Friday, December 10, 2010

How can we combat poor body image in young girls?

As a research and writing instructor, I have read many papers but the one that really struck me was a recent paper on Women’s Studies and Middle School Girls. The paper discusses the fact that it is in middle school when puberty strikes and young girls are most susceptible to the bombardment by the media and peer groups that they must look and act a certain way. My student’s hypothesis was that if middle school administrators were to include a course on women’s studies, it would go a long way to help young girls combat issues related to poor body image. To teach them to accept who they are as individuals and to be proud of who they are and how they look, regardless of what pop culture says.

I thought this was brilliant. I began talking about this idea with various people and I was surprised to see the divergence in views. Some believe feminism is too radical, too political – an idea that would only harm girls into always viewing themselves as the victim and men as the victimizer. Others believe feminism isn’t taken seriously enough and should be taught as young as grade school, after all, we see eating disorders crop up in girls as young as nine.

This is not the argument I want to be involved in. What I want to discuss is the fact that women continue to be objectified by the media. It is a woman’s body, a woman’s beauty, a woman’s sexuality that is forced down all of our throats. Look at the cover of any woman’s magazine and a media appropriate beautiful woman will stare down at you along with large slogans for helping your love life, losing that extra 10 pounds, finding the perfect man, etc. Music videos are filled with images of thin, sexy women gyrating in skimpy bikinis. Even Disney and Nickelodeon put out television and music stars who all look like the personification of what the media says is “beauty.” It is not what I believe is beauty. Not what I want my children to believe. But how can we combat the incessant drone of this message?

Objectification is not merely a problem for women. It is also one that affects young boys and men. Young boys can be just as susceptible to issues of poor body image. But for purposes of this post, I want to focus on young girls. We must no longer allow the media to dictate how our girls view themselves. We must teach them to get rid of that third party view and to look at themselves with their own eyes wide open. They mustn’t look in the mirror hoping to see someone who looks like a model or actor. They must look in the mirror and see who they really are and to be proud of what they see. By allowing women’s studies to be introduced into a middle school curriculum, young girls can start to understand what objectification is and how psychologically harmful it can be. By having this conversation with our daughters, we can expose the lies that the media forces us to accept as gospel. Beauty is not the end all. Beauty is only skin deep. Self-worth is where true beauty lies.

So regardless of what you feel about feminist literature, I think there is much merit in discussing historically where women were, where women continue to be in our society, and what we can do to help institute a continuing change for the better. There is great value in critical discussions of body images, objectification, psychology as it all relates to gender studies. These are all issues that you would find in college courses so is it wrong to ask for it to be included in the middle school curriculum? I say no. I say this is the best time to begin this conversation. That it is good for boys and girls. Education is the most effective tool. Providing these feminist theories at a younger age arms our girls against the pervasive danger of media objectification.

I’d love to know what you all think. I’d love to know if this is a plausible idea and if it, what can we do to make it a reality.


ssas said...

I have both a boy and a girl, so I think doing gender- focused coursework and discussion for both sexes would help a lot. And, it would help if each studied the other side, as well.

Keeping it all open is key.

But day-to-day, I think helping girls and boys find the activity that makes their souls sing is even more important to them as people. For me it was horsebackriding. I spent very little time focused on my looks (and I was one homely little kid and unpopular, etc) because I had some self confidence from being able to control a 1000 pound animal. Ditto art and writing. For my son it's target shooting and drums.

Everyone needs their thing.

Merry Monteleone said...

I agree with SS@S, while I think it would be a giant great step to do women studies in middle school, I think it's got to be a matter of addressing both boys and girls.

My daughter is thin. She eats, believe me, she just is one of those people that's very active and has that body type. The nurse at school told her she was underweight (which she's not) and basically accused her of starving herself... then she was all worried that she's TOO thin. What the nurse didn't know was that she hit a four inch growth spurt this year and her body hasn't filled out enough to catch up yet... she eats, her diet's way better than mine.

