You may have seen the viral Facebook post by now. After her daughter’s middle school sent a memo about body image — which included an offer to provide shapewear to students — Ashley Heun penned the post and prompted a larger conversation about body image pressures on teens and tweens.
On Tuesday, Heun said, her 13-year-old daughter Caroline handed her the memo. It was titled, “Why Do Girls Suffer from Body Image?” and sent by counselors at Southaven Middle School in Southaven, Miss.
At first, Heun appreciated the note, she said. It begins, “Girls with a positive body image are more likely to have good physical and mental health. Girls with negative thoughts and feelings about their bodies are more likely to develop certain mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and depression.”
But as she read further, she said she was “blown away.”
“We can take steps to help our girls develop a healthier body image,” the letter continued. “We, the counselors of Southaven Middle School, would like to have an opportunity to offer some healthy literature to your daughter on maintaining a positive body image. We are also providing girls with shapewear, bras, and other health products if applicable.”
The suggestion of shapewear for middle school students — including asking parents to indicate what size their daughters would wear — shocked Heun.
“I just kept thinking I have to be reading something incorrectly. This cannot be saying what I think it’s saying,” the 45-year-old stay-at-home mom said.
Heun’s ensuing Facebook post was born out of anger, she said; she wanted to alert other parents in the community about the issue, and followed up with an email to the school’s principal. “How, in the hell, are you promoting a positive body image by saying ‘here, you’re too fat. You need shapewear to make you look thinner,’” she wrote in the post.
On Wednesday morning, Heun said she met with the school’s principal, who said the program had been canceled, but that the counselors had the best intentions — and that the items, including bras, shapewear and shoes, had been donated.
“There are so many girls, especially in middle school, that either aren’t comfortable asking their parents for bras, or maybe they can’t afford it. I fully support the school having those things available to the students. It’s an absolutely wonderful thing,” Heun added. “I just kind of went off the rails when it mentioned shapewear, and I don’t know who would donate shapewear to a middle school.”
Southaven Middle School did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Lauren Margeson, DeSoto County School’s executive administrative assistant to the superintendent.
In a statement to CNN, Margeson wrote, “The district has been made aware of the parental permission form sent to parents by Southaven Middle School. District officials understand how this type of information causes serious concern from parents.”
Heun says she supports the school and its staff, who have undergone stressful working conditions throughout the pandemic. But she hopes the incident offers an opportunity to have what she considers a much-needed conversation about body image.
“What should be put under a microscope is this message that we can so easily send to our girls and boys, without even realizing it, that your body is not good enough. You need to alter your body, you’re not the ideal,” she said.
Meanwhile, her post went viral, gaining views throughout the week. Although she’s a bit shy about how much it’s been read, Heun said, she hopes parents can check in with their kids about how they view themselves, especially given the marked lifestyle changes induced by the pandemic: “Maybe someone will read it and think, I should have a conversation with my daughter. Maybe I’m ready to talk with my daughter or my son and say, how do you feel about your body? What pressures are you feeling? And what message am I sending to you?”
Psychologists and body image experts agreed.
Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, points out that adolescence is a time of tremendous change, in which children can gain 40 pounds or grow eight to 10 inches between middle school and graduating from high school.
In past research into adolescent girls, she said, those who were able to set goals, be close to at least two other people and knew healthy ways to handle stress had better self-esteem.
“This is the kind of stuff we want to work on with girls,” Kearney-Cooke said.
Elizabeth Daniels, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said that to help kids combat body dissatisfaction, adults can prioritize being physically active, viewing oneself with self-compassion and teaching media literacy.
“Kids, including girls, who are physically active, tend to have more positive body attitudes and body image. That's not to say that every kid needs to be an athlete, but encouraging some level of physical activity tends to promote feelings of competence in the body, which is related to feeling more positively about the body,” she said.
That could mean taking a walk around the neighborhood to actually appreciate what our bodies can do — emphasizing function over size and looks, Daniels said. For a teenage girl who is struggling, you could acknowledge and validate her experience.
While walking or biking or whatever activity is accessible, Daniels recommends directing the conversations to a child’s strengths. “I also know that you’re really great at this subject in school,” or, “You’re really great at this dance or activity” are good starting points, she said; acknowledge there’s a lot more to them than how they look, or discuss how beauty is much more than just size by talking about the child’s sense of fashion, hairstyle or the colors she likes to wear.
Underscoring grace for oneself — pointing out that everyone struggles with body image, and that it’s a universal human experience — can also help, she added.
In cultivating media literacy, Daniels points out that understanding messaging and profit-related motivations around advertising can combat body dissatisfaction.
“This is a perfect opportunity to say, ‘Why is it that we overvalue appearance, in terms of girls and women? Why do we have all that cultural pressure? And what is a healthier way to think about appearance, and to promote other aspects of us as humans?’ Competence, intelligence, kindness, generosity, leadership, all those kinds of things,” Daniels said.
“This is an unfortunate incident for this particular school,” Daniels added. “But it allows us a chance to say, ‘Hey, what are the things that we should actually really focus on with kids and girls in particular, to de-emphasize this appearance pressure, and alleviate it?’ ”