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Teaching Tolerance - sort of.

Teaching Tolerance is a Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is aimed at primary and secondary teachers and includes a magazine, professional development materials for teachers, classroom activities, and a teaching kit. What a great way to spread the message of civil rights and gender equality to the nation's teachers and to the upcoming generation!

The newest issue of Teaching Tolerance concentrates on an issue close to the hearts of many fat people, especially those of us who have fat children or were fat as kids: physical education. Game Changers focuses on a gym teacher who does many of the things that have been suggested and endorsed when we in the fat acceptance community have discussed our experiences with school gym classes.

Dorr taught Tim’s class five days a week, including 20 minutes in the classroom teaching about the connections between health, fitness and diet. Tim dressed every day and joined his classmates in compiling their personal fitness data. He took part in class: aerobic exercise, strength building, skill development and playing cooperative instead of competitive games.

Tim measured his progress using charts, graphs and a journal. He also noticed how supportive his teacher and classmates were of him and each other. Kids would finish their laps, then circle back and walk alongside him. They cheered when a classmate graduated from one push-up to five. “There’s only one way kids can get in serious trouble in my class,” Dorr says. “Only if they’re unkind.”

Fair enough. Kindness is good, and maybe Tim is tracking progress in his running times, the number of sit-ups he can do, and the weight he can lift.

Unfortunately, no.

This article features a Weight Loss Fairy Tale™.

The sophomore shed 45 pounds during the semester.
“One day, I heard screaming from the other side of the gym,” Dorr recalls. “And there’s Tim with his arms above his head. He was shouting and the other kids were clapping and cheering. He had just taken his body weight and fat index and had reached his personal goal.”

...and then it goes into the gym teacher's other job as a weight loss coach.

Now, many people do lose some weight when they become more active. But, the main benefits of being active do not necessarily include weight loss. Being stronger, more coordinated, having more stamina, being more physically confident and competent; those things are immensely valuable in and of themselves.

This Weight Loss Fairy Tale™ bothers me for two reasons.

First, I am sick of physical fitness - and especially physical fitness being taught competently in the schools - being treated as if it's about weight loss. Even fat kids who never get thin deserve to learn how to use their bodies effectively - not to mention kids with disabilities and kids with no interest in sports. They all deserve a physical education course that actually teaches them useful things.

Second, it just doesn't ring true. I find it doubtful that the anyone would lose 45 pounds because of a semester of gym class, and also it's really hard for me to imagine a teenager who showed a defiant attitude at the beginning subsequently making his weight into a public spectacle. As someone who was a fat teenager, I can say very confidently that having my weight made public in this type of gym class would have been at least as humiliating as being one of the last chosen for teams in a traditional class. In fact, it's hard to overstate the lengths I would have gone to in order to avoid being forced into a gym class that resembles a public Weight Watchers meeting with an audience of thin peers.

Many of the things that are discussed in this article have come up over and over again in discussions of school gym classes in fat acceptance circles. The importance of non-competitive activities and a supportive atmosphere. Teaching all the students how to stay healthy and active throughout their lives rather than concentrating on competitive sports and the kids who excel at them. But, the most important part of the Perfect Gym Class is tolerance, and the foundation of that tolerance is acknowledging that different children have different types of bodies, different talents and different interests. This type of class should not be aimed at trying to make all the students fit the same mould. Success should be measured in physiological knowledge and physical performance and improvement, not in pounds. The main difference between this gym teacher and your standard hard-assed sports coach is that she's patronising and focused on weight loss rather than demanding and focused on tangible accomplishments. That is not an improvement.

How could a magazine called "Teaching Tolerance" get it so wrong?

UK Government Policy encourages dieting, could be worse | It's Love Your Body Day!

vesta44's picture
October 17th, 2011 | Link | Because tolerance is fine

Because tolerance is fine for everyone except fat people, that's how they got it so wrong. They've swallowed the "thin=healthy" idea - hook, line, and sinker. It's not good enough that fat kids might actually enjoy a non-competitive gym class, learn how to move their bodies in ways they like and will continue to do for the rest of their lives, and learn about nutritious eating habits - no, they also have to reach a "goal" and that "goal" has to be a thinner body, because more stamina, more strength, improved cardio-vascular numbers, and all-around better health just isn't going to mean anything if they aren't thin. They won't really be "healthy" until they're thinner, so all the other improvements those kids are making don't mean a thing to the powers that be.
And yeah, as bad as my gym classes were in high school, at least the gym teacher wasn't focusing on weight loss - she was focused on everyone being an expert at whatever sport we happened to be playing at the time, or whatever activity she decided she was going to torture us with that quarter (folk dancing, obstacle course, tumbling/gymnastics were her favorite tortures for those of us who weren't coordinated/were fat/weren't athletic).

