Being thin and gorgeous: It’s not for the likes of you

The linguist Eric Hawkins once compared MFL teaching in our schools to “gardening in a gale”. Whatever seeds are “planted” risk getting blown away the moment a pupil leaves the classroom and is surrounded by the “gale” of English. It’s an apt, if depressing, metaphor, although clearly there are ways in which to challenge it. After all, learning a foreign language doesn’t have to be anything like using English. You use the second language in different ways and in different contexts. It enhances rather than undermines your experience of English. The truth is, while the cultural dominance of English does make things harder for MFL teachers, things could be a lot worse.

I’m thinking of the “gardening in a gale” image now in light of recommendations that children as young as five should be given body image lessons. I read this and find myself thinking “yeah, Mrs Parkin who’s teaching adjective endings to Year 10, you think you’ve got it bad? Try doing this!” Because while a second language is a second language, you only get one body. It’s either acceptable or it isn’t. What they tell you in the classroom is either true or false. And they can tell you to accept yourself as many times as they like. None of this matters if the moment the bell rings you’re back in the real world, struggling against the “gale” of diets, size zero celebrities and fat girl jokes.

As you may have guessed, I’m not particularly in favour of these lessons, mainly because I suspect they’d be a bit useless, what with them not getting anywhere close to the root of the problem. Not that I know how one would get to the root of the problem. Feminism is probably a good start. Perhaps, if we’re using language metaphors, feminism provides the “second language” which, eventually, we should all be speaking. It requires a development of our critical consciousness and a new way of valuing others, women and girls in particular. But all this is a bit poncey and theoretical, certainly if at the end of the day you’re faced with the Special K girl in her red dress insisting that no, you can’t really be hungry now you’ve had one of my mini-breaks. Au contraire, you’re just a weak-willed loser.

Do you know what else pisses me off about these lessons, though? This might sound ridiculous but I suspect that, deep down, there’s something quite sinister at work, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. It might feel well-meaning but ineffectual, but to me, lessons in self-acceptance just scream “know your place!” A politician preaches “self-acceptance” and this is what I really hear: Being thin and beautiful – it’s not for the likes of you. So yeah, accept yourselves, little people. Be happy the way you are and don’t aspire to be any more. Meanwhile watch the thin people continue to claim the prizes. We’ve no intention of doing anything to counter that.

Perhaps we should be encouraging people to “accept” everything else in their lives which doesn’t measure up to the ideals thrown in their faces. How about “poverty acceptance”? “Inequality acceptance”? Why don’t we just encourage young people to grow up without any hopes and dreams? Won’t that make them happier, given that we can’t be arsed to make their lives better in any real, meaningful sense? After all, this is what we’re doing with body image. We don’t attack the diet industry; we just tell children to get over themselves. Is it me, or is this not grossly unfair?

Well, I’m finishing this post because I need to get on with some language-y stuff. Then I’ll leave the study, chat in English to my partner and kids and stuff my face on a lunch about which I’ll later feel guilty. Brilliant. Gardening in a gale. That metaphor is my life (fortunately, I never bother to do any actual gardening. God knows what metaphor I’d have to find for that).

3 thoughts on “Being thin and gorgeous: It’s not for the likes of you

  1. I think that it’s madness even to suggest to small children that there is such a thing as body image. It really didn’t occur to me to care about the size and shape of my body until I was much older. Why get children started on that train of thought when they probably (hopefully) aren’t there yet?
    At some point during my primary school years, a program was introduced whereby the whole school exercised every day. Four days a week it was 15 minutes of organised skipping/running/etc, and on the other day it was a 30 minute PE lesson. Our primary school tuckshop also had a policy of avoiding food that had negligible nutritional value – no fizzy drinks, no lollies, no ice cream or chocolate… they had great things like frozen orange quarters and home-made slice, and a few brands of chips in very small-sized packets, and that was more than enough. I remember choosing my own morning tea on “tuckshop” days – I often went for vienna bread with grated cheese after realising how delicious it was. Getting children used to enjoying regular exercise and healthy food would, in my opinion, be a much healthier and more effective initiative than body image classes.

    1. I totally agree! When I was at primary school (in the 80s) I remember that when the girls had the “period talk” we got given advice, not just on what sanitary protection to use, but on health and beauty! And by “health” what was really meant was keeping your weight down. The whole thing really freaked me out and as I was a fat girl who got mocked for being fat anyhow, it really influenced how I felt about myself. Body image lessons are possibly an improvement but as you say, it just starts children thinking about it, at a time when their bodies just “are”. My son’s school gives healthy eating advice, which I’m fine with, but they also don’t allow him to have crisps in his lunchbox except on a Friday, which I find really frustrating. Now he thinks crisps are bad, and therefore more desirable!
      I don’t know what vienna bread is – now want to try some…

      1. I’m not even sure why it was called “Vienna” bread! – but it had a soft crust and was cut into ovally-shaped rounds. White bread with butter and cheese is possibly not entirely fat-free or low calorie, but for small children I guess it’s a lot better as a snack than chocolate biscuits or ice cream:)
        I just saw your post about getting that dieting advice booklet along with the “period talk” at school. Wow, that is beyond awful. I wish your parents had sued your teachers when you ended up with anorexia.

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