Episode 1 Dr Zali Yager

Ed Talks WA - Episode 1 - Dr Zali Yager

Zali Yager

In this episode

Dr Zali Yager joined us to discuss the classroom program she's created so that WA teachers can help students love their bodies. She also explains how she and her team aim to help one million Australian kids with body image in just one year.

About Dr Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is a body image researcher, writer, consultant and expert with 20 years of experience in the space. She is an executive director of The Embrace Collective and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Victoria University’s Institute for Health and Sport.

Zali co-authored the Embrace Kids book with Taryn Brumfitt and was the body image expert advisor on the Embrace Kids film.

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A warm welcome. You're listening to Ed Talks WA, the first in a series to inspire from the Department of Education, Western Australia.

I'm Marie-Anne Keefe, but please call me MAK.

It's a shocking truth that 70% of school children say their body image is their top concern. This is leading to a paediatric emergency in our classrooms, with kids experiencing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide far greater than ever before.

Enter our guest, Dr Zali Yager, an international body image expert who is on a mission to help one million Australian children embrace their bodies by the end of the year.

Zali, thanks for joining me. Now this is a very big job you have taken on, isn't it? 

Zali Yager

Yes, it sure is.


Take me right back to the beginning. How do you even become a body image expert?

Zali Yager

Well, I actually started off by becoming a health and PE teacher.

So in high school, I wanted to become a primary school teacher, mostly because I wanted to decorate a classroom. 


Didn't we all?

Zali Yager

And I loved teaching my younger brother and sister. Whenever there was a spare moment, I would sit them down and try and teach them the math and the English that I was learning at school. 

So, yeah, always loved teaching, went to become a health and PE teacher, even though I was the most uncoordinated person you could ever imagine. But, you know, my personal experience in high school was one where I sort of was in a larger body and got teased a lot for that and then went through a process of, you know, like many people changing my body through food and exercise and in ways that probably, you know on reflection now, aren't healthy. But I thought I was being really healthy at the time and those things were kind of positively reinforced by all the people around me. 

So I went through that process, started off becoming a health and PE teacher, loved learning about education, but got into schools and got really frustrated that I didn't get to spend a lot of time actually teaching.

So at that time, I think I was in 3rd year of uni, and someone suggested I should do a PhD. And I said, 'well you're going to have to tell me what that is, I really don't know' and when they said I would get to learn about something I was really interested in, I was like 'well, sign me up'.

So, I got very interested in the research space, mostly because I thought we could figure out the answers to some problems that I'd come across along the way in terms of body image.

So, did the PhD, trying to look into how we could prepare teachers to best educate and empower young people around their body image, bringing together the 2 things I was passionate in. 

And ever since, I've been doing research, I got very obsessed with figuring out what works to help people feel better about their bodies. And about 10 years ago, I kind of thought, 'oh if we could just find out what one program we could put into every school that would help kids to feel better about their bodies, then we can just do that and then all of the problems will be solved'.

And 10 years on, I now know that there is no easy answer like that.

Every school, every teacher, every class, almost every student needs something different. But through my journey of kind of moving out of academia and into, the Embrace Collective, we've really created a space where we can get all of the resources that we know are effective, out to teachers and schools and sporting clubs and all the places where young people live, learn and play.

And the more great high quality evidence-based programs and resources that are out there, the better in terms of our young people's health and wellbeing.


So you actually see this from every perspective. You're a former teacher, you're a scientist, but this is actually deeply personal work from what you've just told me, because you have lived this, you have felt this, and you know exactly what these young people, our young people, our students in classrooms across Western Australia are going through.

Zali Yager

Yeah, that's right. Unfortunately, I have felt that feeling of being in health class and kind of things being taught to me that I then kind of used in more disordered ways than I think they were intended when they were being taught in a food and nutrition class.

