Sometimes when I’m teaching Awesomely Awkward, my puberty education series, a young person will say that there’s something wrong with their/someone’s body. It’s too fat/thin/tall/busty/flat/short… all the things young people have been taught (already!) about what society says bodies are supposed to be like. I thank them for saying that, because “oh my gosh, people say stuff like that all the time, right!? And now that someone’s said it, we can talk about this! Yay! I love this part!” And I whip out these photos of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. In class, I have many versions of them both on projector and printed on card stock they can hold in their hands and look at. When I pass them out, they know that I really do love this part.
I tell the young people to “find a body that might have been similar in some ways to yours when they were your age. Don’t tell us which one you’re thinking of. Imagine what that person’s body was like when they were your age. Remember, puberty is only maybe starting to happen.” I tell them, “just think quietly inside your head right now.” [If there is someone in the class with low-vision or who is blind, I ask the children to describe the photos in detail, and I supplement their descriptions to fully demonstrate the entire spectrum of bodies displayed and substitute accurate and appropriate language when needed.]
Then I ask these questions:
- Now think about all of these bodies when they were your age. What do you think people said to them? About them?
- What do you imagine that felt like? Why do you think that’s what it feels like?
- What would it take for them to decide to be strong in their body, maybe even to be an athlete? What kind of thinking would they need to do?
- What kind of friends would they need around them when they were 11 and they wanted to do something strong with their body? What would those friends say? How would those friends behave?
- Would what the friends said and how they acted be any different if these people, when they were 11 or 12, had bodies that weren’t ever going to be world class athletes, but they still wanted to do something strong and brave with their bodies? What would be the same? What would be different?
- What kind of friend are you? How can you be that kind of friend for each other, the kind that says encouraging things about bravery and strength, and doesn’t talk about whether a body is good or not?
Bodies are awesome. Everyone should get one. Oh, wait.
That’s my favorite line I ever made up ever.
All bodies can’t do all the things. Some bodies move easily, some bodies move slowly or with discomfort and pain or in directions that weren’t intended, but all bodies can experience pleasure and can do something strong and brave. Our job as good grownups is to support young people to find out the ways their body is strong and brave.
Perhaps your child is not in my class. You can do this with children in your life. Look through these pictures and talk about all the different types of bodies that athletes have, how different they are, what people might have told them about their bodies when they were your child’s age, how powerful they all are. All of them. Give your children an image of something different from what the media gives them. These are real people with really strong bodies that all appear and move differently. Obviously we aren’t all world-class athletes. Almost all of us are not world-class athletes, I’m certainly not. But we all have bodies, and we all live in a world that assesses our worth by what our bodies look like based on a bogus standard of body that doesn’t actually exist. (I’ll talk about body image and air brushing photos in another blog post another time.)
And when your child is 5 or 8 or 13 and says their body is wrong because it’s too skinny/too fat/too tall/too short/too disabled, haul these photos out and remember with them that bodies are awesome. All the bodies are all the awesome, and we don’t know when we’re 5 or 8 or 13 what amazing things our bodies will learn to do as we grow.