Are body image classes the answer to our kids’ anxiety?
As the debate around the best way to tackle negative body image continues to simmer in Australia, it’s worth noting that a major new cross-party parliamentary report in Britain has recommended that all primary and secondary school kids take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons.
Is that what we need in Australia to tackle the scourge of negative body image among children and adolescents?
There’s no question that all young Australians would benefit from engaging in some level of education and formal discussion around body image. But how do we make it meaningful? What role for parents?
And what about the challenges around injecting body image and self-esteem lessons into an already overcrowded curriculum?
For the last 10 years Mission Australia’s annual national youth survey has provided the country with a temperature check on young people’s concerns, particularly around body image. That’s because, year in, year out, body image either leads or is one of the leading concerns identified by those participating.
The results have spurred numerous body image initiatives by government and youth agencies and fed countless pieces of commentary.
Last year’s survey identified an enormous growth in concern around body image among young females – children, teenagers and young adults. In 2009, body image was ranked as a top three issue – out of a list of 15 – by 27.4 per cent of young women. In 2010, 34 per cent considered it a top three concern. But in the 2011 survey, 42.5 per cent of young women ranked it as their major concern – a growth of more than 15 per cent in two years.
Anxiety around body image continues to rank highly among young males as well.
Last year we asked a new question which should give all those wrestling with the challenge of how to address this problem food for thought. We asked respondents to identify who they turn to for advice and support about the things that concern them the most.
When it comes to body image, ‘friends’ was ranked as the leading source of support by a whopping 87.2 per cent of young people – more than on any other issue. ‘Parents’ was the second most commonly ranked source of body image advice at 70 per cent.
Only 10 per cent of young people said a teacher would be one of the first people they approached regarding body image and 13.5 per cent for a school counsellor.
It suddenly makes the prospect of a teacher standing at the head of a class lecturing the students about positive body image less appealing doesn’t it?
What the results tell us is that it’s not enough just to educate young people about positive body image. We also have to arm them with the tools they need to advise and guide their peers.
One avenue to achieve this through peer-to-peer mentoring – young people educating and helping each other.
In terms of body image there are a myriad of programs – pilots set up by governments, small initiatives run on the smell of an oily rag by not-for-profit youth agencies – which utilise peer-to-peer mentoring.
While every one is different – a challenge in itself – the connecting threads are about building self-esteem and improving young peoples’ media literacy skills, enabling them to think critically and objectively about what they see and hear, and supporting them to make informed, healthy choices as a result.
Mission Australia has recently been running a program – Body Talk – in South Australia with the support of the state government and Flinders University which goes one step further.
After completing a seven week media literacy program run by the university, the young people begin their training as youth advocates, to develop the skills that will enable them to go back into their schools and attend youth events and pay their knowledge forward with their peers.
If young people want advice and seek support from others their own age when it comes to body image, why not train them to provide it?
While always intended as a pilot – its seed funding ran out at the end of the financial year – around 40 young people participated in Body Talk with the results promising enough for us to be pursuing other means of keeping the program going.
Peer mentoring is a powerful tool but without consistency between programs and national leadership the results are destined to be patchy. If we’re serious about tackling body image, we need to put some resources and national co-ordination behind it.
Mission Australia’s 2012 National Youth Survey is now open to all 15-19 year olds right here.
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