Reprinted from "Health Literacy" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (2), pp.13-14
This article serves as an opportunity to hear from a young person about how they make sense of “health literacy” from their own vantage point.
Q: What is your earliest recollection of being educated about your health? How old were you? What impression do you recall it made on you?
A: Basic stuff from my Mom before kindergarten-age, like, “Wash your hands,” then in daycare they reinforced the basics again. The way I processed it was that I knew I couldn’t go out if I was sick, so washing my hands and staying away from germs meant I could go to the parties I was invited to and play with my friends.
Q: What is your earliest recollection of health education in school? What kinds of things were you taught and how did you respond?
A: They began educating in kindergarten, again with the basics on germ transmission. But I remember asking my Mom development questions like, “Where do breasts come from, and where did I come from.” She would give me easy answers, of course, like, “You came from my tummy.” I also remember getting bored pretty quickly with the information and I just wanted to go out and play. Playing with dolls also taught me about health education, learning about anatomy, playing doctor, et cetera.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of learning something about body image? What sense did you make of it?
A: I had really long hair and I got it cut very short in Grade 3. My brother had short hair and it looked so much easier, so it felt very freeing to get it cut. I remember getting taunted immediately by other kids telling me that I looked like a boy or asking me if I was a lesbian. I was really happy with my short hair, but the experience with the other kids had such a negative influence that I grew it long again and I haven’t changed it since.
I also developed way earlier than other girls my age and I got teased a lot about that. So, between both these things I learned at a fairly young age that being different would draw attention to me.
In Grade 6, we learned that Mary-Kate Olsen was anorexic, and I remember a popular girl in my class implying that this was cool because she was ‘famous and hot.’ I also felt like she was measuring all of us against Mary-Kate Olsen. The message was that we would be considered cool if we looked as thin as she did.
The Dove commercial that showed the differences between models before and after airbrushing came out around that time, and I remember not really believing what they said. We all thought that it may be true of only some models, but not all of them. And even though I know it’s true, I still have trouble believing it, if that makes any sense.
Q: What were some of the earliest messages you learned about food and eating? Where did those messages come from?
A: I have really great parents, so I got good messages about food growing up. We didn’t have junk food in the house, and it was always made clear that it just wasn’t good for our health. The messages I got from friends and from some of their parents was that it wasn’t good because it would make you fat. The message we get at school is that you should stay healthy and fit, but I go to a school that’s huge on sports teams and very competitive, so that message has a kind of double meaning because they also really want students for the athletic teams. Our community is more affluent and there is an ‘expected look’ in terms of clothing style and body shape. It is unspoken, but it’s definitely there. I was probably in Grade 3 when I became aware of this, that everyone looked kind of the same. I remember seeing a kid come out of the house one day with blue hair and I remember thinking, “How did you get out of the house like that?” and trying really hard to relate what he must be thinking to do that in such a conformist community.
Q: What about self-esteem? What were the influences that taught you to regard yourself positively? Negatively?
A: Aside from my parents, it’s hard to think of what taught me to regard myself positively. I guess playing sports—I felt like I was doing something good for my body by getting exercise. I got taught about things like morals, ethics, integrity and honesty from my parents, who taught us a lot about being good people. I learned from them that it’s the inside that matters. But even with all of that, I still find it hard when I feel like I’m being judged by people, and I guess that comes from some of the childhood experiences I talked about.
Q: What do you think you would have looked for more from the adult influencers in your school?
A: Really, to lessen the hype around being a cookie-cutter person: looking a certain way and excelling at everything all the time. We wouldn’t be so stressed all the time if they had. I coped because I come from a good home and can talk to my parents if something is bothering me. But there was no component in our school that taught us how to cope with stress, and there should have been. One teacher tried to do the best she could by telling me to “break things down into chunks.” I guess it was her way of trying to help with the workload, make things more manageable.
Q: What did you learn and take away from your early experiences with health information?
A: Basically that health is important and not to smoke. And I believed about not smoking because the science backs it up.
Q: What about media influences?
A: I really didn’t get much from media other than what clothes to wear and fashion trends to look at.
Q: Do you seek out health information on the Internet?
A: Not really. There was a girl in school with leukemia, so I looked up information on that. But not in any general sense for myself.
Q: Where do you get your information and how do you assess its validity?
A: I always go with my best judgment—websites can tell you completely different things and so can friends, so I find I have to figure it out myself sometimes. I get my information from everyone: parents, teachers, doctors, friends.
Q: Does health interest you?
A: Yeah, it does. I want to have kids, and a mom in the daycare I work in just died of cancer, so that’s really made me want to take care of myself because I eventually want to have kids and stay healthy for them.
About the authors
Chloe* is an 18 year-old Vancouver high school student.
Shelley is a child and family therapist at Family Services of the North Shore. She also facilitates the Eating Disorder Support Group for Parents, Partners and Friends, and provides online and telephone support in the Jessie’s Legacy Eating Disorders Prevention and Support Program