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Bringing Size Awareness To The Classroom
The Making of Young Activists
By Nancy Summer

 

Reprinted From Radiance, Winter 1996

Imagine that you could go back in time and give your younger self just one message, something that would change your life for the better. What would it be? Aside from the names of the Kentucky Derby winners of the past twenty years, I know what I would choose: I'd sit my chubby preteen self down, and I'd tell her that even though she is fat, she is lovable, pretty, and capable. I'd tell her that she deserves respect, and that she is okay just the way she is. I wonder if she would believe me.

Although I'll never get the opportunity to turn back the clock and find out, I had the opportunity to see if the preteen girls of today would listen to my message. I was invited to join a team of educators and counselors who run antiviolence and antibias conferences for sixth - graders. The workshops I was asked to present were on body image, health, and size discrimination. As an outgrowth of these workshops, I have become involved in an ongoing project to develop a curriculum on these subjects for use in schools.

My desire to speak to young people was sparked by an incident more than a decade ago. My husband and I were on our way out to a dressy dinner one summer evening with another couple who were also size - rights activists. We made an unusual sight. Both husbands were of average size, and both wives were supersized. As we walked down the front path toward the car, we became aware of a young girl riding by on her bicycle in the street. She was about ten or eleven years old, and definitely a plus - size kid. In fact, she reminded me of myself at that age. She stared at us. Then she rode up to the next house, made a u - turn, and rode back to stare at us some more. This attention prompted one of the husbands to offer a public display of affection for his wife (he hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek). The girl made another u - turn and repeated her drive - by several times, only to witness these two attractive large women being treated like princesses by their handsome escorts. Okay, we laid it on a little thick. But she was obviously very interested in us, and we wanted to send her the message that fat girls can and do grow up to have dates, stylish clothes, and partners who think they are beautiful.

This is an important part of the message I would have given my younger self. I grew up thinking that no one would ever love me and that I had to settle for anything I got out of life. Nice clothes, like social and educational opportunities, were only for the thinner girls. I had only one date in high school, I didn't attend my prom, and I suffered a lot of abuse from kids, teachers, doctors, and counselors. At home, things were actually worse. There were a lot of fat people in my extended family, and just about everyone was steeped in his or her own negative attitude about weight (his or hers and mine). As a result, I never felt safe or valued anywhere. My self - esteem was almost nonexistent, and I didn't know that I deserved better. I wish someone, anyone, had told me otherwise.

I've wanted to give that message to the girl on the bicycle and to every plus - size teen and preteen I've met ever since. Finally, in the fall of 1993, I had my first formal opportunity to do so. One day, when I was feeling frustrated about my work in size acceptance and seriously considering giving it up for the time being, the phone rang. I found myself immediately accepting an invitation to present several workshops to sixth - grade girls. After I hung up, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

The prospect of my first workshop for kids was scary. As experienced as I was with the size acceptance message, I was equally inexperienced at communicating with children. I prepared myself with a lot of research: I consulted with my friend Cathi Rodgveller, a middle school counselor who is also a large woman, and I watched a lot of Nickelodeon, MTV, and public television kids' shows, like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Once I had a feel for how information is presented to kids of the video game generation, I had more worries. Would the girls be interested in the subject or would they be bored? How much did they already know? Would they like me? How would they react to my size? Would I be the largest woman they'd ever seen? (I weigh more than 400 pounds.) Cathi assured me that the girls would be both interested and polite. "Be glad you don't have to deal with boys your first time out. Girls are much more polite than boys at this age," she told me.

My first workshop came all too soon. I barely slept the night before. I imagined the perfect class of girls: attentive, well behaved, and completely responsive to all my questions and discussion topics. Then I imagined all sorts of horrible scenarios. In some, the girls sat unresponsive and silent for the whole session. In others, they were loud and insulting, jeering at me. How did I get myself into this? I asked myself many times during that sleepless night.

The sixteen girls who actually arrived for my first class were neither perfect nor horrible, just average likable kids of all shapes and sizes. Almost all of them wore pants and tops; skirts seem to be rare in public schools these days. The girls tended to cling to their friends. Some chatted and laughed, their faces open and receptive. Others sat quietly, looking uneasy. The larger girls seemed the most tense. In my first class, the biggest girl sat with her arms folded across her chest and a sullen expression on her face for most of the session. In a later class, the biggest girl chose to sit on the floor while all the other girls took chairs.

Let me take you through some typical workshops.

Before we begin, the girls look over my handouts. Knowing about Fat Kids is the one strategically placed on top of the pile. The word fat practically jumps off the page. "Hi," I say. "I'm Nancy. And we're here today to talk about body image, health, beauty, and fat. We're going to talk about fat people: what we think about them, how we treat them. And we're going to talk about how we feel about being or getting fat ourselves."

