Roberto Germán 0:00
Welcome to our classroom. In this space, we talk about education, which is inclusive of but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host, Roberto Germán, and our classroom is officially in session. Hey, welcome back to another episode of our classroom. And today, we’re gonna be talking about body literacy with Cait O'Connor. Cait is a middle school language arts teacher, a mental health and disability advocate. In addition to that, Cait started the hashtag #DitchingDietCultureAtSchool movement, a digital library collection of curated resources for teachers, students and communities looking to learn more about how to dismantle diet culture and thin-centered ideals. This is gonna be a good one. Let’s go. I'm here with Cait O'Connor, and eager to jump into this topic here today. Thank you, Cait, for being here. It's my pleasure to have you. I am ready to learn in our classroom. And we're gonna be talking about body literacy. Yes, yes, indeed. But before we do, why don't we start by you telling me a little bit about your educational journey and the work you are currently engaged in?
Cait O'Connor 1:41
Thank you so much Roberto for having me by the way. Um, so I'm Cait O'Connor. I'm a middle school English teacher teaching in the eighth grade. I am the founder of Ditching Diet Culture at School, which is a Twitter hashtag turned virtual digital library, book chat and educational practice.
Roberto Germán 2:01
Dope dope, though, middle school mom. Yes, I used to lead a middle school, I was a principal. So I know what that life is like. And I was about that life and I'm still about that life in many ways. So salute to all the middle school teachers and salute to you for the work that you are doing. So, body literacy, what is it? Can you define some of the key terms and tell us why is this a relevant topic?
Cait O'Connor 2:30
So body literacy and the framework that I've built sort of around it, right? Body literacy is sort of just an awareness of the body and the physical self in relationship to specific spaces and conditions and creating space for critically questioning the systems that interact and intersect with body and body shame, and specifically centering around anti-fatness and weight stigma. This is a relevant topic, I would say. Because when we think about social justice, and frameworks and movements for creating more equitable spaces in general, but especially in education, right? The way that students bodies are policed, and the way that students bodies are sort of molt through an educational system is part of their education in and of itself, right? So one of the things that I say often is like, even especially with respect to size and size diversity, right? We don't consider, like, the physical space as being welcoming or unwelcoming when it comes to students of size, right?
So like, if a kid is in a classroom, and they are in a bigger body, and a larger body and a fat body, attached desks often send them a message right off the bat. Like, if you don't fit here, you don't fit in here, right? So the emotional weight that they, you know, for lack of a better phrase, have to carry as well, of like, my body doesn't even belong here. So how can my mind grow here too? Is part of that body literacy of just inviting students to learn not just with their mind, right? Because they bring their whole self to the classroom, and they bring their whole self to school. And if we fail to consider that from every aspect of identity, whether it's race, gender, class, you know, gender identity, sexuality orientation. But I think when it comes to size, we're talking a lot about health. And, you know, like, oh, well, we just want kids to be healthy. But like, what does that mean? Right? Because when we say that, and when we've said that, even the most progressive of us who have said that, we mean, a lot of the time, we want kids to be healthy, meaning we want kids to be thin, right? So we're already telling them who they are, especially if they don't come in the bodies that are prepackaged to be normal according to our society as a whole.
Roberto Germán 5:18
Hmm. That's a lot. That's a lot. There's a lot going on there. What are some common assumptions people make that reinforce body shaming?
Cait O'Connor 5:30
As, you know, something that I just mentioned, like, the idea that fat equals unhealthy, right? It equals less worthy, it equals the villain. Um, there have been studies done that teachers actually grade students they perceive to be higher weighed more harshly because they expect more from them and simultaneously expect more from them while also thinking that they're lazier and less intelligent, because the logic being right, like, if you were more intelligent, you'd take better care of yourself. But what is-- Again, what does that mean? That's the assumption that a person in a larger body doesn't know about nutrition or how to take care of themselves or their bodies because if they did, they wouldn't look that way, right? So the assumption is that health has an appearance. And that gets reinforced not only in, you know, health and physical education. Lots of people-- I'm an English teacher, I said, and a lot of people ask me like, well, you know, why aren't you a health teacher if you know all this stuff? And I constantly say, because it's integrated, right? Like, I can't just teach one subject and expect it to just translate into that silo.
