“Look!” said my 4-year- old piano student. “I set up the bench for us!” And he had. He'd set the bench exactly like I do when we're going to share it. I set it sort of cockeyed to the piano so that he can sit up close where he needs to and I can sit farther away. He said, “I did it this way because you are fat and need to be farther away, and I am thin, and I need to be closer.” His nanny cringed in the background, her little charge having called out something that in polite society we “aren't supposed to talk about.” But I didn't skip a beat. I said to him, “Yes, that's true. But you also have short legs and short arms and I have long legs and long arms, and so that's more of why we need to sit differently at the piano.” He nodded his head and we started his piano lesson.
It's not the first time a student has called me out on my size, and it probably isn't the last. But I wasn't upset or embarrassed. This student is four. He's developmentally at a stage where he's noticing differences between people, and he's at a stage where he likes to categorize everything. It made perfect sense for him to look at us and say, “Two categories – fat, thin.” He's young and still trying to understand his world. Heck, so am I.
One thing I do understand, though, is that in this place and time in history, we are seriously messed up about bodies and all of their surrounding issues – food, weight, exercise, image. It's taken me years to see just how screwed up our mindset is. I've lived with an eating disorder for many years, and the recovery process is slow. Part of the recovery, though, is learning to accept your body, listen to its cues, connect with it, and take care of it. In this diet-centric culture that's not an easy task. You don't have to have had an eating disorder, though, to understand the struggle of connecting with your body with all of society's messages about being thinner, fitter, faster, smaller... It's bound to rub off on the students we teach, and that's something that scares me.
I first became aware of my body and it's “not right-ness” when I was about 9. Looking back at photos from that time period, I now realize that my body was just fine. I looked like the majority of the other children in my fourth grade class. But that's when I started to feel the cultural message and the “diet culture.” Diet culture, in itself, didn't “give” me an eating disorder. Eating disorders are very complex beasts with genetic components, environmental components, neural components, emotional components, and components that science and psychology don't even know about yet. We do know that while not everyone who goes on a diet will develop an eating disorder, dieting is one thing that can trigger an eating disorder. And children, particularly girls, are starting to diet at younger and younger ages – a recent article I read said that 80% of 10-year- olds had already tried dieting. Like I said above. This scares me. And it saddens me that so many children experience body dissatisfaction at such a young age. I think of all of the students in my studio who are 10 and older... there are 16 of them, I think. Is it really possible that 80% (12 or 13) of them have been on a diet? I look at them, and I see them all as being just right, just the way they are.
But, then, there I was at 9-years- old, feeling a mixture of hate, shame, and disgust for my body. It's 30 years later, and I'm still fighting that. But one of the most important things to me as a teacher is being a good role model for my students. And if I want to do that, I really feel that I need to model body positivity and self compassion for them. The more that people (not just children), see other people of all shapes and sizes and colors and genders and abledness who are happy with themselves and confident and making strides in this world to make a difference and capture what they want, the more accepting we will all become. But if you never see something, you can't really understand how it can exist. You may have a theoretical understanding, but you need something more concrete to really understand it. And so, I am determined to be that kind of role model for my students – to show them that yes, I am a big woman (in a larger body, person of size, fat, however you want to say it...), but it doesn't make me any less of a piano teacher, any less of a musician, and certainly not any less of a person.
At this point, you may be thinking that I started out talking about teaching... and body positivity is not something that usually comes up in a piano or guitar lesson, and that's true. (Though it may come up in a voice lesson, because as vocalists, our instruments are not outside of us, they are us.) But again, it's a matter of modeling... modeling confidence, modeling a skill set, modeling compassion. And when a student says something that doesn't fall in line with my beliefs on body positivity or, in the case of the 4-year- old I mentioned above, falls into the category of “trying to understand the world,” then I feel it's my job to say something.
I'll admit I was taken aback the first time a 5-year- old poked at me and said, “Fat belly!” I didn't know how to respond. I've done a lot of work on myself since then, though, and so recently when a different 5-year- old said, “Your bum is so big I bet you wear really big underpants!” (yes, these are the things that children say before they develop social filters!), I said, “Aren't we lucky that they make clothes that fit all different sizes of bodies!” And then we went on with our lesson. Once, a 6-year- old girl asked me, “How much do you weigh?” And I responded with, “I weigh the exact right amount for me, and you weigh the exact right amount for you.” And in the case of children who are a bit older and make some kind of body comment, I will say, “That may be true, but it's not polite to talk about other people's bodies.”
A piano teacher recently posted on a forum that I'm part of how she was dissatisfied with her body and felt that she would be a better role model for her students if she were to lose weight. But one thing that research has shown us over and over again is that diets don't work. The majority of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back and then some. If diets did work, then companies like Weight Watchers wouldn't need to be selling us their “new way to lose weight” every few years. If their program worked, they would put themselves out of business and nothing would need revamping. And for those of us who have spent years and years of our lives restricting what we eat, there is a lot of damage done to our bodies that means a diet may never work, even temporarily. (Here is where I would step on my “Health At Every Size” soapbox, but I'll let you research that on your own. I've included some links at the bottom of the post.) Instead of stepping into the diet cycle, my comment to this teacher was that she would have more of an impact on her students if she were to practice self compassion and self acceptance. I hope that's what she decided to do.
And I'll be the first to admit that I still struggle with self-acceptance. On those days, I just have to adopt a “fake it till you make it” attitude because I know that I've got impressionable children I'll be working with, and I want to be an example of someone with a body who that is outside of the cultural ideal who is doing just fine... or better than just fine.
One of the perks of my job is the reciprocated love that I get from my students. The littlest ones show it with fierce hugs and drawings for my refrigerator. The older ones will sometimes run up to me when they see me in public and introduce me to their friends. I love it when a teenage or 'tween-age student texts me with a video they like or with a revelation about a song they're learning. Getting a simple and genuine “thank you” from a student at the end of a lesson means the world to me. I can't let these kids down by giving in to my own insecurities. And the truth is that as I try and stay body-positive for them, my own sense of body positivity grows.
It's not possible for me to prevent someone else from getting an eating disorder. It would be naive of me to think that I could prevent any bad things from happening to my students. But as a presenter at a conference reminded a group of us once, the private music teacher is often the only adult other than a parent that a child works with one-on- one. And that's a big responsibility. So even if it's just for 45-minutes a week, I will do what I can to help nurture these children not only as musicians, but as sensitive, compassionate people who can hopefully see the innate beauty that exists in them just the way they are.
Related Articles and Resources
- 5 Ways Parents of Preschoolers Can Raise a Body-Positive Kid
- the HAES® files: Amanda and the Myth of a Single Story
- Why diets don’t actually work, according to a researcher who has studied them for decades
- Your Fitbit Is Ruining Your Relationship With Your Body
- What is Health at Every Size
- Study: Most Girls Start Dieting By Age 8
- Types & Symptoms of Eating Disorders
- Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight