Higher Self-Esteem through Positive Body Image

teachers and middle schoolers in fake mustaches

“Dumbo Melonhead!” My friends in seventh grade gave me this nickname after an unfortunate haircut showed off my very prominent ears and round scalp.  Even after my hair grew back and hid my ears once again, the nickname stuck. I lived with it for years. People who had never seen the haircut still called me it. At one point I even co-opted the name, telling everyone to just call me Melon. The experience continues to affect me. I am embarrassed to admit that years later I still feel self-conscious about my ears all because of an innocent decision at the barbershop on a warm, summer afternoon.

Poor Body Image Equals Poor Self Confidence

middle schooler making a funny faceMiddle schoolers are understandably pretty obsessed with body image.  As they experience puberty, they feel apprehensive about their changing selves. Body odor, pubic and armpit hair, menstruation and acne all drastically change the way young adolescents feel about their bodies. It can be confusing and emotionally challenging trying to deal with these changes one after the other.

Health classes often address the physical changes young adolescents go through, but they don’t spend a lot of time on the emotions of puberty. Many middle schoolers feel embarrassed and insecure during this time. Their self-confidence stumbles as they ask themselves if they are developing the same way as their peers. Hormones increase their awareness of sex and the concept of sexual attraction and they become acutely aware of society’s judgements of their bodies. Adults try to reassure them that what they are experiencing is normal, but that doesn’t make them feel normal. 

Acting Out through Body Talk

four middle schoolers posing In response, they do what every middle schooler does with their discomfort: they try to mask it.  And the way they mask it is through what the students at Arthur Morgan School  call “body talk.”

When young adolescents don’t want to talk about their feelings, they act out. They do this by either directing their emotions outward toward their peers or inward toward themselves. Body talk makes the perfect weapon for their acting out. In an attempt to feel normal, they constantly compare themselves to their friends and judge themselves. They might make fun of another person’s clothing or point out their acne. Alternatively they might insult themselves, stating loudly to their friends how fat or ugly they feel.  Sometimes they might brag about their hair or show off their developing muscles; or they might compliment someone else’s figure, drawing attention to how they see themselves the same.  These are all examples of body talk, but they are also examples of how middle schoolers act out to hide their feelings.

Body Image Problems Extended

middle schooler making a funny faceAfter a while these remarks are a normal part of their peer interactions. Commenting on a person’s physical appearance becomes as common as saying hello. Many middle schoolers will continue this toxic trend well into adulthood, determining their self worth and the worth of others based primarily on physical appearance.

We see examples of this type of thinking all throughout our culture. TV shows, movies, music, advertising and even news focus on people’s appearances all too often with harmful results.  The National Eating Disorder Association cites research that shows a link between negative body image and depression, anorexia, and suicide. The Canadian Mental Health Association also states a clear connection between a person’s body image and their mental health.  Many of these studies talk about the effect poor body image has on women, but men are affected as well.  Even when the cases are not extreme, body image presents a society wide dilemma.

AMS has taken a stand against body image. In order to help their middle schoolers feel safe and focus on their academic and personal growth, all body talk is banned at the school.

Learn how AMS offers its students lots of safe and empowering opportunities!

Even Positive Comments Can Be Harmful

a teacher showing a middle schooler something on the computerAMS defines body talk as any talk about your own or another person’s appearance. It doesn’t matter whether the comments are compliments or criticisms. To the AMS community, all body talk is negative. Any comment about a person’s body, even if it is positive, draws attention to physical appearance. That attention gives the wrong message. It suggests that a person’s looks matter more than their actions. At a time when young adolescents are trying to develop a sense of self worth, it’s important to tie that self worth to their behavior, not their physical appearance. Their self confidence grows as they realize a positive body image comes from how they use their body, not what it looks like.

“No body talk” is a respected AMS norm that has even made it into the school’s student behavior contract. When visitors to the school first hear about the rule, they think it is a concept pushed on the students by staff members, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The students of AMS are the biggest supporters of the “No body talk” policy.  They are the most vocal about keeping their community safe from a focus on physical appearance.

Rey, an alumni who has been at AMS for three years talks about body talk like this:

“No body talk means we feel free to be whoever we want, to dress however we want, to try new things when it comes to our styling choices and our bodies. It completely throws the idea of being body shamed or clothing shamed into the garbage where it belongs. We don’t worry as much about what we look like or what other people think of us. I think that is what finding ourselves in this society should be all about.

three middle school girls posing outside

“Additionally, ‘no body talk’ teaches us that although someone’s appearance might usually be the first thing we notice, there is so much more to people. The rule has made me realize what incredible musicians, artists, scholars, leaders, and amazing young people my peers are. It has also forced me to come up with better and more genuine compliments to give my friends. I no longer comment on their hair or clothing, but instead I tell them what amazing people they are.  I try to show them how much I love them through my actions.”

No Body Talk means Higher Self-Esteem

Middle schoolers already have plenty to worry about. They are figuring out who they are and what their place is in the world. They are constantly trying to meet rising expectations and learn how to contribute meaningfully to society.  Worrying about their physical appearance is an unnecessary distraction.  By cutting out body talk, AMS makes middle school safe for students to focus on what really important: learning.

-by Nicholas Maldonado (originally published November 2017)