And I now work with a lot of young people. We have an incredible youth crew at the Embrace Collective, and they talk to me about what's happening at school and the sorts of things that they're getting taught. And often it's the exact same things that were happening to me when I was at school, you know, a long time ago now, and yet the activities and the lessons that they're doing, particularly around food and nutrition, are still the same and they're still causing problems.


It's probably the winged keel of the Embrace Kids Classroom program because this is a really powerful perspective that you bring to this, which is the fact that you have lived experience and you're able to bring all of that to trying to, as you say, solve these problems and help fix this.

It's an endemic. It's a crisis that we are facing.

Zali Yager

Yeah, that's right, and we're so lucky to have the Embrace Kids film to really drive this program.

So, I started working with Taryn after the first film. As a researcher, I wanted to know what impact the Embrace film was having on adult women. So, we conducted an evaluation and found out that it was actually just as helpful as all of the things that we'd put together as researchers, probably even more helpful because people actually wanted to watch the film.

And so then worked with her to develop the Embrace Kids film and make sure that it would be safe and effective for young people, bringing all of the research and evidence that we know around body image to that. 

The Embrace Kids film is amazing and then we were able to use that to break up into pieces and Taryn very generously stated right from the beginning that that film would be free to schools and this is the way that we're making it free to schools is by breaking up into classroom-ready pieces to go in the Embrace Kids classroom program alongside those evidence-based activities that we know from all of the research.

We know those are what will be effective.


So let's talk a bit more about your relationship with Taryn. From meeting both of you and seeing you together, you actually are 2 pieces of a whole; you're 2 peas in a pod. There's something very unique about the connection that you have and the skills that you both bring to be able to deliver this amazing work.

Can you talk to me a bit about that moment where, and it probably wasn't one moment, but where you saw that nexus or that connection or your coming together? What was that like?

Because it was well before Taryn was a household name, certainly well before she became the 2023 Australian of the Year.

Zali Yager

Yeah, I mean, there were a few moments. I went to see Embrace. I had, at the time, 3 kids under 3,

I was just excited to get a night out, to be honest, and went along to the cinema with a lot of other local mums. It was a packed cinema. And we watched that film and after, you know, at the end, there was not a single person who wasn't crying and there was not a single person who hadn't been really changed by watching it.

And I just thought at that moment how powerful it would be to be able to utilise film and creative media to communicate a lot of the things that researchers knew we should be telling people about food and weight and health.

So, that was kind of the main, I guess, that's what opened my eyes to the power of working with Taryn and the power of film as well. But I went to visit her in Adelaide many years later. We sort of kept in touch along the way, but went to visit her and we sort of had coffee and I was sort of you know, planning to learn from her. I wanted to know how we could reach more people with our research.

And by the end, she was like, 'well can you work on the film and can we write a book together please'? And all of a sudden, it was just, it just really came together. But I think often people in this space kind of shy away from working with people who seem like they're in an opposite kind of position.

You know, I was in a university, she was kind of running more creative projects. And the more that we came together and we just saw the power of combining those 2 things of science and creativity to create really engaging things. I think that's what's really driven us to work together. But also we just enjoy it. It's a lot of fun.


So there's something very intoxicating about Taryn. There's something very magnetic about her. You can't help but feel when you're in her presence, just sort of of like drawn into this absolute web of passion that she exudes in terms of the work that she does.

And at that moment where she is crowned the 2023 Australian of the Year, what's that like for you knowing that, you know, it is the work that you've done together that is now being celebrated on a national stage?

Zali Yager

Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, people sort of look at someone who's been awarded something like that and they think, 'oh they came out of nowhere', but actually she's been working very hard for like 10 years on this one, on this issue. So I think that it's very well deserved.

Also, she puts herself out there in ways that a lot of other people in this space probably wouldn't. She's ballsy and she goes for it in ways that sometimes, academics and researchers would step back and play it safe. So I think it's definitely well deserved, but in terms of what that was like, I mean it happens in January so it was kind of summer and we were kind of on a break, but everyone in our team was very excited and we were all watching on Zoom.

