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It is not unusual for school districts to make headlines in the news because of the actions of a small group of people. Tremper High School in Kenosha is the latest school district to make the headlines and nightly news due to inappropriate awards given out at the annual cheerleading awards banquet in March 2018.

The shame that surrounds being called out because of a body type can do damage that lasts a lifetime. Everyone laughs, even the person that is being called out, but inside they may be ashamed, humiliated and embarrassed. Whenever someone is called names and shamed because of their body, it can cause long-term emotional pain.

Let’s face it. Most of us do not have runway worthy bodies. The old adage, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me” is false. The truth is “Sticks and stone will break my bones, and names will break my heart.” Once broken, it is so hard to put back together again.

Unfortunately, girls and women have been the subject of body shaming for years. It has become a part of our culture. The pressure to fit into what is acceptable and what is not has taken over our culture. Just pick up any magazine or look at the people we idolize.

According to Brené Brown, professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and author of “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t),” research surveys have shown that:

  • Approximately, 7 million American girls and women suffer from eating disorders.
  • Eating disorders are the third most common illness among females.
  • Approximately 81 percent of 10-year-old girls have already dieted at least once.
  • The single largest group of high school students considering or attempting suicide are girls who feel they are overweight.
  • There has been a 465 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic surgeries since 1997.
  • The beauty, diet, cosmetic surgery business is collectively, a $141 billion industry.

This incident is not exclusive to Tremper High School or Kenosha. It can happen in any community, any school and any home. These are learned behaviors that are imbedded in our culture. When something like happens, everyone should take notice, and educate staff, students, employees and family about the damage of body shaming, name-calling, stereotyping and labeling.

Rather than placing judgement and shame on the school or community, we should all be part of the solution. We can all look honestly at our own attitudes and behavior. What can I do to build up our youth? Schools? Communities? Do I participate in name-calling, body shaming, stereotyping or labeling people in my family, co-workers or in my community? What can I do to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem?

One way we can all help to change the culture is to practice empathy. I say practice, because it can be hard work. It takes more than words, it takes action. When we look at a situation through another person’s perspective, how they see and feel about something, we have a better understanding of how our actions can hurt or help someone. By reflecting on our own experience and how we would feel, we may be better able to connect with others. How would I feel if I was a parent of the cheerleader receiving the award? How do you think the parents felt?

Have I ever been shamed or made fun of because of my body? How did that make me feel? How might the young woman receiving the award feel? Think of someone you know that has been called names, labeled or put into a box because of stereotyping? How do you think they feel? When we think of how negative actions affect other people, we can then decide on what we can do to be a part of the solution. We can stand up others, support them, listen to their story, be their friend and practice inclusion.

Many schools have been in the media for inappropriate actions. Any school can be the next big news story. The schools and coaches should not be shamed. This is the time to teach and be example for the change we want to see. As a former coach of a high school Pom Squad, I would guess that awards were also given out for cheerleading ability and leadership. Expand on that.

Encourage their best. Now is not the time to take away awards. Set boundaries. Teach. That is our job.

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Sue Hollow is the co-founder of Peace Learning Circles and a former high school Pom Squad Coach.

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