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Every year, I teach a class called Growth Ed to 5th graders. It should be called Sex Ed Without the Sex, but the course
title is beside the point.
Growth Ed basically covers everything these kids need to
know about their changing bodies. I teach the class once a week for a month—one
day about nutrition, exercise and sleep; another day on hormones and periods;
and so on—so there is a lot to cram into each hour. But I dedicate one entire
session to Photoshop and the beauty myth, and I aim this talk mostly at the boys.
You see, kids know all about tweaking images. They recognize
that celebrities are made up for the red carpet and they understand the mainstay
that is plastic surgery. In fact, they are already experts at enhancing their
own photos. But there seems to be a huge gender gap when it comes to internalizing
these lessons: Girls get it, but boys don't.
In my class, I ask the kids to bring in whatever magazines
happen to be lying around their house. Doesn't matter to me if it is Sports Illustrated or US Weekly or even Architectural Digest. Just grab what you've got. When they come
into the class, I give them the following instruction, "Find a picture that is
real." And that's all I say.
What happens from there—year in and year out it's always the
same—goes like this. The girls flip carefully through the magazines, page by
page. The boys, on the other hand, race through the content almost as if they
are shuffling a deck of cards. They find their images and begin to laugh, at
first giggling quietly but slowly building to a loud crack-up. One boy
inevitably raises his hand while the girls are still meticulously combing
"I found one!" the bravest boy in the bunch will say. At
which point he holds above his head an image that is inevitably a bikini model (or
sometimes a lingerie model, but really who can tell the difference?) with
perfectly tanned skin, voluptuous breasts, a teeny tiny waist and not a
freckle or pimple in sight.
Huge outbursts of laughter. From the boys, that is. The
girls range from straight-faced to nauseous.
"Girls," I say, "That image is not real. You know this,
right?" And their heads nod furiously. I go on. "The skin is not real, neither
its complexion nor its color. Maybe she has a spray-on tan, but her flaws—and
she has some—were definitely Photoshopped out. And her shape isn't real
either—her waist, her breasts, her legs have all been modified."
The girls know this and I can see it in their eyes that they
know this, but they are relieved to be told that it is so. Especially in the
context of a health class, which is all about validating true messages related
to the body. Everywhere they turn, girls see warped ideas of how their body can
and should look, so it always helps for them to hear this message again.
"Boys," I continue. "Your girlfriends will never look like
this." The laughter stops. They are actually kind of shocked, as if they have
never considered such a thing. Our boys have never been taught about the beauty
Today's mothers are a part of Generation X, a generation that
was fiercely educated to recognize the difference between how women really look
and how they are portrayed. We are fairly good at passing this knowledge on to
our daughters because when we see images that are patently fake or degrading,
we point them out with ease. But when it comes to our sons, we forget to have
the conversations. We don't acknowledge the falsehood of enhanced images of
women to our boys mostly because we don't think to.
More than that, we don't even notice that the myth applies
just as much to men. All around us are images of bare-chested males with
six-pack abs; their scalps adorned with full heads of hair or shaven bald
but nothing in between; and never a blemish or strand on their trunk,
shoulders or back. It is easy to forget that our sons think this is how they
will—or should—look when they grow up. It's the beauty myth all over again,
In my class, we move from the bikini model to the
athlete-turned-pinup rather quickly. Again, it's always the same. After the
girls see what the boys have chosen to hold up, they immediately find the male
counterpart images, mostly as an act of retribution. And this opens the
conversation not just about the pressure to look a certain way but also the
products that are peddled to kids promising to make them so. From muscle milks
and sports drinks to weight loss and body building supplements, we talk about
the lies in advertising and the outright dangers of many of these products.
I am always amazed at the predictability of the dialogue,
but I shouldn't be. Teaching kids about body development almost inevitably
skews towards the girls. Their bodies are transforming before everyone's eyes,
and they certainly want to talk about it more than the guys. At home, most of
the time moms pick up the slack with their daughters, but there is a nearly
universal you-should-have-the-talk-with-him debate among parents when it comes
to their sons. And there is a fallacy—really more a fantasy—that it is one
talk, when really the teaching only happens through many talks over many years.
So the boys historically get left out of the conversation.
The next time you are checking out at the grocery
store, pick up a magazine and flip through it. You'll see what I mean. And then
start talking to your boys. Take the conversation beyond the simple one about
how exercise and healthy eating build strong muscles and bones. Talk about the
beauty myth to build strong self-esteem.