Schools must teach positive body image as part of the national curriculum to boost the confidence and health of young people, a select committee made up of teenagers has said.
The report on body image was compiled by parliament's youth committee – an initiative by the British Youth Council, supported by the House of Commons. It is made up of eleven 13-18 year-olds and replicates select committees run by MPs; its proceedings are televised and recorded in Hansard.
It has gathered evidence from a range of witnesses including academics, teachers, government officials, mental health professionals and social media companies for a report on body image, released in parliament on Wednesday.
Schools in England are not currently required to provide lessons about body image, for any age group. But the government has promised to make relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in secondary schools in England from 2019 – and the committee said there was "clear scope" for these classes to include material on body image.
And it suggested that pupils should not just be taught about positive body image within RSE classes but across the whole school, such as through sports, drama and photography.
The committee – which includes members of the Youth Parliament, youth councillors and a youth mayor – chose body image as the topic for their inquiry after thousands of young people chose it as a key issue in a major ballot last year.
Their report found that negative body image in the UK was high and getting worse. Dr Phillippa Diedrichs from the University of the West of England told the committee that "it is now the norm for young people in particular to be unhappy with the way their bodies look and how their bodies function".
Susie Williams, a member of the NHS Youth Forum, said body image concerns were now affecting very young children. "I know six-year-olds who don’t go to school because the kids say they have hairy legs and they think they’re fat," she said.
The report pointed to a number of studies which had found that poor body
image could lead to depression, anxiety and some eating disorders; could have a "detrimental impact on physical health"; and could lead to more drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual practices.
"Body dissatisfaction affects a large proportion of young people and can have
serious and long lasting consequences for health, education, and wider life outcomes," the report said.
"Although we appreciate the Department for Education wishes to avoid being too prescriptive, the importance of body image to young people is such that the curriculum should make explicit reference to promoting positive body image."
It added: "If it is to be effective, the promotion of positive body image cannot be confined to specific subjects, but must be integrated into schools’ wider approach and harness the power of peer to peer support."
The report, titled ‘A Body Confident Future’, was launched as part of Parliament Week, an annual event encouraging citizens to learn about the work of the UK parliament.
Responding, women's minister Anne Milton said: "Young people today experience a daily onslaught of messages – from social media, TV and magazines – that can place considerable pressures on children to conform to a particular body type or image.
"We want to support young people to be more resilient and develop positive self-esteem. We are supporting parents and schools to help them talk to children about mental health, wellbeing and issues related to body image."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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