Sometimes it's the adults in school that do some of the damage. If the nurse was legitimately worried about it, she should have called me. I could have cleared it up without any of that.

Now, she also had a boy in fifth grade call her fat once. As I said, she's not fat, but this kid already knew at 10 years old that a great way to make a girl feel bad was to insult her weight - true or not. That's why I think it can't be solely focused on the girls. I think there's something great to be said for a space where girls get to talk freely only with each other... but boys have to be included in the discussion somewhere too.... because otherwise, when they're outside of that classroom bubble, they'll still be faced with the same influences from their peers and the media... bolstering their esteem has to be a full time thing... or rather teaching them to have their own confidence..

Anyway, I think it's a great discussion... and one that needs to be brought to the forefront on a much more regular basis than it generally is.

Rena Jones said...

I think it needs to be addressed more. I also think it needs to be addressed more by the parents. We need to focus more on being healthy as well as self-worth, like you said. And mostly, we need to teach our kids to stop focusing on THEMSELVES so much and think more about others.

Great post, btw!

And don't even get me started on the Disney and other companies bringing so much sex/sexuality into their animated films. That's one of my pet peeves.

anna said...

This is such an interesting and important issue and is one I think about a lot too. As someone who has worked a lot in early childhood settings and with families, one thing I am aware of is how much children are exposed to women's anxieties about weight - discussions about diets and little jokes about how 'I really shouldn't' and self-deprecating remarks about being overweight (often made by women who aren't even slightly overweight). All of this is being absorbed constantly by children, perhaps especially young girls, and I feel it's a problem that needs acknowledging. I think it creates a sense that dieting and worrying about weight is some kind of rite of passage for growing girls.

Cheryl Kauffman said...

I definitely think this should be taught in middle schools. I also think it would be great to include a course on the effects on bullying. I think it all boils down to kids learning to treat each other with respect, and to learn to respect themselves. We dealt with a lot of bullying at my daughter's public middle school, which is why I had to put her in a private school. Her school now does a great job encouraging kids to compliment each other, and they take some time each day to talk about respect and self esteem. I think it would be important in any course to engage the kids in discussion rather than just having a text book lesson.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I absolutely think that it needs to be education for both boys and girls. And I do strongly believe that kids need to have something to focus on that brings them achievement and self-respect. And I do believe that more parents need to be more involved in having these types of discussions with their children.

I think the idea of having feminist studies integrated into a middle school curriculum for boys and girls has great merit to overcoming the stranglehold the media has on what are considered standards of beauty. Both boys and girls need to learn history of how women were treated in the past, how they are still treated in some parts of the world, and what we still need to overcome. I always believe that education is the key and the younger we can teach them the values of self-worth and not to judge people by third party standards is important.

laughingwolf said...

as long as there's the 'hollywood ideal', further 'praised' in the media, 'regular' folk don't stand a chance... unless they can be convinced of their own positive body/mind image... damned difficult under the circumstances :(

C.R. Evers said...

I've dealt with body issues all my life, and with 3 girls, I worry about the body issues that they will have. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I have no idea how to do it, but I'm all for people trying to figure out how.

Kimbra Kasch said...

I always tried to encourage my kids to be active and keep fit. It's all about health really and no two bodies are the same.

But kids and even adults struggle with body image. I've recently started weight watchers because I like to be active and I was getting too heavy to do the things I like to do, without my ankles hurting :( - Luckily, I've lost almost 15 pounds. :)

Kristy said...

Perhaps this was already stated in comments, but I am at work and must read quickly. Sorry if this has been addressed, but . . .

I agree with you; however, I feel it's just as important as boys and men to be introduced into women's studies. After all, they're just as responsible (if not more!) for putting these images into the world. Perhaps a greater understanding and appreciation for women and real beauty at a younger age can help breed a new image of women for the future.

I'd love to see girls at even younger ages introduced to this so that by the time they reach middle school, it isn't a new thing they can mock and take lightly, as they most definitely will to fight their own discomfort with the subject matter.

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