by Jenna Frosch
Physical education professor helping girls develop positive body image
Studies on self-perception and views on body image have led a New Mexico State University physical education professor to find ways to help middle school aged girls combat negative body image through education.
Kim Oliver, associate professor in the physical education, recreation and dance department, said teachers can use a variety of strategies to help girls view their bodies differently by engaging their interest in their own bodies as a starting point. She said listening to what girls have to say and using strategic questioning helps educators understand and then challenge girls’ thinking about their bodies. Oliver said it is also important for teachers to create a safe place for the girls to share their feelings, such as in small groups or in a journal, and encourage girls to look forward to things getting better.
Oliver has focused her career on studying how girls perceive their bodies and how teachers can help make those perceptions positive ones. Although Oliver said it is hard to generalize how girls create specific perceptions of themselves and their bodies, one of the main factors that affects the way girls perceive themselves is their relationships with others.
“Girls want to be noticed, accepted and included by others,” Oliver said. “The bottom line is they want to be in relationships with other people and their image of themselves comes from what other people say and do.”
Oliver’s research on the topic has included: what girls perceive as “fashionable” images; the body as curriculum; and physical education classes as a function of educating girls about their bodies. She became interested in the topic of body image after working as a physical education teacher in Kindergarten through 12th grade and instructing aerobics/fitness classes in college. Oliver wanted to find out how girls learn about their bodies and how they form perceptions about their bodies that carry on throughout their lives. She thought the best place to see change would be at an earlier age.
“I wanted to find a way to work with girls that was helpful rather than harmful,” Oliver said. “I want young girls to grow up not hating their bodies and not doing destructive things to themselves in hopes of looking better.”
Oliver has used her research to do just that. In one study, Oliver looked at girls in an inner city middle school in the southeast part of the country. The purpose of the study was to find out how young girls develop their views about their bodies. Oliver studied the stories the girls told about their bodies and how their “stories, cultural storylines and images of women could empower and disempower girls in the process of becoming healthy women.” Oliver found that through fashion, the girls were learning to desire and create a normalized image of a perfect woman.
This study showed Oliver how these girls perceived themselves based on fashion. For example, the girls were using fashion to determine whether they “looked right” and were “normal.” This included having the “right hair, right shoes, right clothes,” and the “right body shape” or a “feminine look.”
For these girls, the body was a means through which they attracted the attention of boys and established relationships with boys and girls at their school.
“Specifically, the girls used beauty as a means of ‘being noticed’ by boys and accepted by girls,” Oliver said. “The girls would try to control and manipulate their bodies in order to ‘look better.’”
In another study, Oliver looked at curricula in adolescent physical education classes and how educators use what they teach to shape girls’ perceptions of themselves. According to the study, physical education teachers often present information about being fat as “morally wrong” or about the body as an object. In addition, girls are often presented with material and photos that include unrealistic body types. Oliver said education needs to help girls perceive their body in a more realistic way, using realistic body images and treating health on an individual basis.
With her findings from her research projects, Oliver hopes to further help educators and researchers better understand what adolescent girls are thinking and help create an environment that can meet their needs.
“In schools, teachers need to understand how girls perceive themselves and then act on that understanding by finding ways to work with girls to help improve how they feel about their bodies,” Oliver said. “Schools and teachers help to perpetuate the attitudes about body image, so they could have a major impact in reversing the negative connotations of that.”
Oliver is currently working with fifthgrade girls in three local elementary schools. She is trying to understand the types of barriers girls experience with respect to physical activity; for example, people or places that prevent girls from engaging in physical activity. Once those barriers are identified, Oliver wants to find ways of working with the girls to help them learn how to negotiate the barriers so that they may have more opportunities to become or stay physically active.