author – activist – faculty – mom
Last week, Pacific Standard reported that “School-based nutrition and BMI screenings are meant to improve the health of students, but emerging evidence shows that, not only aren’t they helping, they also appear to be triggering deadly eating disorders in children.” The article tells the story of a sixth grade girl “in gym class [w]ith everyone watching, each student was called to the front of the class to be weighed and measured, after which the gym teacher calculated their BMI and announced it to all.” For this average sized girl, this public reckoning of weight triggered a life-threatening eating disorder. The article discusses how these anti-obesity programs contribute to “eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder….About one-third of sufferers remain chronically ill, and up to 20 percent of these will die from their illness, most likely from cardiac arrest or suicide.” This ongoing conflation of thin with healthy and fat with unhealthy is literally killing us. But, given the school context, this latest outrage is reminiscent of two different strategies in the past that have been implemented in school: Drug Education and Sex Education.
The national DARE program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, brought police officers into 5th grade classes and got students to pledge never to use drugs. Studies showed that these programs had absolutely no effect in reducing drug use. According to DARE, 75 percent of US school districts have taught their curriculum, although they lost federal funding in 1998 due to its proven ineffectiveness.
Recently, President Obama’s 2017 budget proposes to cut all funding for abstinence-only sex education. Studies have show that this type of education has little or no effect on reducing sexual activity in young people. However, it does have the effect of instilling conservative Christian moral values about sexuality, which is the program’s real agenda.
There are many types and practices of Christianity. Protestant, Catholic, fundamentalist, mystical, feminist, queer—an infinite variety of expressions of spirituality in the Christian tradition. However, our nation was founded by Puritan Protestants, and from the Salem witch trials to today, US culture still bears the imprint of those particular Christian values. Sex, drug use, and eating are all complex parts of the human experience with risks but also with potential for pleasure and connection. Sex and eating are necessary for human survival. Drug use came along much later, but between the crushing of grapes and the use of different psychoactive substances found in nature, drug use exists in all human cultures. Yet conservative US Christianity sees these activities through the lens of the Seven Deadly Sins, particularly “lust” and “gluttony.” The natural human pleasure in these activities is considered sinful by a culture that sees the body as inherently evil and any pleasure in the body as shameful. When it comes to school programs, the justification for the repressive approach is never explicitly anti-pleasure, but rather cloaked in for-their-own-good rhetoric. Drug overdoses, teen pregnancy, HIV rates, or childhood diabetes are used as the justification for implementing programs that communicate values of shame and danger, programs that don’t have any effect on the real problems that they ostensibly aim to solve. Many young people learn to be ashamed of themselves and may work for much of their adult lives to regain a healthy relationship with their bodies. As Anna March said at a writing about sex panel at NYC’s BinderCon, “let’s kill that motherfucking shame.”
Certainly, unplanned pregnancies, HIV, diabetes, and drug-related harms are real dangers, but there’s one deadly sin that this US brand of Christianity openly tolerates in late-stage capitalism, and that is greed. In each of these areas, corporate culture is currently making mega profits. Big pharma sells the notion that there’s a drug for every physical or emotional discomfort we’ve ever had, and advertising will create discomfort where there wasn’t any, just to sell us a drug to fix it. (Thinning eyelashes? Use Latisse). Food corporations have created an overwhelmingly addictive, synthetic food supply that is biologically unrecongnizable and dangerous to our health. Such food has a monopoly in many primary, secondary, and higher educational settings. Meanwhile, the diet industry is guaranteed its multi-billion dollar mega profits by selling products that are guaranteed to fail, and then blaming the consumer who will keep coming back. Meanwhile, corporations create a sex-saturated society, using sexual imagery (particularly women’s bodies) to sell absolutely everything. Where are the school programs to teach children to just say no to economic exploitation? But US Christianity has become deeply complicit in the deadly sin of greed, so greed functions in the blind spot. Corporations exploit the natural human desire for pleasure and connection, while the school-based programs offer no anti-corporate analysis or media literacy. Instead they teach shame and danger connected to pleasure and connection. And then we further shame the teens for being “confused.” Maybe it’s “hormones.”
So these programs not only teach underlying values of shame connected to pleasure, the body, and connection, but their misinformation is also dangerous. Just like how the BMI weigh-ins contributed to fatal eating disorders in young people, drug and sex education have had negative, even fatal effects, as well.
When I worked as a drug educator in the 90s, my students said that DARE was such a joke that the DARE T-shirt was the typical uniform of drug dealers in their community. Lack of reality-based drug education left students on their own to learn about drugs by trial and error with their own bodies. I attended a training in the 90s with Edith Springer, a Harm Reduction educator. She told the story of a young woman during the Reefer Madness era who was told that marijuana was incredibly addictive, that it would ruin her life. When she used it and it had none of those effects, she became curious about heroin. She disregarded the warnings she’d gotten about heroin, because the information about marijuana had been so unreliable. As it turned out, she did become addicted to heroin and ended up in prison. Many people have overdosed and died due to lack of reliable drug information. Drug education could be a wonderful opportunity to help young people to explore how they feel, how they would like to feel, and what their various options are for addressing their feelings. It could be a critical thinking lesson on how to make decisions, weighing costs and benefits. All that is lost when viewed through the moral lens of abstinence only.
Drugs are complex. They relieve pain and create pleasure. They also create harm in peoples’ bodies and can contribute to harmful situations. Similarly, sex can be pleasurable, but sex can also lead to pregnancy, STIs, heartbreak, disappointment or other harms. Sexual abstinence-only education leaves young people without tools or information to navigate sex, leaving them vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies, STIs and, in the era before there was widespread treatment for HIV/AIDS, that was certainly a death sentence. In our male dominated society, sexual situations for young people can lead to sexual violence, slut-bashing, and internet bullying. The dangers are real, so the education should be real, as well. Including the fact that sexuality is a normal part of the human experience that has no inherent relationship to marriage or heterosexuality. Sex education can be a wonderful opportunity to torpedo shame and give young people a strong base for navigating the lifelong challenges of sex and connection.
Similarly, health education around eating and the body could be a wonderful opportunity to communicate the truth about bodies. All bodies are different. Some people are fat. Being fat is not a disease or a problem. Our fatphobic culture is an anomaly. Fat bodies are seen as beautiful in many cultures and have been seen as desirable in the US in the past. I have recently been reading two wonderful books on this topic, the novel Dietland, by Sarai Walker and the essay collection Hot and Heavy edited by Virgie Tovar. These and other fat liberation writings explode these myths about our bodies. Being fat is not an inherent health problem or even a risk. Any studies linking fat and health problems in our society are suspect because they generally don’t take into account the impact of fatphobia. Most fat people in the US are subject to ridicule, bullying, and stigma. Fat children are often put on diets that interfere with their biological development and create emotional trauma. Fat people are told to exercise, but have a hard time finding exercise clothes, contexts that are competent for their bodies, and are frequently shamed when exercising in public. Most fat people have dieted in unhealthy ways and this has lead to rebounding weight gain and serious health problems. Some body-acceptance activists believe that the problems associated with fat people may actually be a result of internalized fatphobia and chronic dieting. Studies of people in cultures where fat is the norm don’t have these problems. I wish they taught that in schools.
Above all, I wish our culture’s corporate greed and cover Christianity weren’t conspiring to make our young people simultaneously obsessed and ashamed, and setting them up for some of the biggest risk factors in our society: stigma, shame and self-hatred.