How can we promote acceptance of stigmatised appearances in primary schools?

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Primary Schools are excellent places for child development, learning and socialisation, but unfortunately can also be hubs for bullying, social isolation and stigma. The chances of a child having negative experiences during Primary School education increase if they have an appearance which is socially stigmatised. If you are wondering what a socially stigmatised appearance is… it essentially means having an appearance which significantly deviates from society’s ‘standard’ characteristics, for example being of a higher weight or having a visible scar.

Of course, no two children’s experiences will be the same and having an appearance which is deemed socially stigmatising does not necessarily mean a child will have a negative experience in or out of school. However, studies which have considered the experiences of children with various socially stigmatised appearances suggest it would be naïve to believe, in general, their experiences are the same as children who have a socially ‘normative’ appearance (e.g., white, able-bodied with no visible difference).

Why is this the case? Well, there are a number of factors at play here. External factors such as the media, parents, education and policy can all influence children’s attitudes towards other appearances. Think of a villain in a children’s film… a number of villains have an appearance which is deemed socially stigmatising. Scar from the Lion King? Ursula from the Little Mermaid? These messages likely influence children’s attitudes towards various appearances.

Children develop attitudes towards socially stigmatised appearances at a very young age – at around 4 years stereotyping and prejudice can exist. Although, some evidence suggests this is even younger, with stigma towards people of higher weight being present at the age of 3 years, according to one study. Another study found by the age of 5 children make judgements based on weight and are less likely to choose a higher weight child as a playmate. Children with facial differences such as burn scars, a birthmark or cleft lip and/or palate are also at risk, with evidence that they are less likely to be accepted by their peers. All of this evidence highlights how children who have a socially stigmatised appearance may be less accepted and judged accordingly. Therefore, it is unfortunately not surprising that studies have also found children with a socially stigmatised appearance have a lower quality of life and are more likely to be subjected to bullying.

This issue is not new. Research during the 1960’s painted a similar picture, whereby children consistently ranked a child with no socially stigmatised appearance as most preferred in comparison to various other socially stigmatised appearances. However, to date, majority of intervention? Efforts within psychology and body image have focused on secondary school children. However, attempting to promote acceptance of socially stigmatised appearances in children aged 11 years and above may be a fruitless endeavour, as attitudes are likely well ingrained by this age. It is important efforts be placed in younger age groups, when attitudes are still developing, in order to combat stereotypes and subsequent behaviours. 

Further, the majority of school-based body image interventions have focused on a medical (individual) model and less on the social (group) model. For example, consider a child who has a facial burn. This child may be perfectly happy with their appearance. However, if they are being teased, bullied or excluded from social events, previous efforts regarding the child’s body image, would attempt to help that child increase their self-worth and self-esteem. However, efforts are not focused on changing the attitudes and behaviours of children around that child. Providing body image interventions which target acceptance at a group level allow for improvements beyond just the individual.

There has been a handful of interventions developed which target Primary School aged children in a bid to do exactly this – promote acceptance of appearance, at a group-based level.  A pilot study of a recent body acceptance intervention, titled ABC-4-YC, has found promising findings in Australia. However, interventions developed to target this broader issue have either not been evaluated at all, or require further evaluation.

What is clear is that children develop attitudes towards appearance at a very young age and this can impact on the lives of those who have an appearance which is socially stigmatised. Yet, majority of the efforts to target this issue have focused on older children or at the individual level. Therefore, undoubtedly there is a need for evidenced-based school resources which promote acceptance of stigmatised appearances in Primary School-aged children. Efforts should be made within psychology, education and social policy in order to combat this issue in a sensitive, timely and age appropriate manner.

If you are interested in research on body image in schools, Appearance Matters: The Podcast! Co-hosted by Jade Parnell (me!) and Nadia Craddock delves into what we know about how we tackle body image within the classroom. This episode can be found here.

Jade Parnell is a PhD student at the Centre for Appearance Research, based in Health and Applied Sciences (HAS) at the University of the West of England (UWE). You can contact Jade directly via email: jade.parnell@uwe.ac.uk or twitter: @jadeparnell.

The Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE) – Seminar

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Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE) invites you to a lunchtime seminar on Monday, 4th March 2019 — 12noon-1pm — Room 2S603. We are pleased to have Jade Parnell, the Centre for Appearance Research, the University of the West of England, and Dr Maryam Almohammad and Dr Jane Andrews, the Department of Education and Childhood, the University of the West of England.


Promoting Acceptance of Socially Stigmatised Appearances in Young Children in Primary School


Jade Parnell, the Centre for Appearance Research, the Department of Health and Social Sciences, the University of the West of England


In this talk I will discuss my PhD, which aims to promote acceptance towards various socially stigmatised appearances in young children. Appearance-based stereotyping and prejudice emerges in early childhood, and can exist by the age of 4 years. Children from negatively stereotyped or stigmatised groups (e.g., higher weight, visible difference) are at increased risk of experiencing stigmatisation from other children, resulting in negative outcomes such as poorer psychological adjustment and quality of life. The talk will focus on a recent study, where children aged 4-9 years, from various Primary Schools in the South West of England viewed, in a randomised order, five digitally designed, realistic child characters. The images included a character; with no stigmatised appearance, wearing glasses, of higher weight, with a facial burn and in a wheelchair. All characters had similar features (e.g., face shape, height, race and eyes), but varied slightly according to the stigmatised appearance. Children were asked open ended questions and quantitative measures assessing their attitudes and possible subsequent behaviours towards the individual characters. Discussion will consider the possible findings in relation to the literature; along with implications for researchers and education professionals regarding strategies for promoting acceptance of socially stigmatised appearances in young children.


Artmaking, Materialism, and Multilingualism in Welcoming Environments for EAL Learners


Maryam Almohammad and Jane Andrews, the Department of Education and Childhood, University of the West of England.


The Creating Welcoming Learning Environments project, known as CWLE, (AHRC-funded, AH/R004781/1)) is a follow-on project from the large grant Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, the Law and the State (AH/AH/L006936/1). The project involved a “creative collaboration”, using Vera John Steiner’s conceptualisation (2000), between creative artists, school-based teachers and teaching assistants, local authority advisory teachers and university researchers. The project operated on a co-operative development model of teacher development as articulated by Edge (1992) so that, through a series of workshops, teachers participated in arts-based practices, assembled artifacts and interpreted them to reflect on their identities, bodies, languages and cultures. This was prior to teachers engaging in a process of transformation of their first-hand experiences of creative techniques into activities for their own learners in the different school contexts they work in, including primary, secondary and special schools in England.


In this paper, we approach the data generated in the workshops and in interviews, using Bennett’s concepts of “thing-power” and “discursive agency” (2010). Bennett (2010) uses the term “thing-power” to describe the qualities that objects have that in many ways are indescribable and intangible. Power is among all material bodies, both human and more-than-human, and therefore does not belong to bodies independently, but rather happens because material bodies are always dependent on one another. This is known as distributive agency (Bennett, 2010). In the CWLE series of workshops, teachers worked with materials: cardboard, maps, colours, stones, textiles, dyes and symbols. Working with art materials teachers engaged with the role of objects in art and meaning-making and reflected on the potential of material transformation in EAL contexts. Materials constructed during our workshops serve as reflective tools on the body experience and materials surrounding the body. Teachers transformed the art practices in their school spaces, such as the use of the identity suitcase box. The artmaking of suitcase/boxes offered teachers and learners an opportunity to engage with the taken for granted value of both human-human and human-non-human relationships. Through a co-creative process and collective action between animate and inanimate things, teachers and learners could be seen to no longer separate human from non-human. In this sense, humans are no more valuable than materials and objects with which they interact. In our paper we analyse one example of educational practice in a specific secondary school in England. Therefore, not only the divide between human and non-human ceases to exist, and new ways for knowing the self and the object as interbeings emerge (Anderson & Guyas, 2012), but also the divide between the ‘us and them’ can be seen to finish. Distributive agency of materials may be seen to help humans cooperate with each other in the art-and-language classrooms.