"Be"ing a Certain Way: Seeking Body Image in Canadian Health and Physical Education Curriculum Policies

Article excerpt


The term body image is defined as "a person's perceptions, thoughts and feelings about his or her body" (Grogan, 2008, p.3). A person's response to his or her body image may or may not be helpful in the pursuit of overall health and well-being. For example, having a poor body image is linked with having low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders (Hutchinson & Calland, 2011). Body dissatisfaction can also lead to the use of steroids to increase muscularity or contribute to a decision not to participate in activity (Grogan, 2008; Rice, 2007). On the other hand, having a positive body image supports healthy eating and participation in activities with more comfort (Grogan, 2008). Body dissatisfaction affects many children and adolescents; it is sufficiently prevalent to be reported as normative for girls in mid-childhood (Hutchinson & Calland, 2011) and for both boys and girls in the pre-teen years (Grogan, 2008). Research into peer influences on body image indicates that body dissatisfaction emerges "considerably earlier" than was once thought (Dohnt & Tiggeman, 2005). For these reasons, how body image is represented in curriculum policy documents and where it is presented in the K-Grade 8 continuum are significant issues. Little is known about how body image is represented across the health and physical education (HPE) curricula of Canada's provinces and territories. The purpose of this research is to determine how consistently and coherently the concept of body image is addressed in the Canadian HPE curriculum policies, including a determination of the type and frequency of body image messages that are present, and at which grades. Because body image has been linked to both physical and mental health, it is worthwhile to develop a sense of how it is currently addressed in policy.


Children and adolescents offer indications that their self-esteem and self-image--and also how they view others--is related to body shape and size (Birbeck & Drummond, 2006; Cafri, van den Berg, & Thompson, 2006; Clay, Vignoles & Dittmar, 2005; Smolak, 2004). They are taking measures to control their body shape and size; some of these measures are impacting their health in ways that concern both the health sciences and education research communities. For example, research from the Hospital for Sick Children in Canada indicates a concern over the numbers of girls aged 10-14 who are dieting and at risk for eating disorders (McVey, Tweed, & Blackmore, 2004a). A British eating disorders society reports rising cases of anorexia in girls between the ages of 8 and 11 (Hutchinson & Calland, 2011). Similarly, the pursuit of muscularity in the US has led to the use of illicit steroids as a public health concern (Cafri et al, 2006). How health is defined in the curriculum becomes a significant consideration. If definitions of good health focus on being a certain size, and regulating lifestyle choices (e.g., calories in and out) then students can see body size and shape as needing work and remediation. If a curriculum policy supports the view that size and shape are determined by heredity and persons can be healthy at many different sizes, then health is presented in a more complex way. School curriculum is not neutral but is constructed on decisions that have been influenced by different ideologies and assumptions (Kincheloe, 2004). The overall assumptions about health in a HPE curriculum policy are significant factors to consider when analyzing it for body image messages.

In an earlier era, four interdependent fields were deemed responsible for health: the environment, biology/genetics, lifestyle, and health care (LaLonde,1974). In the ensuing years, however, the areas over which the individual has some control--lifestyle, and in particular, diet and exercise--are increasingly named as health influences. Today, the published indicators of Canadians' well-being are: smoking, obesity, physical activity, access to a physician, and patient satisfaction (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2012). …