Now that the life-or-death STAAR test is done in the class I work in, less academic matters have taken over the classroom. Right now, we are focusing on nutrition. In addition to keeping a food log, we are watching Super Size Me. While the merits of the movie are a matter for a later debate, watching the movie renewed an apparent contradiction I’ve always noticed with increasing awareness about healthy eating: we are simultaneously telling people (children, mostly) 1) Americans are unhealthy, we need to be more conscious about what we eat, we need to exercise, and 2) Don’t obsess about trying to look like the air-brushed models in those magazines, we are all beautiful, don’t worry too much about body image. I think both points are valid: people should be more concerned about their physical health – which includes nutrition as well as being active by means of walking more or just outright exercise. People also should stop worrying about the two pounds of arguably excess fat on their bodies, the extra hair on whatever, or how they wish they were .00001 shades less pale than they are. I suppose girls tend to be more bombarded with pressure about body image (though don’t think for a second males don’t worry about their appearance) so I don’t totally understand the pressure for a more-perfect body.

But teaching these two lessons walk a fine line. By teaching kids to be more conscious about nutrition, we are implicitly telling them that they don’t look good. In Super Size Me, and most campaigns to raise awareness about healthy eating, the most common image I see is the shock value of showing a morbidly obese person. It makes sense. After all, there is something very convincing about the image of someone that is clearly unhealthy and unattractive in a physical sense. Especially for kids, the idea of being that fat and being prey to the judgmental peers of adolescence is enough to eat fruits and veggies and exercise. Or is it?

Unfortunately what I’m about to say is currently politically incorrect: we should be shamed by people who are five hundred pounds and the image should give us motivation to be healthy. For some reason, as Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine points out in Super Size Me, obese people can’t yet be criticized in society like we criticize chain smokers or drug addicts. Smoking crack or cigarettes to the point of self-deprecation both produce repulsive images of things we don’t want to be. Lack of will power aside, the vast majority of the population has the ability and means to not be a chain smoker, meth addict, or five hundred pounds.

But pushing this “shame” too much then goes into the other murky waters: you don’t want to be like this; these people are bad; these people are so bad that you need to be super skinny. But then kids get so skinny they don’t eat enough and develop eating disorders. Or they just simply starve themselves (the food logs I see of my students have a disturbingly low amount of calories…that will be tackled in part II of this post).

So pushing the idea that you don’t want to look like these fat people has the negative unintended consequence of people overcompensating and being too skinny, by certainly unhealthy means. And then pushing the idea too far that you shouldn’t be concerned at all about body image gives people the impression that it’s ok to totally neglect your health and it’s fine to have the consequences of bad nutrition and lack of exercise.

I don’t have an answer for how exactly to put across these two messages without getting the negative side-effects of both. My main prescription would be to encourage a more active life-style with exercise. Exercise, after all, increases hunger for healthy foods and just improves everything in your physical health.

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