Other assumptions that are made is, you know, like, even when we're drilling it into kids, right? Another study that was done in I think, 1999 or 1998, found that kids more between ages three and five, perceive fat characters as mean, as lazy, as the bully, right? So they're given negative traits associated with bigger bodies in their reading, in their literature, in their children's books right off the bat when they start their literacy processes. So we're translating those negative assumptions and conceptions to children. And they're being drilled into their heads, you know, through characters, through story, through narrative.
Roberto Germán 7:23
That's interesting. And I'd love to take a look at those studies at some point ‘cause yeah, I haven't. This is not a conversation that-- And maybe your perspective is different. But in terms of my experience, it's not a conversation that is really alive and active. At least I'm not hearing it. I'm not hearing a whole lot of folks talking about body literacy, and I’ve heard the term body shaming. But in terms of, you know, the whole scope of this topic, it seems like there's more room for a conversation. So tell me about hashtag #DitchingDietCultureAtSchool. What's the aim of this group? How does it define healthy eating? You just mentioned that term healthy and some folks using the term healthy as understanding it as skinny. So curious to know how this group, this movement, this hashtag movement, and I know, you know, you created a digital library space out of it. But you know, how does hashtag #DitchingDietCultureAtSchool define healthy eating?
Cait O'Connor 8:41
Yeah, I mean, it seeks to draw from frameworks that have existed for a long time. The Association for Size Diversity and Health or ASDAH does a lot of work with what's called Health at Every Size or HAES. And their argument and their real sticking point is that, like, every body is capable of health promoting behavior, right? So healthy relationships with food, with exercise, with life, with mental health are all super webbed and integrated, and they vary from person to person. And a lot of these ideas have shaped my own ideas about what healthy means, right? And all of these things explore those other determinants than just the physical body. So like, being body literate in the context of the framework that I've sort of developed and the ones that already exist sort of bridge together this idea that, like, we are holistically really complex people, and that kids and students are really complex people. And ditching diet culture at school sort of takes that into its own umbrella and sort of aims to encourage teachers to constantly check and look out for ways to combat, like, diet culture and the insidiousness of fat shaming and weight stigma in ways that show up in our classrooms.
Because inevitably, right, fat phobia as an inequality, as a piece of the puzzle of injustice, it's not-- You just-- You know, you just said, like, it's not a common conversation to be heard, but like, conversations exist that implicate fat phobia in other oppressions like anti-blackness, white supremacy, eugenics, Christian nationalism, right? There's history there that places thinness next to moral propriety, next to, you know, white supremacy, next to anti-blackness and eugenic ableism, right? So all of these things intersect to do harm to people who we've decided are throwaway people in our society, and it lives in our schools. So ditching diet culture at school draws from the frameworks that have been given to us by organizations past and present to really critically and historically unpack all of the ways that the body has carried shame. And that that shame and oppression has landed on the most marginalized among us.
Roberto Germán 11:31
Yeah, thanks for sharing that. You know, it makes me-- I'm thinking about not just my own kids, but kids that I've served while in various roles in schools, and, in particular, working in low income areas where access to healthier foods can sometimes be a challenge. And so, like, one of the things that has always hurt me is in certain areas, you'll find that the stores only have products that are loaded with tonnes of sugar, products that are loaded with artificial colors, tonnes of processed foods, and not enough foods that are providing what the kids need, right? Like real proteins and nutrients instead of like, all of these ingredients that, you know, are sometimes-- all of these ingredients that sometimes the terminologies that some of us can't even pronounce, which, you know, and I'm like, hey, you know, what is this exactly? But also ingredients that we know when we do the research are not healthy for you. And then thinking about it in terms, like, my people in communities that I come from, how it's impacted us as it relates to diabetes, high blood pressure, so on and so forth. So, you know, I'm still wondering in terms of like, what these frameworks suggest in relation to supporting students to be body literate, right, to increase their awareness, and supporting those working with the young people to not shame them, whether we're talking about educators or parents or folks in other roles. And to guide them, support them, to identifying, you know, foods that are better for the bodies.
