If you could change one thing about your physical appearance, what would it be? If you chose body weight, you’re not alone. More than 90% of high-school-aged girls want to change at least one feature relating to their bodies, with weight being most common. By the young age of ten, over 80% of American girls and boys have a fear of becoming “fat.” I felt the restless energy creep into the gym as I sat with my friends, waiting for our P.E.
teacher to call me up to the machine. As students trickled back to their groups of friends from the corner of the room, some looked unfazed. Others looked tense. “What did you get?” I heard murmurs emerge, and reposes that varied from confident to hesitant. I was finally brought up to the machine, and the numbers representing my body fat percentage lit up on the screen. I walked back to my group of friends bearing this new information, praying deep down that nobody would ask me about my results.
I sensed that I was not the only trying to figure out how to handle this knowledge.? As an isolated unit of data, one’s body fat percentage is not harmful in and of itself. My P.E. teacher explained that the intent behind this particular curriculum is to raise awareness in students so that they can make healthy choices for their bodies. “The whole objective is to teach about the health-related components of fitness,” said Doug Longero, P.
E. department chair. “One of them is body composition, so it’s to understand its importance instead of just standard height and weight.” From a health and fitness educational standpoint, I can understand why the state of California incorporates body fat percentage and body type assessments into the curriculum. Despite this straightforward objective, after I completed this state-mandated test I came to the realization that knowing my body fat percentage can easily act as counterproductive knowledge. The curriculum’s approach does not give enough recognition to the potential ways in which this knowledge affects students’ emotional sense of their own health and well-being.
Psychology teacher Joelle Heckmann said, “I think it could have a detrimental impact on someone if they have low self esteem to begin with. If they judge themselves purely or significantly on their physical appearance and some number tells them they’re not what they want to be, I think that could injure them psychologically.” The pictures stared up at me from the sheet of paper. The worksheet provided detailed descriptions of the three boy types, with cartoon images of an ectomorph (skinny), mesomorph (muscular), and an endomorph (round) person along side the summaries. My P.E.
teacher instructed us to scan the various traits that define each body type, and to select which attributes represent us best, resulting in our “somatotype.” I’ll admit I was more than just a little apprehensive when my P.E. teacher announced that we would be partnering up with a peer to evaluate each other’s body types too. While our government and health care system attempt to address the issue of America’s high rates of childhood obesity, our culture bombards us with idealized images of what we “should” look like. Heckmann said, “The media shows us what’s ‘desirable’ or what is ‘beautiful’ and we buy into this image… We, as a culture, have a tendency to read into things like weight.
” So putting students in the position of assessing a peer’s appearance as stick-thin, muscular, or round can make both the person doing the evaluation and the person being evaluated incredibly vulnerable. How each teenager relates to his or her boy type is purely subjective, and being evaluated by someone else can conjure up deeper feeling of inadequacy, which is something that many struggle with already. “I can imagine,” said Heckmann, “if I had to do that assignment with a friend who was overweight, how uncomfortable it would be to say to them, ‘You’re overweight.'” As my teacher described to my P.E. class, the inherent assumption was that students would take the raw, objective data of their body fat percentage and body type and use this information to make healthy choices.
Longero said, “The unit is one of the best units we have in our freshman program. That section is a sensitive subject but it’s something that needs to be looked over.” I do agree that these data points can have the potential to be helpful, but my experience of the curriculum and the way in which it was executed can be damaging. Students may, in fact, relate to their newfound body fat and body type knowledge with unhealthy mindsets or behaviors. The curriculum, and the way it is presented, unfortunately has the potential to reinforce what is already a natural, yet likely detrimental, behavior in teens; the tendency to compare ourselves unfavorably to others.The P.
E. department can and should implement this curriculum with a holistic approach that includes the recognition that not all students will respond positively and healthily to it. To be completely honest, the knowledge of my body fat percentage and body type led to negative thoughts and obsessive concerns. Even though I mainly fit the criteria for a mesomorphic body type, I referred to it as “the fat one,” simply because it isn’t the skinniest of them all. Learning my body fat percentage caused me to obsess over whether my result was “too much.
” I expressed disgust with my body, and struggled to understand my given percentage in contrast to other students’. I’ll admit that these thoughts lasted for weeks. I doubt I was the only one who struggled with this information. “Certainly, information isn’t a bad thing,” Heckmann said. “I think there’s value in understanding what the BMI is, but I think psychologically the dancer is when we give more value, or interpret that information out of context.
” I do not fault the P.E. department for including these assessments into the curriculum. With the heightened national awareness regarding obesity, it makes sense that the state of California would implement this subject matter. However, this curriculum places naturally vulnerable teens in an uncomfortable situation that can fuel the fire for body image distortion and insecurity.
“You want that hopefully, they understand,” said Longero. “You want them to see there’s other things out there than just measuring on a scale.” Heckmann concluded, “These [body type descriptions] are the adjectives that have been assigned to the data, and it is not a value statement about the person or their worth.” Hopefully, after this experience I’ll remember that the words used to describe my body are only one small slice of who I am. Numbers and labels are only skin-deep.