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January 24, 2024
ASCD Blog

Ditching School Diet Culture

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Educators must work to dismantle weight-based stigma in schools and prioritize inclusivity, health, and genuine well-being for all.
EquitySchool Culture
Ditching School Diet Culture
Credit: O.darka / Shutterstock
In September of 2022, I tweeted a request: “Please stop assigning food diaries to students. Please.” Going viral for sharing a simple thought was not something I expected. Forty-nine thousand likes and about a hundred blocked trolls later, I sifted through replies from thousands of people who are or have been through the American education system testifying to the ways these assignments have harmed their body image and precipitated their (in some cases lifelong) eating disorders.
Diet culture is everywhere, and school is no exception. Nutrition journalist Christine Byrne defines diet culture as a system of belief that prioritizes thinness and equates it with morality and goodness. In diet culture, we are all taught to pursue thinness, sometimes by any means necessary. Children as young as eight are dieting, and the presence of “pro-ana” (promoting anorexia), “pro-mia” (promoting bulimia), and “thinspo” (thin-inspiration) live in online spaces such as Instagram. As children develop social and digital identities, they are vulnerable to these ideas—even in school. As schools continue to develop their responses to student mental health and build frameworks rooted in diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging (DEIJB), they must be sure to include weight stigma and diet culture in these conversations. 

Anti-Fat Bias at School

As students (and educators) show up to school, so do their attitudes about dieting and weight. Sometimes, those ideas and attitudes are picked up at school. For example, classrooms with attached desks are themselves a message: if you don’t fit in this desk, you and your body don’t belong. Instead, desks with separate chairs and tables are generally more accessible and can be moved and repositioned in arrangements that are inclusive of size. Flexible seating such as benches, chairs with no arms, stools, and movable tables and chairs can help ensure that all bodies fit.
In her book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat (Beacon Press, 2019), Aubrey Gordon writes, “At a time when overt bias is frowned upon, fat people continue to bear the brunt of a proud and righteous kind of prejudice, whether it be under the banner of healthism, ableism, racism, or classism. Whatever its roots, anti-fat bias is only increasing over time, despite a growing body of evidence illustrating the substantial harm it can cause” (p. 54). Schools can, and do, perpetuate stigma and bullying in the name of “health.” As of 2017, 25 states in the U.S. are required to track students’ weight at school, and 12 of those states send home “BMI report cards.”
Even well-meaning initiatives, like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!, which sought to make school lunch healthier and more accessible to students across America, reach a typical pitfall. By conflating weight and size with health, the messaging bolstered the idea that thin children, who looked “healthy,” could mostly be left alone, while fat children needed to be met with “concern.” States like Georgia began their own campaigns, aimed at targeting the “obesity epidemic” in children. Ads featuring higher-weight children were blazoned with alarming phrases such as “WARNING: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” and “My fat may be funny to you, but it’s killing me” (Gordon, p. 38-39).

What doesn’t get said aloud, but is palpably felt: 'Fat is bad, and I don’t want to be like that—like you.'

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And what about teachers? Snacks in faculty rooms and prep period spaces are often talked about with choruses of “I’m being good, I shouldn’t have any of that!” or “I’m so mad at whoever brought this in, I can’t resist!” This internalized body shame and insecurity becomes externalized and lands on higher-weight colleagues. What doesn’t get said aloud, but is palpably felt: “Fat is bad, and I don’t want to be like that—like you.”
As a teacher-facing solution, school-based wellness initiatives tied to district-provided health insurance policies can shift away from weight loss goals and inter-faculty “biggest loser” competitions to simply engage everyone in health-promoting behaviors that work for them. Practices such as mindfulness, after-work socials and investment in extracurricular programming, and meaningful, non-evaluative check-ins can help students and staff to build a culture that defines health and wellness multidimensionally. This reinforces the understanding that health is many things—physical, mental, and social—and that it is individual and unique.
If your school has rules (spoken or unspoken) about what kinds of food teachers, staff, and students staff can or should eat during the school day, it may be time to rethink them—especially because food policing often leads to culturally unresponsive attitudes about “health” and nutrition, moral classification of certain foods (“junk food,” “clean eating”), and other shame-based attitudes that result in othering people and their bodies. Schools can instead adopt “all foods fit” approaches, and acknowledge the cultural, social, nutritional, and celebratory nature of food for everyone in a community. A great resource for schools looking to shift their attitudes and language is the Growing Intuitive Eaters podcast by Dr. Taylor Arnold, an Intuitive Eating coach who focuses on childhood nutrition.