Cait O'Connor 14:02
Right. And you know, so much of that, it's so funny, ‘cause at NCTE where we met, I presented on this and one of my friends who was in the session is an assistant principal, or he's a principal, and he said, “In three minutes flat, you got me to unban the cupcake at our school.” Right? Because so much of where we start with that is simple and not simple at the same time with like, unvillainizing the foods we've learned to call, like, bad, right? Because what we say about that, when we say that, is like, the cupcake is bad and therefore I am bad for eating it, right? And that goes back to the moral imperative of, like, the temperance movement, which was, you know, a largely Christian nationalist movement, and we have to interrogate the oregon or the origins of that, and really, like, look into like, why do I think this is bad? Is it bad for me? Or is it like I’m assigning a value to this thing instead of teaching myself that it's okay if my body needs this food right now and it's okay if I can, you know, learn how to balance my nutrition and my dieting and I don't mean restrictive dieting. I just mean the way that I eat, right?
Because we have kind of put ourselves in this chokehold, especially nationally of, like, being so bombarded by the diet industry. And it starts from, you know, not even just the classroom. We were talking about the classroom but, like, even in the faculty room. Like some of the most, like, rhetorically toxic places that I've seen this play out were among teacher to teacher interaction, right? Like somebody brings in leftover whatever from the weekend because they had a party with their family. And then somebody comes in and they're like, oh, my God, I hate this person. They just destroyed my diet. Like, I can't eat that. It's so bad or like, I'm gonna be so bad. I'm gonna take a cookie from the table and it's like, either enjoy the cookie or don't and, you know, stop making the people around you feel terrible for making a choice to or not either.
Because, you know, it's so many-- Like what you're saying when you say, like, oh, you know, whatever, that's fine if you wanna be that way. But for me, like, I couldn't have-- I wouldn't feel good about myself or I'm afraid of gaining weight. It's the same as saying, you know, oh, I can't hang out with this same gender friend on that weekend ‘cause I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm gay, right? Like you're assigning negative connotation to that identity. And therefore, sort of moralizing it for others around you.
And when kids hear that, we're modeling that being this thing is bad. Right? But in communities where we run into things like food insecurity, right? The narrative is often, oh, like, you know, people who live in poverty are fatter because they have less access to blah, blah, blah, because food deserts exist here. But we're not talking about all the other things that lead to what we would call obesogenic tendency, right? The fact that we're burning plastics in poor neighborhoods, the fact that burning plastics actually causes your DNA to alter itself and hold on to weight, like your adrenaline and your endocrine system starts failing, right? So we're not talking about the systemic, capitalist-oriented problem, that is, people who are fat naturally, right? Or maybe in this case is like, not naturally. Like the environment they're in created it. But the focus on like, oh, well, these foods aren't available to these people is only part of the story, right? So when we look at this as a justice issue, it's not merely about food access, or food deserts, or who has the privilege of having an eating disorder or saying, you know, it's about like, there are things that we don't even think to blame. But this is part of that conversation that we need to, we need to interrogate like, the social determinants and the environmental determinants of why our bodies are this way so that we can take the individual part of this because that's the thing is, fat bodies are blamed for their fatness constantly, right? Like, if you are in a fat body, and you feel like the world is fat phobic, and the world is against you, then the only way to change that is to lose weight, right, in the eyes of the rest of the world. So we have to get really, really inquisitive about like, is it really just the person? Is it on them to change their identity? Or is it on the world to interrogate itself so that it can become more just?
Roberto Germán 19:17
Yeah, yeah, no, there's so much. I mean, this could be a very extensive conversation in terms of adding all those elements, which I think, you know-- And thanks for mentioning that. I think it's important to examine all of that. Not necessarily all now ‘cause we need a lot more time. But certainly in the scope of the greater conversation. And to clarify, part of what I was referring to is broader than the conversation about folks identifying people as fat. It's more like-- What I was referring to is the unhealthy stuff based on research, and also the stuff that we're seeing that we know it's impacting our kids. So for example, one of the-- When I mentioned-- When I kind of shared my example, I have specific kids from a school that I served that in mind, and the visual that comes to me is like, the silver caps they have in their teeth that are related to like, not solely the sugar, but the sugar is a big contributing when you're looking at all the things that they're consuming. And I know this first hand because, like, I also come from that, you know. Not as bad as, like, some of the kids that I was serving, but it's just stuff you don't necessarily realize. Because you're not fully aware of the stuff that you’re consuming and, like, the way it can impact you. And so, you know, I don't know if-- I hope I'm a little bit clearer in terms of like what I'm getting at when asking the question of like, you know, what this movement hashtag #DitchingDietCultureAtSchool suggests when it comes to like, you know, addressing these issues that might have a little bit of rub.
