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Newfoundland mother alarmed over messaging in decades-old textbooks

The textbooks are available at Memorial University's education library. Here are "Healthwise 1" for Grade 7, "Healthwise 2" for Grade 8 and "Young Canada Health 3" for Grade 6.
The textbooks are available at Memorial University's education library.

‘Time for a full review of health program materials,’ woman says

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Warning: This story contains text that may be triggering to someone with an eating disorder.

A mother of a student from this province is concerned about the school curriculum, specifically health textbooks for Grades 6 to 8. 

The woman, who doesn't want to be identified in order to protect her child's privacy, fears content about dieting and appearance in the textbooks “Healthwise 1,” “Healthwise 2” and “Young Canada Health 3” could trigger an eating disorder. 

The idea that the textbooks’ messages could be harmful was brought to her attention through an online forum.

“I had heard many parents in an online caregivers’ forum recount how their child’s eating disorder seemingly developed after being taught the same types of ‘healthy living’ lessons at school,” she said. “After taking a look at my own child’s health textbook I quickly realized that it contained much of the same type of harmful messaging.”

The mother raised concerns about a “How to Measure Body Fat” test in one of the textbooks, saying the test could be stigmatizing for adolescents who don’t fit the thin ideal. 

An illustration for a case study in the book
An illustration for a case study in the book

“Our health programs should be countering the unhealthy and constant media messaging that promotes the ‘thin ideal,’ and instead should be promoting the message that healthy, happy and successful people come in all shapes and sizes,” the mother said.  

The mother was disturbed by a case study in "Healthwise 1" about a 13-year-old girl who was attempting to lose 13 pounds in four weeks. The case study said she had been skipping meals and snacks and successfully lost weight doing so, but ended up gaining back two pounds, causing her to abandon her diet. The exercise for the kids was to brainstorm ways for the girl to return to her diet plan.

“The goal of losing 13 pounds in four weeks is not questioned within the text as an unhealthy one, nor the fact that she is skipping lunch and cutting out snacks," she said.  

The textbooks contained many references to staying away from hidden or extra fats and sugars.

The woman says she spent a lot of time reading academic articles on the topic after her child was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

“This may seem common sense to a lot of adults, but may not be developmentally appropriate for an elementary-aged child. They don’t get subtle nuance about ‘sometimes’ or ‘extra.’ They get the message that fat is bad. It is more black and white for them.”

In September 2017, a memo was sent to district program specialists, principals, guidance counsellors and teachers by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development after the department's attention was drawn to the controversial messaging in the health curriculum.

The memo said certain pages of the curriculum that reference eating disorders shouldn’t be taught, and the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum is being renewed using current research to promote positive health behaviours.  

Almost two years later, the textbooks are still in the system.  

“While the memo was a good first step, it does not address the fact that a lot of the problematic messaging is pervasive throughout the textbooks,” the mother said.  

“All three of these texts were published in 1990 and the approach runs counter to current research and recommendations in promoting positive and healthy relationships to food, exercise and their bodies in all children.”

New policy coming

Tina Coffey, media relations for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, says the curriculum will be reviewed. 

"All curricula is regularly reviewed and renewed in all grade levels. Through the Towards Recovery: A Vision for a Renewed Mental Health and Addictions System for Newfoundland and Labrador, the K-9 curricula are planned to be renewed over the next three years," Coffey said. "In keeping with the timelines of the Education Action Plan, implementation of a new healthy-eating policy will commence in the upcoming 2019-20 school year and will be completed by 2021. Once the policy is implemented, professional development opportunities will be available for administrators to learn about the new policy. Provision of resources is part of the curricula renewal process."

Christina Pelley, guidance counsellor, works at two schools in the province. She facilitated Body Project Canada at Valmont Academy in King's Point, and, to her knowledge, it was the first school in Canada offering it. The Body Project Collaborative was formed in 2012 by Drs. Eric Stice and Carolyn Becker to create new training opportunities for people interested in facilitating the Body Project. The Body Project is already operative in the U.S. and the U.K. St. John’s became the launch pad for facilitator training in Canada.
Christina Pelley, guidance counsellor, works at two schools in the province. She facilitated Body Project Canada at Valmont Academy in King's Point, and, to her knowledge, it was the first school in Canada offering it. The Body Project Collaborative was formed in 2012 by Drs. Eric Stice and Carolyn Becker to create new training opportunities for people interested in facilitating the Body Project. The Body Project is already operative in the U.S. and the U.K. St. John’s became the launch pad for facilitator training in Canada.

Coffey also spoke about the initiatives that are available in the province's schools. 

"A 'Healthy Students Healthy Schools' Initiative is in place where school consultants can avail of the services of the Department of Health, regional health authorities and other community agencies, such as the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, to assist with programs associated with healthy eating and nutrition."

Combatting ideal

Christina Pelley, a guidance counsellor at Indian River High School in Springdale, has taken part in Body Project Canada. 

It's a preventative program that was started in 2016 as a result of 16 years of research. It consists of verbal, written and behavioural exercises in which young girls come together to combat the appearance ideal that is promoted in society. It is only available to females at this time.

Pelley brought the program to Valmont Academy in King’s Point. 

“It’s usually run by a group of eight girls. The girls that I have done it with have been very receptive to it,” Pelley said. "There are homework sessions to complete, and the girls were even very eager to complete the homework.” 

Body Project Canada has been shown to “result in decreased subscription to the ‘appearance ideal’ and consequent reductions in body dissatisfaction, negative mood, dieting and eating-disorder symptoms,” according to the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador website.

People living with an eating disorder can contact website edfnl.ca or the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at nedic.ca/ for support, resources and treatment options. 

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