Sunday, July 12, 2009

Body Image Week

Originally posted on LiveJournal Apr. 26th, 2009 at 10:21 AM

It’s Body Image Week over at My Favorite Author, and back in my world, where I’m the Health teacher for grades 7 and 8, it’s the beginning of our “Growth and Development” unit. Yup – that’s “Puberty and Reproduction” or, as the students like to call it, “Sex Ed”.

Many teachers dread this unit, and while some leave it until the very last few days of the school year and then rush through in the most clinical way possible, or others “run out of time” and don’t cover it at all, I think it’s the most important information our students receive. And they know it! There is nothing else I teach – Visual Arts and Physical Education included -- that garners me such an engaged, attentive audience.

Why do I think it’s so important? Because everyone goes through puberty. You can live your whole life perfectly well without ever learning another language. There are people in the world who have never picked up a basketball, or a paintbrush or even – yes - a book. So while languages and physical education, and visual arts enhance our lives, they aren’t universal experiences like growth and development. Even if you live completely isolated in the most remote jungle in the world, you’re going to grow pubic hair and breasts and you’re going to have questions about it and you’re going to feel differently about yourself and other people after that happens.

The reality for the students I teach is that they don’t live in isolation. So even before their bodies start to change, they are bombarded every day with make-over programs telling them to surgically enhance their breasts. Spammers tell them their penises can be enlarged.

Infomercials recommend getting “ripped”. The porn they download shows adult bodies waxed and plucked as smooth as a pre-pubescent child. And even if they manage to avoid all of the expectations of the rest of the world, sometimes all it takes is one little “joke”, made by a sibling about the size of their hips, to send them off on a lifetime of body-image angst.

So I doubt that they believe me, their Health teacher, as I read to them from textbooks and curriculum documents that say pubic hair can be thick or sparse or heart shaped or diamond shaped, because a lot of them are probably already thinking they just want it off, and even if they don’t think that already, some of them will have partners who ask them to remove it, because that’s what they've seen and that's what they expect. And I don’t know if I can actually influence my students in any way when I explain to them that “size doesn’t matter”, because penises and breasts can do their jobs regardless of how big or small they are.

But I try. Because I hope that someday they will be emotionally strong enough to recognize that real human beings can be lumpy and hairy and natural and physically “flawed” and still be completely wonderful and loveable.

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