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Reading, writing andů body image?

By Michelle Osmond

Dr. LeAnne Petherick is determined to make kids feel good about themselves. In fact, most of her research focuses on how to help them see themselves in a more positive light – something she feels very passionate about.

And if the statistics are right, she’s facing an uphill battle. According to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador residents have the lowest level of physical activity and research suggests that low self-esteem is related to less physical activity and increases the incidence of eating disorders.

Body image dissatisfaction begins at a young age with 50 per cent of nine year old girls and 80 per cent of 10 to 11 year old girls reporting instances of dieting, noted Dr. Petherick. Many young males also begin dieting and exercising to change their body size and shape.

“Connecting health with appearance can have negative consequences and lead to several destructive practices contributing further to people’s anxieties about their body,” she explained. With the conviction that early intervention is vital to creating positive attitudes and shifting our cultural obsession with body image, this is a challenge that Dr. Petherick has gladly taken on.

Dr. Petherick, an assistant professor with the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, is a member of the Body Image Network (BIN), a provincial group made up of counsellors, psychologists, nurses, dietitians, teachers, social workers, doctors, academics, researchers, activists, and graduate students. By sharing knowledge about body image, self-esteem, physical competencies, disordered eating, obesity and fat bias, the BIN advocates for social change around how people see bodies and develop obsessive anxieties related to their bodies.

Back in March, the BIN distributed a curriculum resource to every elementary school in the province. Supported by the Department of Education and meeting cross-curricular outcomes for grades two and four, the resource includes posters that show local children having fun on a beach – Every Body is Different; Be Friends with Everybody, a children’s book promoting healthy living and respect for body diversity; activity ideas that educate youth about body differences and healthy living; pamphlets for parents; and a section designed to end body-based harassment by changing the broader school culture.

Now, with a grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Dr. Petherick and co-investigator Dr. Natalie Beausoleil from the Faculty of Medicine are conducting a pilot project (officially titled Promoting Canada's Vitality Message: Implementation and Evaluation of a School-based Body Image Resource) with four urban and rural schools to facilitate teachers’ use of the resource, and extra-curricular activities to address shifting school culture. They’re also evaluating information from several students and teachers who have worked closely with the resource. Early results suggest the resource would be excellent to use at the beginning of the school year to help develop a supportive and inclusive school climate.

The two are also following up with a few schools to find out what’s happened to the toolkit since March.

“So often resources are developed but the delivery is key and if the resource does not reach the appropriate school person, or if teachers and guidance counsellors are unaware of the resource, then we need to do a better job with dissemination. Communication is key,” explained Dr. Petherick.

You GO… Girl!

Statistics show that Canadian children don’t meet the necessary level of physical activity to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke and Newfoundland and Labrador children take fewer steps per day than other kids in Canada. To make matters worse, girls have 12 per cent lower rates of physical activity per day than boys.

According to Dr. LeAnne Petherick, an assistant professor with the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, providing more opportunities for physical activity is crucial for improving participation. However, research suggests that girls and women face a lot of barriers that impede their access to and participation in physical activity and sport.

“For example,” noted Dr. Petherick, “research from the Canadian Association of the Advancement of Women and Sport, indicates that girls under-value and underestimate what they’re capable of, and that’s only one factor of many that can lead to low physical activity levels.”

So, Dr. Petherick wants to find out how girls in a rural community in particular experience and understand health and healthy practices in physical activity and health-based programs with a three phase project. Phase one focuses on the You GO…Girl! Program currently offered in Stephenville Crossing.

“A lot of research focuses on the importance of health-promotion, but few studies examine the ways in which young people, and especially girls, make sense of, and incorporate healthy living into their daily lives,” said Dr. Petherick. “And given the population of Stephenville Crossing, the project fills physical activity research gaps by including three key groups: women and girls, rural populations and possibly aboriginal girls.

“Looking at how young girls develop a sense of identity is important for the development of provincial programs designed to promote healthy messages targeting girls and women and because the aim of this project is to listen to young people, I’m hoping the project will provide a voice to rural youth in this province.”

– Michelle Osmond