Fatphobia and the Curriculum 

Across the curriculum, teachers have opportunities to talk about and unpack weight stigma by representing fat authors and making them visible in English Language Arts; talking about the impact and history of eugenics on our perception of weight and health in social studies and civics classes; showing and historicizing different body types and beauty standards in art; and using science class to unpack and investigate other determinants of health–including environmental, genetic, and social factors.
At the preschool and elementary levels, students are more likely to see fat characters as “mean,” greedy, or lazy. When cast in a more neutral or even positive light, higher-weight characters in media serve as the comedic relief or the ugly but loyal best friend. From ages 9-11, students are able to relate factors like environment or genetics to why people have larger bodies. However, they find it difficult to unlearn negative stereotypes and connotations associated with being higher-weight. Cultural assumptions about larger bodies are deeply embedded, and the less frequently we promote the diversity and value of all bodies, the more difficult it becomes to unlearn them.

Students should have access to a variety of narratives about bodies of all sizes, and teachers can shift their language to present body types as morally neutral.

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As they develop both print and media literacy, students should have access to a variety of narratives about bodies of all sizes, and teachers can shift their language and leverage these literary representations to present body types as morally neutral. School leaders, librarians, and teachers can work together to ensure that narratives depicting fat characters are morally neutral and that stereotypes and tropes about eating disorders and/or fat bodies are not perpetuated and reinforced.
Stereotypes to look out for include the out-of-control binging fat person, the weight loss redemption arc, the overrepresentation of thin bodies when talking about eating disorders, or the trope of the funny fat girl or the sidekick fat friend. It’s not that these tropes and stereotypes should be absent from the literature students read—but teachers can facilitate critical conversations about the presence of these stereotypes and work to disrupt them with students. The inclusion of size-diverse literature can help students of all ages and grade levels develop a more positive body image within themselves, and more concretely humanize the complex and full lives and experiences of higher-weight people. 

We Can Change the Narrative

The World Health Organization found that fat/higher-weight children are 63 percent more likely to be bullied than other kids. In a survey I posted to X this month taken by 39 educators, 62 percent reported that they did not have or know of any policy-related protective factors against anti-fatness in their school systems. Education leaders have the power and the responsibility to add weight-based bullying to their anti-bullying policies and set expectations for their students around weight-based bullying, weight stigma, and body shaming. While ditching diet culture at school takes a village—and a whole lot of unlearning—education leaders can start by asking the following questions of themselves, their fellow educators, and their school communities:
  • What does wellness mean to us?
  • How do the most vulnerable and marginalized people at our school feel about themselves when they are here? 
  • How does diet culture/fatphobia affect those in our community? How does it interact with other oppressions such as racism, sexism, and ableism? 
  • What are we doing to spot diet culture in our school environment so that we can reduce its harmful influence on our community?
  • Am I creating spaces free of body negativity and fostering weight neutrality in our school?
  • Do higher-weight teachers, parents, and students feel authentically protected from the harm of anti-fatness in our school space?
  • Are weight, health status, or perceived weight/health status explicitly mentioned in our anti-bullying policies? Where can weight-based anti-bullying be more concrete in our existing policies and practices?
  • How can we better dismantle weight stigma and bias to improve our school community?
Answering these questions takes time and a willingness to learn and unlearn simultaneously. If it prevents just one person from being harmed, it’s work that matters. Some actionable steps you can take as a school leader while working with these questions as your guide:
  • Examine your school and district policies around weight-shaming. If your school does not have an explicitly stated policy that protects fat/higher-weight students and staff, begin by bringing that to your administration or school board’s attention. 
  • Read titles such as What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon and FAT TALK: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture by Virginia Sole-Smith (Macmillan Publishers, 2023). Invite parents, staff, and the community to join in on your learning.
  • Survey the physical classrooms in your schools to make sure they are accessible to students in all bodies and of all sizes and abilities. 
  • Inventory the curriculum; pay close attention to what it says about certain bodies and foods, and work with teachers, staff, and students to revise curriculum that implicitly or explicitly transmits body shame across all subject areas (not just health, physical education, and sciences!)
Diet culture and weight stigma are pervasive and require everyone in a community to interrogate and unlearn what entire industries have taught us about our own worth. Naming and minimizing the effects of diet culture in our school communities can, and will, improve the mental health of our students, staff, and entire communities so that they can focus on learning and achieving well-being. Ditching diet culture at school is an important step toward making schools more healthy, equitable, and inclusive for all.
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