Friday, November 20, 2015

Body Positivity Part 2: Interview with Kari-Lynn Winters

My last post was an interview with Nicole Winters regarding body positivity in her book THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK. Nicole put me in touch with Kari-Lynn Winters (no relation), who has studied body image among youth extensively. Kari-Lynn is here today to do a follow-up interview, answering many of the same questions given to Nicole.

First, a note from Kari-Lynn:

I implemented and took part in a SSHRC-funded research project about the arts and body image. It involved producing a play and drama-based workshops for children (grades 4-7) that toured to 8 schools in the Niagara region (780 students). Data were collected with videos, photos, interviews, focus groups, etc. This is what I will base my answers on.

How do we teach kids that fat shaming is just as terrible as other types of shaming?

Shaming in any form can have devastating effects—lowering self confidence, destroying friendships, as well as contributing to isolation, depression, anxiety, and (in some cases) suicides.

I would like to broaden this topic from fat shaming to body shaming. 

Body shaming (e.g., fat shaming, lanky shaming) has been a part of life for a long time. However, from my literacy and arts research and from other research studies, it has become clear to me that body shaming is very prevalent in today’s youth cultures. Even young children (grade 4), were hyper aware of their bodies and how they fit in with their peers. 93% of the children we worked with/interviewed (N=780) had some issue/s with their bodies. Some of the more common concerns children raised included: arm hair, sweating, weight, height, skin colour, scars, wearing glasses or braces, and complexions. Indeed much of their concerns stemmed from peer pressures and their feelings of “otherness”. Additionally, some of their fears came directly from the media. For example, it was surprising to hear 8-year-olds talking about thigh gaps. Regardless of the type of shaming, the children found themselves humiliated, ugly, and unappreciated. Often they spoke about wanting to hide or to get away. Indeed, like any kind of shaming, body shaming has profound negative affects on a person’s physical and psychological health. 

How do we teach kids to love the bodies that they’re in, even if they are fat, in spite of being fat, while striving to be healthy?

Instead of focusing on the negative affects of an unhealthy weight, it might be helpful to think about possibilities and perseverance. This youtube video constantly reminds me of the strength of humans:

In some cases people can transform themselves through proper nutrition and exercise. But more importantly, humans have incredible opportunities to re-story their identities. This means that rather than changing their bodies, why not encourage children to change their mindsets and begin to refute media messages. With the children I have worked with, I try to focus on difference and ability rather than “sameness” and shaming. For example, Howard Schatz’s photo of Olympic athletes 

demonstrates a diversity of bodies. I show this picture to children, and highlight different contexts. I might ask, “If you wanted to be a gymnast, what challenges would you face if you had a basketball player's body?” “Or oppositely, what opportunities might you be granted because of that body shape?” When you re-story an attitude about the body, you not only see another perspective, but you also re-shape your own identity. 

How can we change the mindset of passively fat shaming (ie doing things like commenting ‘oh you’d be beautiful if you’d lost a few pounds,” “you have such a pretty face,” and those “helpful” people that try to suggest that everything could be easily fixed through proper diet and exercise)?

Encourage youth to stand up for themselves and for others by refuting comments with different perspectives.
For example, if someone says, “You can’t fit into those boots because your calves are too big.” Encourage the victim to respond with a new point of view. “I like my strong legs. I earned these muscles from sprinting up stairs.” Youth can practice acting out scenarios like these with their friends.

People will always position others, just as they always have. The secret is to be prepared to re-position yourself within a context, changing the point of view and by the challenging stereotypical attitudes. 

Have you ever changed your opinion (from hate to love) on a physical feature of yours? (An example: When I realized my daughter had the same hair as me, it became an object of sentiment, rather than an object of annoyance.)

Yes. I used to hate my big teeth. I felt like they were too big for my mouth when I was a kid. Now though, I love my wide, grinny smile…it is one of my signature expressions. People comment on it often. 

How do you feel personal mindset affects the average North American teenager? Is this something that should be included in the public school system curriculum and/or taught at home?

Yes. Personal mindsets can and need to be observed and discussed in schooled settings (because that is where many mindsets are shaped).
One project that I did was to encourage students to pretend to be expert mannequin designers and to design the perfect body.

Then these perfect bodies could be critically discussed, including students’ values about bodies, why mannequins are often designed in certain ways and how these designs sell products for corporations, and eventually, how to change mindsets about body image.

Additional discussions can be encouraged at home.

If a child displays their guardian's ideas and judgments on body positivism, how, then, do we educate the adults of America to create a safe place for their kids to be themselves in the midst of social pressure to fit into specific body sizes/shapes?

This is why we need children’s literature (such as Nicole Winters’ book) on sensitive topics—places where youth can retreat, reform ideas, and build knowledge about different mindsets. I am grateful to these brave authors, creators, and publishers who take on these projects. 


Many thanks to Kari-Lynn for participating and adding so much useful information to the discussion! I really appreciate her perspective, and I'm glad to hear about the great work she's doing with kids.