50.Evidence from academics indicates that perception of body image is stable from adolescence into adulthood. If a teenager develops a negative body image, it can last a lifetime.
51.The Committee has heard that the school environment is formative for children developing a health body image and more needs to be in schools around tackling appearance pressures. Young people are particularly vulnerable to poor body image with 66% of under 18s reporting to us that they feel negative or very negative about their body most of the time. The body image survey also found that 70% of children hadn’t learnt about body image at school, and 78% would like to. A new compulsory curriculum for Relationships and Sex and Health education (RSHE) has been in place since September 2020. The GEO wrote to tell the Committee that:
Through Health Education secondary-aged pupils will be taught about the similarities and differences between the online world and the physical world. This will include content on the impact of unhealthy or obsessive comparison with others online, including through setting unrealistic expectations for body image, how people may curate a specific image of their life online, how information is targeted at them and how to be a discerning consumer of information online. We will work with the Department for Education on what more can be done to address the harms caused by poor body image amongst children and young people. Additionally, pupils will also be taught how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns, including common types of mental ill health (e.g. anxiety and depression). These subjects will also support pupils by promoting pupils’ self-control and ability to self-regulate, as well as strategies for doing so.
Public Health England (PHE) has developed statutory guidance for RSHE including a lesson plan on ‘Body image in a digital world and how to minimise stress that arises from negative body image’.
52.Multiple organisations including YoungMinds informed us that the Government must focus on promoting evidence-based body image interventions and include them in the curriculum for primary and secondary schools to promote positive body image, reduce unhealthy weight control behaviours and better mental health more broadly. The Children’s Society also advocate for a ‘A Whole School Approach’ to mental health and wellbeing including body image and encourage schools in delivering the new RSHE and Health Education Curriculum to explicitly address body image concerns and gender stereotypes.
53.AnyBody informed us that a further way to encourage positive body image for young people in schools would be to increase the diversity of marginalised populations in children’s literature and media including ‘fat bodies, Black and Brown bodies, queer bodies, non-binary and trans bodies’. Young people with lived experience of negative body image told us that they received no support from school when they experience body image issues despite their negative feelings about their appearance arising in a school environment.
54.Currently, the Government mandates PHE and local authorities to deliver the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) which weighs children in Reception (aged 4–5) and in Year 6 (aged 10–11) to assess how many primary school-aged children are overweight or obese.
55.Beat informed us that this programme focuses on weight, not health, and can lead to poor body image and is a risk to children who may become vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Our survey garnered anecdotal evidence from some people that being weighed at school had kickstarted their body image concerns. AnyBody told us as part of their #PlayNotWeigh campaign, they alerted parents that they could opt out of the scheme as 77% of parents responded that they felt the current system of weighing and measuring children in school had not been helpful to them or their child. 26% of parents felt that the NCMP had a negative impact on them or their child. AnyBody also wrote to the Committee that children in a higher-weight category are 63% more likely to experience bullying and that:
Black children are more likely to be placed in the “very overweight” and “obese” weight categories due to the racially-biased method of calculating BMI. Adjustments for Black children are not used, despite the research available, which not only invalidates child-weight data in areas that are ethnically diverse but increases the risk of weight stigma, bullying, and negative body image for Black children.
56.The Committee questioned the Government on the NCMP and whether there had been any consideration on the mental health impacts of this programme on children and their body image. Minister Dorries informed us there has been no assessment of this programme on the mental health and developing body image of children and that:
We are aware that it is not a wholly or 100% positive thing to do, but we are also aware that it is a bit of a tricky one, because we need the data to develop obesity strategies and policies to deal with obesity, and we need to know what is coming down the line to us. If we are weighing children at the beginning of school and weighing them at the end, we know what percentage are obese. We need to know that to develop our policies.
57.Whilst there has been no assessment of the mental health impacts of this programme, academics stated that clinicians consider being weighed in front of people or making a child’s family aware they need to lose weight or have a high BMI as a trigger for eating disorders. They further stated that any campaign or strategy focusing solely on weight has a very strong risk of perpetuating weight-based stereotypes and discrimination and bullying which in turn gets internalised and results in poorer body image. Academics also voiced their concerns around children being weighed in a school setting and the discussions that follow puts the focus on weight as the sole indicator of health. This can be damaging and therefore they asked what resources and messaging are delivered to a child and their family if their BMI is ‘high’ in order to support them to develop healthy behaviours and a positive body image.
58.Encouraging positive body image during childhood and adolescence must be a priority. We commend the Government for introducing body image into the RSHE curriculum last year and hope this creates an opportunity for schools to address the concerns young people have about their body image. We recommend that the Department for Education regularly reviews the new RSHE curriculum to ensure that it is having a positive impact on wellbeing and decreases levels of body dissatisfaction. Additionally, the Department for Education should explore other policy initiatives to encourage schools to take a ‘whole school approach’ to encouraging positive body image.
59.Weighing children in primary schools under the National Child Measurement Programme is likely to cause harm to children’s mental health and could hinder the development of a positive body image. This is particularly damaging for Black children who are more likely to be incorrectly placed in the overweight or obese categories. We recommend that the Government urgently reviews the National Child Measurement Programme to ensure it is not creating undue body image pressures in children. The Government should urgently assess the need for the programme and seek other ways to collect this data.
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