As the mother of an almost-11-year-old daughter I have spent a great deal of time attempting to mitigate the effects of a toxic culture that destroys girls’ self-esteem.
I try to model healthy self-concept and body positivity. I have never been on a diet or talked about dieting, other than to point out how unhealthy restrictive eating can be. I have never associated exercise with weight loss or shaping my body to some predetermined standard of “healthy” or “beautiful.” I rock my bikinis with my cellulite, loose skin from carrying a baby, and stretch marks.
But in spite of all of my efforts, I know that messages are everywhere saying a woman’s inherent value lies in how beautiful or desirable to men she is (a very arbitrary and subjective standard). I know that the message that thinness is important-essential even-is everywhere. I know that objectifying gazes and external appraisals are things I cannot shield her from.
I have seen the effects of these salient messages already, when my daughter had a friend in preschool (preschool!) that would comment on how thin she was and how lucky she was to be thin. She has seen fat friends teased about their weight. I have seen her worry about eating healthily, and I have wondered if she is worried about actually eating healthily or if she has internalized the ubiquitous message that healthy=thin, and being thin is the ever-important goal.
And so, when I read that some “expert” in the UK has advised that male students can “fight neurosis” by telling female students what they find attractive, my immediate reaction is a vehement and vociferous “NO!”
First, it concerns me to see an expert – a male expert – advising teachers to encourage male students (he suggests they should be older boys) to engage in externally appraising female students’ bodies in order to dispel body dysmorphia. When an expert makes recommendations, people tend to listen to and trust them. It is concerning, then, that although Dr. Aric Sigman holds a Ph.D., his expertise seems not to extend to the sociocultural contributors to body dysmorphia in girls.
If he had any understanding of how cultural transmission of knowledge of what is attractive and valuable works, he would understand that the widespread body dysmorphia experienced by girls is, in part, caused by those very external appraisals that Dr. Sigman is recommending. In fact, the last thing these female students need is another source of male appraisal of female attractiveness.
We need to stop positioning girls’ worth by how attractive they are to males. They do not need to be told by their peers how to be pretty enough, or attractive enough. What we need to be telling girls is that they exist for themselves and that their bodies are their own.
Second, the very way in which Dr. Sigman positions his argument is relying on sexist ideas; his very tactic only serves to reinforce that what matters for girls is how they can be desirable to males. In fact, it’s embedded in his very argument for his recommended approach:
“An increase in fat on hips, thighs and bottoms is not only natural but good for girls because it is appealing to males,” said Dr Sigman, “It’s protects girls from heart disease and diabetes and the great news is that men like that body fat on women.”
This is where body dysmorphia already comes from – girls being taught that their greatest asset is their beauty, that their most important attribute is being attractive to men, and their health is just a secondary bonus to that! This is why body dissatisfaction in girls and women is so widespread that it is referred to as normative discontent.
Normative! It is “normal” for women to be dissatisfied with their bodies.
So it would stand to argue that the solution is not to engage in the very same behaviour that contributes to this “neurosis,” as he calls it. It would be more effective and sensible, perhaps, to target the culture that places girls’ and women’s value in their appearance by not having boys and men focus on their appearance as an identification of their worth but rather challenging cultural messages about what is beautiful, and, more importantly, what makes girls valuable as human beings.
Lastly, what irks me about Sigman’s approach is that he refers to girls’ body dysmorphia as “neurosis” rather than pointing to the neurosis of a culture that has placed this burden on girls and women.
Within the psychological community, we have a bad habit of placing the onus on the individual, when, very often, mental health symptoms are related to cultural phenomena. These girls don’t suffer neurosis; they suffer a culture with an obsession on thinness and beauty standards imposed upon our girls and women.
If Sigman understood how this culture functions to create these issues, the last thing he would be recommending would be for boys to tell girls how to be more attractive to them.
Editor’s Note: If you want to read more on Sigman and the ridiculous things he’s saying, I recommend this article by Lyndsay Kirkham at Syndication on the Rights of Women.