School faces backlash after offering shapewear to teen girls in attempt to address body image issues

BySara Smart, CNN
Friday, January 14, 2022
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SOUTHAVEN, Miss. -- One Mississippi middle school's attempt at addressing girls' body image concerns sparked outrage among parents, forcing the school to backtrack.

Ashley Heun, of Southaven, Mississippi, became angry after her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, handed her a letter from Southaven Middle School on Tuesday titled, "Why Do Girls Suffer from Body Image?"

The letter discussed body images issues among females and at the bottom, offered parents the option to consent to their daughters receiving "healthy literature" and shapewear clothing items.

"We, the counselors of Southaven Middle School, would like to have an opportunity to offer some healthy literature to your daughter on maintaining a positive body image," part of the letter reads.

"I had to reread it a few times," Heun told CNN, "My first instinct was to go up to the school and yell at every person I could find."

Heun told CNN that eighth grader Caroline had called the letter "stupid" and didn't understand its purpose.

After taking some time to calm down and gather her thoughts, Heun took to Facebook to share her concerns. Other parents quickly chimed in, in agreement.

"It's hard to raise girls in this environment with social media, with filters and Photoshop," Heun said. "They're bombarded with images of what the ideal body is."

She then sent Southaven Principal John Sartain a lengthy email to further express her concerns.

"The letter, unfortunately, takes an unforeseen turn by offering my daughter SHAPEWEAR," Heun's email read. "If my daughter begged me for shapewear, I would tell her no. Now I find out that you are ENCOURAGING her to wear it. I, honestly, am baffled that a 'counselor' who is TRAINED in child psychology would actually think that this is a good idea."

Sartain called Heun on Wednesday morning and they met later that day. Heun said Sartain was very apologetic and said the counselors had nothing but good intentions with the note. He also told her that the program had since been canceled.

"The district has been made aware of the parental permission form sent to parents by Southaven Middle School," Lauren Margeson, DeSoto County School's executive administrative assistant to the superintendent, told CNN in a written statement. "District officials understand how this type of information causes serious concern from parents."

"I don't think they were trying to send out that message, but bottom line is that's the message that came across," Heun added.

CNN reached out to Southaven Middle School for comment.

Heun notes that she didn't intend for this to be anything more than voicing her concern and adds that everyone makes mistakes and the school is working on fixing theirs.

Parents, talk to your kids

"If anything comes out of this going viral, I hope it starts a conversation," Heun said.

Author of "Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety," John Duffy, spoke with CNN about how parents can tackle body issues with their children.

"We have a generation of kids who are preoccupied with the way they look, and their self-worth and self-esteem are far too often contingent on their weight or flaws in perceptions of their bodies," Duffy told CNN. "Even in middle school, their physical appearance is on kids' minds almost all the time."

He notes that kids already spend plenty of time focusing on what they may perceive as the negatives and that it is important to help them focus on the positives.

"A more effective, useful intervention would be to focus on both acceptance of your body, and working to develop strength, not a 'perfect' body," Duffy added.

Phyllis Fagell, the author of "Middle School Matters" and a school counselor, also spoke to CNN about how to handle these concerns.

"Seemingly innocuous comments like 'Are you sure you want a second serving?' can be brutal for a middle schooler," Fagell told CNN.

She notes that the pandemic has also had a huge effect on students' mental health. With schools returning to in-person classes, students are even more sensitive and body image issues can be heightened.

As far as her advice to parents, teachers or caregivers, Fagell notes, "Make sure everything is in alignment. From what you're saying to them, how you're talking about yourself, and don't label food as good or bad."

All experts CNN spoke to agree that parents have to do what they can to be good role models for their kids.

Heun shared that she too has struggled with body image issues in the past, and still struggles to this day.

"It's very difficult as a parent to try and not project my own insecurities about myself onto Caroline," Heun said.

However, she says she's aware of the difficulties children can face and understands the importance of doing her part in protecting her kids.

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The video in the media player above was used in a previous report.