Then I take a deep breath and, in order to get all the negative things out of their systems that they think and say about fat people, I invite them to insult me. "What do you think when you see a person as fat as me? What words come to mind? You can be honest."

After the initial giggling and squirming in chairs, the responses are never the same. In one class, a rambunctious thin girl looks me dead in the eye and calls me a horse! "Good!" I say. I smile and write horse on the flip chart and then ask if they can think of other animals that are associated with fat people. Soon horse is joined by suggestions from other girls: cow, elephant, pig, hippo, buffalo, and whale. Then we discuss how beautiful these animals are in their own right. My calm response to the challenge sets the tone for that workshop.

I encounter the exactly opposite response several months later. The very first response to my question, "What do you think of when you see a person as fat as me?" brings a show of hands. The first girl I call on says, "Fat people are discriminated against." Not only had her class studied diversity issues that year, but the previous year she had written a paper on eating disorders in fifth grade! I am impressed.

Whether the girls are polite or candid, aware of the issues or not, we always manage to bring out many of the stereotypes and negative language that they've heard (and use) about fat people. They especially enjoy talking about their larger teachers in a setting where they can "get away with it." One girl actually admits that she teased a teacher until she made her cry. She is proud of this revelation until she hears her classmates define this as being mean. When a group is too polite, I ask what the boys say to or about fat girls, and that often brings lots of responses: like "Shamu," "bubble butt," and "lard ass." are favorites. We also discuss the many stereotypes people believe about fat kids and adults. "Fat and lazy," "Fat people eat all the time," and "Boys don't think fat girls are pretty" are just some of the responses I get. I always counter the negative stereotypes with facts and personal stories. For example, when one girl says that fat people are stupid, I counter with the fact that when I was in sixth grade, I was invited into a program where I could skip eighth grade.

In the past few years, I've questioned the value of the many exploitive talk shows about fat people. Do they really accomplish anything? I've wondered. Well, I've stopped wondering. The kids have learned a lot about fat issues from television. When I ask the girls if I am the largest woman they've ever seen, I always get a resounding no! They tell me that they've seen someone a lot bigger than me on Geraldo or Oprah or Jerry Springer. In fact, my most important credential to them is that I appeared on Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael. One girl was so impressed that she asked me for my autograph.

We cover a lot of ground in the workshops: everything from discrimination to health to sports to fashion magazines. But always I stress my basic message: bias against fat hurts people of all sizes. "Imagine you are sitting in the lunchroom and a bully starts making fun of a fat kid a few tables away. How does that make you feel?" I ask them. "We can imagine that the fat kid feels bad about being picked on, but what about all the other kids who hear it?"

"I'd be afraid that he'd pick on me next," one girl responds. Another says, "I'd be afraid that if I got fat, people would pick on me, too." "I wouldn't eat my dessert." "I'd probably laugh, too," one candid soul admits, but goes on to tell us about a fat boy in her school who always laughs when people pick on him. One brave girl says, "I'd tell him to shut up."

I explain that it isn't just large kids and adults who are hurt by size discrimination. Everyone else is hurt, too, because as long as fat is hated, everyone will be afraid of becoming fat. Fear of fat makes everyone unhappy and dissatisfied with their bodies. And that makes us have lower self - esteem and less self - confidence. And sometimes it can lead to dangerous diets and eating disorders.

I share a lot of personal stories and listen to theirs. We pass around issues of Radiance, especially the issues with articles on kids and teens. They like the plus - size kids' clothing layouts. They also enjoy the issue about Lynn Cox, the record - setting long - distance swimmer featured in Spring 1988. I tell them how I let my own preteen dream of being a long - distance swimmer dissolve in my embarrassment about wearing a bathing suit in public: something I regret to this day. And I tell them how, when I read the Radiance article, I learned that Lynn Cox weighs as much as I did when I quit swimming. "I wonder what my life would have been like if there had been a magazine like this around when I was a preteen? Can anyone guess?" I ask them. They respond: "You might be healthier." "You might be thinner." "You might have liked yourself better when you were a teenager." "You might be famous!" "You might be on the cover of Radiance!"

I ask how we learn what and who is beautiful. "From television," "magazines," "my friends" are all typical answers. I ask how many girls look at fashion models for ideas. Almost all of them raise their hands. "I want to be a model, so I have to lose weight," one very thin girl tells the class. Her classmates argue with her that she is too thin already.

An important part of the workshop is looking at models. I show them a display I put together comparing fashion layouts from Vogue and BBW magazines. We discuss the difference between glamour and thinness. "Glamour is a look,' not a size," I tell them. The girls are always surprised to learn that the plus - size models from BBW are "too fat" to pose for Vogue. They think that the larger models are gorgeous! In fact, they usually think that the larger models are the prettiest, and I have to remind them that girls and women of all sizes are beautiful.

