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Body Image Woes: A Girls Only Problem?

April 21, 2012
As a feminist and as an elementary school teacher, every year I give the girls in my class the body image/impossible-standards-of-beauty-in-the-media talk, complete with a PowerPoint presentation and a student-led critique of an actual Seventeen magazine cover (“943 Ways to Look Pretty”, etc.).

I teach fifth grade, and according to many studies, it is fifth grade girls (ten and eleven-year-olds) who are right at the age at which unhealthy ideas about weight and beauty begin to have a negative effect on girls’ self-esteem.  The body image talk is always very popular, and the girls always “get it” right away and have a lot of questions and comments.  It seems that most of them, though they are certainly susceptible to negative media influence, have also been influenced by the “real beauty” campaigns of more recent years.  I have been encouraged by the positive reception that my talks receive and am feeling optimistic about the girls’ ability to navigate the media as they enter adolescence.

However, this year, I came to a rather unpleasant realization: it turns out that my boys might need this talk even more than my girls do.

Just as I was preparing to give the annual body image talk to my girls, I was confronted with an upsetting incident involving one of my fifth grade boys.  As the kids were coming back from PE one day, they walked in the door, and I heard a number of girls urgently assuring one of the boys that he was “not fat.”

I asked the boy what was going on, and he told me that he did not have a “pack” (I assume he meant a “six-pack”), and that he was therefore fat.  I told him that 11-year-old boys do not generally have six-packs, and that there was no reason why he SHOULD have one.

After this incident, I had a bad feeling, so I asked some of my other boys if they had noticed any of their friends talking about being or feeling fat.  They told me that they had.  I have heard a few other comments since then, and I have become more and more convinced that the media pressures that have had such a disasterous effect on women have turned their attention to men.

And why not?  It has worked so well on women!  Think of how much money the beauty product, diet, cosmetic surgery, etc. industries have made off of women.  If you could make men feel fat and ugly, think of how much money you could make off of them!

Look in the men’s magazines.  Watch the TV commercials.  The ads are changing.  And they’re starting to hit home.  I’m hearing it from adult men.  But most devastatingly, I’m hearing it from young boys.  Please.  Let’s not let our boys and men go through what we went through.

I am currently working on a presentation to give to my boys on male body image and on fighting the media that is trying to make them feel unattractive so that they’ll spend money on whatever product will supposedly make them look and smell like Ryan Gosling (since clearly only someone who looks and smells like Ryan Gosling could possibly be considered attractive).

Wish me luck, and wish the best of luck to both my boys and my girls.  We’re all going to need it.

  1. 11-year-old boys worrying about being fat! Now, that’s new! When I was that age, the boys only worried they didn’t have enough muscles. Except that most of them didn’t worry. Most of them were bursting with confidence about how strong they were, and they were happily anticipating all the muscles they would develop when they got a little older. Meanwhile, us girls were skipping meals because we thought we were too fat, and we were already worrying that our breasts were too small!

    Actually, it’s no wonder that the unrealistic appearance pressures are affecting, boys, too. It’s surprising that boys have been shielded from the pressures for as long as they have! But clearly they now need a slideshow of their own. Who knows, maybe you’ll manage to make life a little bit easier for some girls and boys? At least, it’s worth trying! If I end up teaching young people, I’ll do the same!

    • Yes, something’s different now for the boys. It really is starting to affect them in a way that it didn’t when I was growing up. (I’m 31.) But I think we’re in a unique position because we’ve already seen the effects that this has had on a generation of women. If we open our eyes, we do NOT have to let it happen to the boys.

      Thank you so much for your comments!

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