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Promoting body confidence and health in teenage girls

Dr Emma Rich from the Department of Health received funding to co-create workshops with Year 8 girls to promote a better understanding of health.

Dr Emma Rich (Reader, Department for Health) received £1,300 to co-create workshops with Year 8 girls to discuss their views on body confidence and to promote an understanding of health beyond body size and shape.

Project overview

The UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on body image warn that negative body image is now the biggest single worry for millions of children and young people. Various school-based programmes are being developed to prevent eating disturbances and body image problems among young people. However, there is little research evaluating the effectiveness of these schemes. Emma looks to change this through her research which explores the cultures, practices and policies of schools and how these relate to young people’s views of themselves.

Through this project, Emma wanted to share her research with young people to help them reflect on their experiences and to develop critical skills to understand health and the body beyond appearance, size, shape and weight. Emma is working with the public health team at Bath & North East Somerset (BANES) council to develop their strategy on enhancing wellbeing and body confidence in local schools, so the project provided an opportunity to gather the views of the children potentially affected by this strategy.

Exploring body confidence

24 Year 8 girls from Hayesfield School, Bath, took part in two workshops and four focus groups. Initially, two focus groups explored the participants’ views on the current practices of the school in relation to body confidence. Emma presented her research and encouraged the girls to think critically about health, appearance and weight.

The girls then co-created dance workshops facilitated by Leyla Carter from The Motivation Project – an organisation providing dance-infused workshops to encourage positive emotional wellbeing – where they reflected on the meaning of body confidence in a range of contexts and used dance as a medium to enhance body image. Two follow up focus groups provided an opportunity for the participants to discuss their experiences of the dance workshops and to give their opinions to inform the design of future school policies.

The school staff and girls reported finding the workshops engaging, enjoyable and beneficial, helping them feel more confident. The girls developed a range of skills to critique information given to them about health and body image and gained a deeper understanding of the relationship between appearance and health. They welcomed the opportunity to talk about sensitive issues in a safe space, allowing teachers and BANES council to see the benefits of providing such arenas.

Dr Emma Rich said:

'Young people carry the burden of moving across different social contexts and navigating multiple health messages. The workshops provided an opportunity to discuss this and to identify the need for support in schools to help young people navigate these spaces.'

Moving forwards

Emma has gained a better understanding of how her research can benefit targeted stakeholders. She gathered the girls’ views on current practices and observed how they responded to her research and her proposals for alternative approaches. This insight will inform a new grant application in collaboration with BANES and the national charity Anorexia and Bulimia Care.

The workshops with The Motivation Project allowed the participants to co-create a workshop, enforcing Emma’s belief that teachers as ‘knowledge brokers’ are more effective for guiding students in terms of health than as direct ‘knowledge imparters’ (Macdonald et al (2014)).

Emma also feels she gained useful experience communicating a complex sociocultural issue to young people and plans an academic publication about the project.

Dr Emma Rich said:

'The girls were incredibly receptive about a shift towards health education as critically examining "health", rather than simply as a tool for promoting healthy lifestyles and weight management.'

Contact us

If you want to discuss how you might engage publics in or with your research, the Public Engagement Unit can help.