Cait O'Connor 21:27
Yeah. Yeah. And like, you know, when I think of the example you just gave too, it's like, you know, there's so many-- there's so much to that like you said. Like, the fact that like, yeah, like, we have to teach certain things with dental health, right? Like, that's a dental health issue, too. So it's like, you know, not only are we trying to integrate how y'all eat, but how y'all brush your teeth in this space, right? So like, there's multiple things that need to be addressed at the same time. And I think a lot of times we lean on, oh, let's blame the food they eat. Right? Or like, even with Michelle Obama with her Let's Move campaign. Like, yes, go outside and get exercise. But when it's framed in, get exercise so you stay a body weight, that's diet culture at work, right? So it's all about the framing. I just saw on Twitter a teacher posted, you know, the benefits of water in a health class, and all of them were about water is an appetite suppressant, water, you know, can help you burn calories faster. All of that is framing it in water can help you be smaller, right? So, and that's passing as health education in our schools, right? So you're telling the kids that the message around what they put in their body and how they treat their body is to keep their body as small as it can be because that's what we see health as, that's what we tell them health is. And that's just objectively not accurate.
Roberto Germán 23:10
Thanks for sharing that example. So what are some ways to promote body literacy at school? Specifically, what are three tips, you could offer more, but what are at least three tips for educators to help promote body literacy and positivity?
Cait O'Connor 23:32
Um, first thing for teachers is just Professional Development Language goes a long way. So like I said, you know, if somebody that I had ever worked with had heard, like, you know, hey, like, you belaboring the point about not wanting to eat the cheesecake that's on the table right now is kind of offensive, like, they'd probably be like, oh, my God. I didn't realize why and I'm so sorry, you know. So like, just developing professionally around our language. That's my tip for Educational Administration is getting familiar with what this is and how it looks and translating it to teachers. But in the school climate arena, constantly interrogating ideas about what health and fitness means, normalizing all body types, shapes, sizes and abilities in your literature, in your slideshows if you have pictures of stuff, right? In your, like, posters around the school building, right? Like kids should see all bodies existing as they are, because that normalizes the conversation around like we don't expect everyone here to look the same. We don't expect everyone here to be thin, right?
And that goes for other diversities as well. Kids should see disabled bodies, they should see bodies of color, they should see queer and trans bodies, right? Because bodies are bodies are bodies, and we bring them to school, whether we wanna talk about them or not. So just visibility and representation matters. And then you know, this is a long way to go. But ending lunch shame and lunch debt, telling kids you can't bring this snack to school because it's unhealthy. And giving them definite, like, here's the rules that we have in our classroom about what you can eat here, right? That's assigning meaning to food and sends a message as well. And you know, this is a personal thing for me in my classroom, but I let kids eat and eat when they're hungry and stop eating when they're full, right? Because that's body regulation. We talked in the beginning about body policing, right? Body policing goes beyond food. And we know that because of the presence of violence in schools with dress codes and other things that are related to this inevitably, but when we think about what kids need to regulate their bodies, food and eating outside of the 40-minute lunch period assigned to them as part of that, too.
Roberto Germán 25:58
Yeah, for some kids, it's a long time to wait before they actually get to that lunch period depending on how your schedule is structured. And for other kids, it might be that the lunch period is super early in the morning. And then you know, by the time twelve, one o'clock rolls around, you know, they're very hungry, but don't necessarily have the opportunity to eat food because that's just not the way, you know, most schools roll.
