Health Education: My Girl Scouts' Gold Award Project
By Danielle Hrachovec
Which is a greater evil--the culture of inactivity and processed foods or the culture that drives people to abstain from food and exercise excessively? Too often we separate these two cultures, when, at least to me, they are the same. Many times, the part of our culture that discourages people from putting on running shoes is the same that forces people to work out rigorously for over three hours while consuming only 1800 calories.
There are so many factors that contribute to the obesity “epidemic” that plagues developed societies. It’s hard to single out one cause, but there are many things that undeniably play a part. I was a chubbier kid growing up, and I blame my poor body image learned from an earlier age as a result of my mother’s self-inflicted body shaming, as well as media influences. All of my memories of recess and trying to play are of me trying to keep myself from being open to ridicule for my extra pounds. And who could blame me? Plenty of bigger kids are bullied due to their weight, especially in the one class where they are discriminated against the most--gym. Kids who are not as active (whether due to socioeconomic boundaries or personal limitations) don’t necessarily match in appearance or ability, and because they don’t “fit in,” they have to face hell from the kids whose mommies and daddies can pay for their pee-wee sports. Therefore, in almost contradicting logic, students who need gym class most to learn how to avoid a sedentary lifestyle do not participate and leave the class with nothing learned.
As in my case, this set me up to take to the other extreme by the time I was in middle school, where snarky body comments had reached an all-time high. I stopped eating when I was not hungry, which would not have been an issue if it were not for the fact that I had stopped feeling hungry altogether. After the numerous taunts I had received and the images I had gotten from the media, the idea of food disgusted me. It wasn’t until my all-knowing sister asked me what I had eaten that day that I realized I was getting by on six potato chips and four pineapple pieces (further proving that big sisters are usually right…in spite of what I’ve conceded to my sis). Many young girls get the misconception that food is an enemy, determined to ruin their figures, and the “truly pretty girls” do not eat.
How do we correct this flaw in our society? Where does this problem lie? One tainted system is that of health education. Educators waste time telling kids how to properly play a game of kickball when they should be teaching kids fun things everyone can do without feeling like their entire team will scoff at them if they miss a kick. I was a complete failure at kickball, but I am now running 5ks and mini-marathons and planning on getting my Zumba instructor certification. Gym class was my least favorite subject in the world! I cannot stress the amount I detested gym class…and yet the older I get, the more I realize I should have loved it.
I, like many kids who are too ashamed of their bodies to participate, am and was a natural athlete. I now run an 8:30 minute mile when I would cry as a fourth grader after running a few laps, simply because the “cool kids” were laughing at how I looked as I did it. Media portrayed these perfect looking women lounging about, and I thought if I looked like them effortlessly I would not be teased. It was not until middle school that the teachers talked about “body image” concerns, and when they did, it was a brief overview and a talk about eating disorders.
For my Girl Scout Gold Award project, I wanted to deal with this question of how we should simultaneously build self-confidence while keeping kids active and teaching them fitness. The idea to me seemed simple. I was to hold a five-day camp for 8-12 year olds where we would keep the kids engaged in activity by teaching them fun line dances, games, and doing things like having a water day. Instead of the pre-packaged foods, we had snacks that pertained to the daily nutrition lesson. And, most importantly, each day, I led a discussion on a body-image related topic.
The first day, my lesson was that the kids had to follow the Golden Rule and body shaming was not going to be tolerated. The second and third days were all about media literacy, and how marketers were trying to hook them by showing them unrealistic images. Thursday’s was all about the technology with which marketers manipulated photos. I showed them before and after photos, and led a discussion with the girls (and boy) about how we can’t be sure of any of the images shown to us because they have often been altered to look more perfect. Keep in mind, through this all, I was making sure the kids were moving for at least 3 of the 4 hours.
Those are lessons that I never heard in health education. I never once had a teacher sit down with me and tell me, “there are so many people out there telling you that you need to look a certain way, and you don’t need to, because each person is built differently and will look different.” Most importantly, teachers never told me that I needn’t be ashamed of my extra weight, or that I could do whatever I wanted physically or otherwise. In spite of the teasing I was already facing, I had to do fifty jumping jacks in front of the whole class, after which the boys in my class made fun of me for how much of me bounced while I did it. And from what I hear, gym and health teachers still do it. When they should be trying to empower the students to be active outside the class, they are humiliating students into dreading gym class.
The camp was fun for all of the kids and the volunteers involved. We got the opportunity to engage with the students and talk to them about the awesomeness that is activity, while explaining to them that they weren’t in this camp to change their appearance, but to feel happier and healthier. We had a 100% participation rate, with kids of all body types and backgrounds, and all of them loved taking a look at the ridiculous world of advertisements.
Now I am finding organizations who are interested in adapting the program, which is proving to be somewhat of a challenge, but definitely a workable one. I am willing to share my lesson plans with anyone for free, and help them figure out how they can adapt it to suit their plans, which is causing people to listen to me more. The important thing to me is that I can touch kids beyond my initial twelve. It’s great that they left feeling a little less confused about what constitutes health, but this could be a helpful movement in how physical activity is taught to kids. We should be teaching fun, non-discriminatory games and dances that kids can all enjoy while teaching that it’s about having fun and staying moving, not being skinny.
My goal is to keep kids from falling into the trap I fell into, where a poor body image causes a sense of helplessness. We should be building up self-confidence and body image while giving kids a good idea of how they can stay healthy in what they eat and do. In the words of Dr. George Sheehan, a former staff member for Runner's World, “Fitness has to be fun. If it isn’t, there will be no fitness. Play is the process. Fitness is merely the product.”