People often ask if you know beforehand that you're going to be awarded Australia at the Year and you definitely don't. Like it was, you know, all of a sudden I was rocking on the couch and then when she was awarded. We were all just obviously proud and emotional.

But then we just got right to work and we were like, okay, what do we need to do now? It kind of changed our plans a little bit for the year.


So she tells a very funny story and maybe you could fill in the gaps here, that prior to winning Australian of the Year, you'd made a sort of a commitment between yourselves that you were going to touch a certain number of lives of Australian children in 2023. However, in the excitement of the moment, that commitment got all of a sudden much larger. Tell me about that.

Zali Yager

Yeah, so we had a spreadsheet; we had a strategy; we had a plan, all of our programs, everything mapped out. We were going to reach a million children in 3 years. So, between 2023 and 2025.

We had it all planned out, how we could make sure that we would get these resources to a million young people. And then, you know, after Taryn was awarded Australian of the Year, then there's sort of lots of media interviews. She sort of had a few hours sleep, got up, had to go to Sydney for more breakfast television interviews and on the ABC News Breakfast, Taryn says 'we're going to reach a million children in one year'. 


And you're like, 'no, no, stop, stop her!'. 

Zali Yager

We're like, oh okay, read the news and just like, okay, go back to my spreadsheet, change a few things. And it's absolutely possible because of the incredible platform that Australian of the Year does give you and so many people in so many different places that probably wouldn't have listened before and now being curious and being open about this message and inviting Taryn to come and speak which is very helpful in sharing the message and then getting all of the resources into schools, sporting clubs, homes.


Well one of those places that may not have listened before this time is actually us here at the Department of Education. But, of course, we're listening very closely now because the Embrace Kids Classroom program is going to be made available in WA schools and I believe we're the first in the country to do this, so yay for us. 

Could you run me through the suite of resources and what our teachers can expect?

Zali Yager

Yeah, so we were very excited that WA was so forward and so proactive in taking on the Embrace Kids Classroom program. This is really designed as something that can just slot straight into health and PE classes for grade 5 and 6 students in primary schools and for grades 7 and 8 students in secondary schools.

And we know that teachers are very busy people and we know that, I was just very passionate about creating the resources that teachers don't have time to make themselves, which is, you know, often the really tricky things like videos and really in-depth kind of worksheets and things that are all aligned with what the research says to do.

So there are five lessons, it's all modular and teachers don't need to do any particular training beforehand, because each lesson starts with a clip from the Embrace Kids film and that kind of teaches and opens up the conversation in a really engaging way that for the theme of the lesson and then all of the slides, all of the worksheets and all of the kind of discussion points are provided to teachers in the guidebook.

So we're hoping that it's something that it's really straightforward for teachers to implement and that they can use it wherever it works in health and PE curriculum or as a part of kind of an additional pastoral care or well-being program.


And designed by a teacher, not only a scientist, but someone who has been a teacher. You are one of the best people I guess to understand exactly what it is that teachers need in a program of this kind. 

Zali Yager

I guess so. I mean I kind of looked around to find someone else that could do it.


Bad luck, it's over to you.

Zali Yager

I guess it should be me. But we did actually, because I've been in teacher education for a long time, but not in a classroom.

So, we did work with some other teachers who were in primary and secondary, and with a whole range of experts, dieticians, psychologists, to look through the program, as well as some of our lived experience advocates, just to make sure that there's something in there that everyone can relate to.


The other thing, having seen the resources myself, is they're fun. They're fun. 

They're things that are going to engage the students and engage the teachers and make this enjoyable because, let's be honest, the subject matter can be really confronting.

Zali Yager

Yeah, and a lot of teachers are really afraid to kind of talk about body image. I think that there's this sense that it's a really sensitive topic, but it doesn't have to be. 