We discuss healthy alternatives to dieting and weight obsession. I suggest ways to make good choices about food and exercise. I tell them, "We can learn about nutrition and how to read food labels so that we make the best choices. We can stop counting calories and instead eat a variety of foods that make us feel good and that are good for us. We can make sure that junk food is not the only kind of food that we eat. And we can get enough physical activity to keep us healthy. Fitness is the right of everyone, regardless of size."

Some of the stories I hear are sad and frightening. In one class, several of the girls volunteer their weight: an average - sized girl says that she weighs 65 pounds. So I have a basis of comparison when another very tiny girl says that she weighs 55 pounds now but dieted down one summer to 45 pounds so that she could be a better gymnast. She tells me that she often feels dizzy or sick when working out. "I would have a half - piece of toast for breakfast and a half - apple for lunch," she says. "No dinner?" I question. "No," she shakes her head. "So what does your mother say when you don't eat dinner?" I ask. "Nothing. Well, sometimes she says that I should eat a little. But I know that she really wants me to make the team."

Another average - sized girl tells us about her father, who is quite large. Her thin uncles are always putting him down and making jokes about him. I ask how he responds when they do that. She answers, "Most of the time he just laughs with them, but I know he feels really hurt. Sometimes he says stuff or looks sad when they go home."

I encourage kids of all sizes to fight size bias by speaking up every time they see it. I explain that fat kids need allies when they are being picked on, and that kids of all sizes need to feel included. We talk a lot about how hurtful size bias is to its victims (even their fat teachers and parents). "It isn't enough to just not laugh along with a joke. It's important that you say something, whether it's privately to the person being picked on, or publicly to the mean kids that what they are doing isn't okay." The kids then spend some time coming up with ways that they can accomplish this.

In the most recent workshops, I've included music and art. A poster of the ancient Venus of Willendorf has joined the magazine covers of today. When I can, I take a large collage of fat women put together by Sisters of Size of Seattle. The collage blends personal photos with clippings from newspapers, Radiance, Making It Big catalogs, and lots of positive synonyms for fat and large. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to have Miriam Berg, a singer and fellow activist, join me. Not only does she perform some wonderful size - positive songs, but she teaches the kids some easy songs that we can all sing together. The kids love her, and hearing songs about things they've learned in the workshop seems to further validate those ideas.

The larger girls in the class are usually rather quiet at first. I imagine how I would feel in their situation: embarrassed to be openly discussing something that bothers me every day. I never push them to share their personal stories. I think that it may be too difficult for them to expose themselves in that way. Instead, I play the role of the "fat kid" myself by talking about my childhood experiences and how I am resolving those pains as an adult. Their own resolution begins as their thinner peers support me. They hear my stories, they hear their friends' angry reactions to the mean things that have happened to me, and they realize that they have allies they never knew they had. They also get to hear that other kids don't simply accept that sort of abuse as normal or okay.

I tell a story about how, when I was a teenager, my mother stopped me as I was about to go to the beach with my friends and said I shouldn't go. "You'll be a freak on the beach," she warned. Hearing my story, one of the average - sized girls in the class yells out, "You should have smacked her." Her anger really surprises me. I explain that "smacking" anyone isn't the best response (remember, this is also an antiviolence workshop!), and we do a little strategizing about what I could have done instead. I notice that the biggest girl relaxes her stiff posture and starts to smile the minute her peer suggests "smacking." Each suggestion from a classmate about how to fight size prejudice opens her up more and more. Her smile turns to laughter several times. I've concluded that often it isn't what I say that really matters to the larger girls. It's what they hear from their friends and classmates that has the biggest effect on their own perceptions and self - esteem.

Sometimes I have no idea what effect I've had on the girls until I read their exit evaluations. After my first class, I sat in my car and read their comments about the workshop. The girl with the fat father wrote, "I learned that my father is okay and it's wrong for his brothers to make fun of him." Another thin girl wrote, "I learned that it's wrong to make fun of fat kids and not to play with them." I found myself crying as I read through their papers. After a workshop that included a sing - along, one large girl wrote, "Now I have something to sing when I feel bad about my body." My favorite evaluation came from the largest girl in the class: "I learned that I'm okay and that I can be pretty even though I'm fat."

She believed me! Maybe I would have believed all this, too, if someone had told me these things when I was her age. I think that this knowledge would have changed my life. I hope that it helped to change hers. At the very least, I hope that she'll remember me when inevitably someone says to her, "You have such a pretty face, but"

For more information on this work, or if you have any clippings, books, or personal stories that would assist the Council with their Kids' Curriculum and Outreach Project, write to Nancy c/o P.O. Box 116, Bearsville, NY 12409.

NANCY SUMMER is a founding director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, Inc., and a past president of NAAFA. She is assisting Cathi Rodgveller, M.S. Ed. (with musical assistance from Miriam Berg) in designing a curriculum to be used by teachers and school counselors. Nancy is also a co - owner of Amplestuff, a mail - order catalog of products for large people.

 

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