment pages and onto the sofas of the great viewing public. This is good. But I hope that as well as developing appropriate sex education schools also start to consistently and responsibly help young people to deal with their body image issues so they learn to judge themselves not on what their body looks like or how much it weighs, but on what it can achieve, the wonder of how it works and the fun it’s helping them have – inside or outside of the bedroom.