Skip to content

Taking the Health At Every Size® Model to School–A Lesson in Patience* and Perseverance

by Dana Schuster, MS

(*Not my natural inclination)

I should start off by admitting that I have been described as suffering from “Pollyanna syndrome” along with a type-A personality driven by high expectations for both others and myself. According to my mother, I was born with a fierce determination and persistence, not to mention the tendency to quickly point out the “good” in any situation. You know, like when at age 2, you drop a full glass of milk all over the floor and immediately announce “aren’t you glad the glass didn’t break!” But as many of you know from personal experience, it is not a walk in the park to get even well-meaning adults off the battlefield and onto the peaceful path of weight neutrality that is the HAES® model.

Over the past seven years I have been involved with two school district Wellness Committees and a countywide task force on improving the nutrition and physical activity habits of youth. While most members of these groups focus on implementing strategies aimed at combating the “childhood obesity epidemic,” I am busy trying to embed a Health At Every Size® approach as broadly as possible into their thinking, their materials, and the services being developed for use in both school and community settings. During this time I have come to accept the three following baseline concepts:

  • One must develop “tactical spinning” skills.
  • Victory will be measured in child-sized steps.
  • Pit-bull tenacity, with teeth bearing only on select occasions, is a necessity.

Okay, so the pit-bull part comes pretty naturally to me, although minimizing the “showing of teeth” continues to be a challenge. My passion often gets the best of me, and while it serves well in some situations, it has also pushed some of my more conflict-avoidant colleagues to step back and hope that our paths didn’t cross too often. Despite this occasional outcome, employing the three concepts mentioned above has facilitated the infusion of the HAESSM perspective into the work being done.

For example, the original name of the county group I serve on was the Prevention of Childhood Obesity Task Force.  At the first meeting, and at every opportunity thereafter, I pointed out that framing our work in terms of obesity was a poor choice as it placed negative judgment on children whose bodies were of a certain size. I emphasized that the obesity focus caused stigmatization and might increase bullying, as well as ignoring the very real and significant health risks of eating disorders such as anorexia. Finally, I suggested that we wanted health supporting nutrition and regular fun physical activity for ALL children. It took two years of reminding people of these concerns, both individually and at every meeting, workshop, and committee I attended, before the name was changed to the Get Healthy San Mateo County Task Force.  This victory clearly employed both the concepts of tactical spinning and tenacity, and although it might have at least in part resulted because people were just totally tired of hearing me go on about this, I really don’t care. When I see the new name on websites, brochures, and announcements, and hear it verbalized in presentations, it is evident that this change is influencing how people are framing the programs under the task force umbrella.

Another example of how tactical spinning can be effective – if you are willing to measure success in child-size steps – occurred when an evaluation sub-committee I serve on was selecting the data sources for a report. Statistics noting the number of children with a BMI that placed them in the “at risk” or “overweight” categories were of course chosen, and it was clear that my colleagues were not going to abandon what they considered an important source of information. However, when I pointed out that if they insisted on using BMI measures and were really focused on health, then we had a responsibility to monitor the statistics for the low-end BMI numbers as well, since these suggested youth at risk for eating disorders.  While this did not get rid of the BMI as a marker, which would be the HAESSM goal, it does shift thinking to a more inclusive perspective, and has helped in a small way to mitigate the constant focus on obesity.

As I staff information tables at high school health fairs, help lead activities with elementary children at “Make Time for Fitness” events, and serve on committees that are crafting “interventions” to improve the nutrition and physical activity habits in schools, I have found the following can have a powerful impact:

  • Have a YAY! Scale (Marilyn Wann’s brilliant creation) with you and repeat whatever it says to the person on it with conviction and a smile.
  • Hand out “Power Thoughts for Teens” cards to middle and high school students.
  • Encourage youth to take care of their health because they are fabulous and deserving and not because there is anything wrong with them or the size/shape of their bodies.
  • Remind colleagues that eating disorders can be deadly and are inadvertently encouraged when getting rid of obesity is the focus.
  • Emphasize being inclusive and the importance of making sure thinner kids also have the information and opportunity to choose nutritious foods and engage in fun physical activity.
  • Gently educate others that giving the direct or indirect message that a certain size of body is unacceptable creates stigma and supports bullying.
  • Volunteer to take the notes, help write the policy draft, assemble the materials for the health-fair table, select the physical activity to be taught, or serve on that extra committee whenever possible, and you will find you have an opportunity to shape or frame things right from the beginning.

Some days my energy lags, my sanity points dip down into the dangerously low zone, or one more horrible obesity intervention rears its ugly head, and I wonder if I am engaged in a losing effort. And then I remember the look on the fat girl’s face when I cheer on her hula hoop efforts, or the words of the high school boy who steps on the YAY!Scale and announces he needs to do this every morning so he can carry the message with him all day. Then I know in some small way, the HAESSM message is seeping in to wreak powerful havoc in our weight-centered culture.

Pollydana the pit bull…I like the sound of that.

healthateverysizeblog note: Here are some resources that may be useful for anyone seeking to reframe “childhood obesity” issues as a concern for health for all children:

AED Guidelines for Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs

“A call to action: Reject labeling children & adolescents as obese.”

“Helping Without Harming – Kids, Eating, Weight and Health”

NAAFA Child Advocacy Toolkit

“What should we do about children and weight?”

Accessibility Toolbar