And what we're trying to do is really broaden it out so that we're talking about appearance as a whole and how young people feel about their appearance and the main things that contribute to that are things around their identity, what they think that they're good at, and the comparisons they might make with other people, all of which we can target through other ways.

So it doesn't really feel like it's a sensitive issue when teachers are delivering this content and hopefully it's something that also helps to open up a conversation around gender identity. It's some of the first resources that teachers can use to address those new elements of the Australian curriculum that talk about gender identity.

So we're really proud of the... sorry, Taryn is just calling me.


Tell her you're busy doing a podcast.

Zali Yager

I know. I almost told her, like, 'don't call me in the next half an hour', but then I was like, 'no, no, it's going to be fine'.


She's picked up the psychic vibe. She knows something's going on.

Zali Yager

She knows we're talking about her. 


Yeah, exactly right.

Zali Yager

Yeah, but all of the activities are things that hopefully students will enjoy and that we can really use to move this conversation forward.


You've picked up on a really important issue there, and that is that teachers are, and rightly so, very nervous about this whole area. I mean, it is very sensitive, it does have to be handled with great care, because you're working with young people that in many cases are surrounded by these pressures every day.

What advice would you have for teachers who might be reticent about walking down the road of having these conversations and bringing these resources into the classroom?

Zali Yager

Hmm, well I guess the thing that's actually sensitive is talking about bodies and weight and food and those are the things that you know, we know from the research can have unintended negative effects on young people. But the activities that we've included in this program are all things that are based around self-compassion and appreciating your body functionality and all things that we know from the research can only really have positive effects. 

So I think that it's good to be a little bit cautious around some content, but what we really need to be considering is what we're teaching about food and to be making sure that all of the resources that we're using are evidence-based so that we don't have to be so afraid of what could, come up. 


Now it might be a bit early to be having this conversation, but what does the future look like in terms of Embrace Kids? Are there some special plans on the horizon and if so what might they be? 

Zali Yager

Well I do get excited about the next thing, but we do have to focus on the current thing, which is getting this program out and reaching these 1 million children this year. So the classroom program is kind of the first one out.

The next exciting thing is actually a program for early learning and early educators. So that's to try and help educators in child care and kindergarten settings, but also in those first few years of primary school to really understand the ways that they can improve young people's relationships with food and their bodies right from the very beginning. 

So that's the next one and then we'll have some Embrace Sport stuff and the parent stuff.

From my perspective, it's really important that, you know, people do focus a lot on schools. Last year we were doing these the Q&As after each Embrace Kids film and parents would the first thing that they would put up their hand and say is 'can you get this into every school?' And we were like, 'look, we're going to try'. 

But people often focus a lot on school curriculum and what we really want to make sure is that everything that goes around that, all of the adults that come into contact with our children in different settings, are going to have the consistent message so that they're also able to reinforce that in more positive ways when our kids go to sport and when they go to you know, their grandparents' house and all of the different places there's going to be, you know, that message of acceptance and of embracing their bodies.


Well, Zali, one of our ministers is the Minister for Early Childhood Education, so I'm going to make sure that this message goes straight to her and we're going to get her ready for your next chapter, which is so exciting. Your work is life-changing. I look forward to hearing that you have touched one million little lives this year.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

Zali Yager

Thank you.


To enjoy future episodes, follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts and on our social media channels. Remember, if you can choose to be anything, choose to be kind.

This podcast was recorded on Whadjuk Noongar land. We acknowledge the traditional custodians and pay respects to their Elders, past, present and future.



The Embrace Collective website.

The Embrace movie is currently available on Netflix.

Access the Taryn Brumfitt presentation on YouTube.

The film beat Guardians of the Galaxy and King Arthur at the box office in Germany and I I tell that because we all love a good Underdog Story and they never would have seen that coming right.. the Guardians of the Galaxy with their special effects. A film about body image, a documentary, number one - Taryn Brumfitt

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