Cait O'Connor 26:32
Yeah, I was the kid in middle school who had fourth period lunch at 9:30 in the morning every year because alphabetically, that's where I fell. And then I'd run to track practice at three o'clock and be starving, you know. So what the constant like-- I mean, like, the way that we block model our kids into like, you go here, then you go here, then you go here, and you're supposed to do this at this time, this at this time, and this at this time, it's unrealistic because their bodies are telling them that they need something. And we have to honor and respect that.
Roberto Germán 27:02
Yeah, no, that's good. It reminds me of time that I spent working in a Montessori school, where there was a lot more flexibility, where the kids, you know, were able to, you know, have their snack in the classroom during the day and not have to wait till lunchtime. And it also reminds me of the homeschool approach for those that homeschool. You know, that's one of the benefits of homeschooling in terms of like, you know, kids don't have all this regulation, right? You know, the food is there. Get it when they want it, get it when they need it, right? To your point of like, you know, eat till you’re full and then stop. And so yeah, there's a conversation to keep alive for schools. That would be some fun PD to listen to how folks respond to that. And, you know, what would surface for a lot of folks that are working in traditional settings where, you know, the only time the kids eat is their 9:30 or 10:30, 11:30, 12:30 lunch period.
Cait O'Connor 28:25
Roberto Germán 28:27
So, shifting a little bit, this-- Now we go to the lighter part of the interview. If you had opportunity to have lunch with anyone dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Cait O'Connor 28:39
It's not that much of a shift ‘cause we're talking about lunch. So...
Roberto Germán 28:42
And you wouldn't have to wait until 9:30. But just so we're clear. All right? You could determine what time you set that lunch. You know what? It doesn't even have to be lunch. It could be snack. It could be breakfast, it could be dinner, or we don't have to call it anything, just you know, whenever you're gonna sit down to eat and you wanna sit down and eat with somebody special. Who is that person and why?
Cait O'Connor 29:05
If I could have a meal with anybody, it would be Audre Lorde. She was the first person who really made the work I do in this arena make sense to me, right? Because she was unapologetically fat. She was unapologetically black. She was unapologetically a lesbian. And she just-- Her whole existence was about exactly this, right? Doing what makes sense to me when it makes sense to me and how it makes sense to me. And one of the quotes that I lean on in this work often is, “that which I know about myself cannot be used against me to diminish me.” And that's how I reclaimed the word fat, right? That's how I personally came to this work. Because a lot of times even just that word in this work trips people up, because they're like, oh, like, fat, I wouldn't call you fat, like you're not fat, you're beautiful. And it's like, why can't I be both of those things at the same time? Because I am, right? I stood at NCTE three years ago with the word fat projected on the screen behind me and just talk for 15 minutes and people were like, I don't know what to do with this information. And if I disarm that word for you, you can't use it as an insult anymore, right? So Audre Lorde taught me and taught me in a big way and she still echoes throughout all of the work that I do in weight stigma and diet culture and fighting for body literacy and body justice at school.
Roberto Germán 30:41
That's an amazing quote that you just shared with us. Yeah, that's gonna resonate. Thanks for sharing that.
Cait O'Connor 30:47
Roberto Germán 30:48
So for those that are listening, what is a message of encouragement you want to offer them?
Cait O'Connor 30:54
Um, if you are doing the work of ditching diet culture at school, it feels lonely sometimes but you're not alone. There are so many people that I've found in this work who wanna do it and wanna take it up, even if they haven't started yet. So if you're in it, keep going. If you're not in it yet, come with me. Come join us. It's worthwhile. And if you're in it and you're on the ride, I appreciate you. So that's my encouragement to...
Roberto Germán 31:27
And where can they come with you? Where can they join this movement?
Cait O'Connor 31:32
Um, I am on Twitter and Instagram, same handle @JustTeachingELA. And that's where all my resources, the digital library is available too and you can connect with me anytime.
Roberto Germán 31:44
And the digital library is free, correct?
Cait O'Connor 31:47
Yep, yeah, it's a Google site. Anyone can look at it, access it, pull links from it. It's all links to other stuff to get you started on this journey.
Roberto Germán 32:03
As always, your engagement in our classroom is greatly appreciated. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias, education and society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your host, Roberto Germán.