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

DeeLeigh's picture
October 17th, 2011 | Link | You know, I fully

You know, I fully participated in the required, traditional school gym classes as a fat kid. I didn't like them, but I did my best. And, except for pull-ups and long distance running, I was okay at everything. I could sprint at a speed that kept me in the main group. I could run 600 yards without stopping, so the laps around the gym at the beginning of class weren't a problem. I could hit, kick and throw balls with average force and accuracy. I could even do cartwheels. Except for the hated mile run (which I would cut class for), the only things I didn't like about gym were the public showers, being one of the last picked for teams, the too-tight XL uniform (the size I should have worn wasn't available), and being treated like I was invisible during games.

I was painfully aware of my size in gym class, but nobody was rude enough to mention it directly. It wasn't nice and it wasn't my favorite part of the day, but if there had been any sort of focus on weight, it would have been a hundred times worse than it was. I would probably never have showed up for it. And the infuriating thing is, I would have enjoyed an emphasis on teaching and non-competitive activities, but the weight focus in the class discussed in the article would have cancelled out all of the positive aspects for me.

Also, there's nothing wrong with competitive games, as long as people respect each other and aren't focused on winning at all costs. As a teenager, I was motivated by competition. My competitive nature was a big reason why I never gave up on myself, physically. I'm trying to figure out how to explain this... if people had known just how much heavier than average I was (approx. 190 pounds at 5'-4"), then they would have respected me even less than they did. As it was, I was judged partly on how I looked and partly on what I could do - and I could do more than anyone would have expected from a kid who could be labelled as "obese." If I'd been publicly saddled with that label or even if the teachers had been aware that it applied to me, then expectations would have been lowered and I wouldn't have tried so hard to be as good as the rest of them.

Bree's picture
October 17th, 2011 | Link | With all the money and

With all the money and praise that is thrown at schools these days for a health curriculum that is focused on weight loss rather than improved nutrition and exercise for physical movement alone, I'm not surprised. It's not enough that students eat healthier and move more, they must get thin while doing it or it will appear as a failure on their part.

But yes, there are so many ways gym class can be improved. More individualized activities, a variety of sports besides running and gymnastics and ballgames, and getting rid of the Presidental Fitness Challenge which involves measuring body fat are good ways to start. You would think for all the pride schools have about embracing modern technology, they would stop teaching gym class like it was the 1950's.

DeeLeigh's picture
October 18th, 2011 | Link | Does the Presidental Fitness

Does the Presidental Fitness Challenge include body fat measurements now? It didn't when I was in school. However, I believe it was the reason for the dreaded chin ups and mile run.

What do you think about that? I guess body fat % is a better fitness metric than weight or BMI, but that kind of school record keeping sort of squicks me out. Plus, it's just another thing that naturally varies among people and that they don't have 100% control over and might also legitimately not give a shit about.

richie79's picture
October 18th, 2011 | Link | and the SPLC and the SPLC have had a few BFB mentions in the past. Like the UK's BEAT before it, their site used to contain some really good resources about stigmatisation of fat children, weight diversity and so on. I checked back recently looking to link to them and it seems most have been taken down, with the remaining more recent stuff parroting the 'obesity-booga-booga' message or providing the peanut gallery commentariat with a platform for their Otherising and parent-shaming. So apparently teaching tolerance of 'obesity', the current progressive cause celebre, is no longer The Done Thing. What a crying shame to see another FA ally gone. As Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver continue to attract millions of followers by framing the witch-hunt in militaristic terms of a 'with us or against us' dichotomy, I fear we're very soon going to run out of friends.

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right" - Albert Einstein

Viola's picture
October 18th, 2011 | Link | I don't remember a mile run

I don't remember a mile run when I was in school. We had sit-ups, flexed arm hang, push ups, 50 yd dash, 100 yd dash, 800 yard dash (which I hated because I always had to walk at some point, and then the teacher would yell). I forget what else. There were two different awards, Presidential and AAHPER, and I remember so wanting to get one of these awards, but I couldn't do a flexed arm hang, so I knew it was pointless.

In any event, somewhat related to this topic is a photo I saw today on facebook, about tolerance, with paperdoll cutouts in all different colors, including a rainbow colored one with the title God Loves Everbody whether you like it or not. And then a bunch of different religious symbols. But it was posted by someone from the Biggest Loser.

DeeLeigh's picture
October 19th, 2011 | Link | But it was posted by someone

But it was posted by someone from the Biggest Loser.
You know, when the well-meaning weight loss folks co-opt parts of our message it's a bit annoying, but I'm sure they're sincere and really do think that weight loss dieting is compatible with "love your body" and social justice messages. When the Biggest Loser - which is all about publicly humiliating fat folks and treating weight loss like a circus act - does it, it makes me want to hurl.

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