Girls, strength, and the beauty ideal: A beach conversation

My five-year-old son befriended an eleven-year-old girl at the beach last week. As they worked together to create a sand castle, her dad and I chatted about my work as a media studies professor and his work as a high school art teacher.

“So, you said your research is about body image?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s something I’m really passionate about.”

“You know, my passion is figure drawing,” he said, “but it’s difficult to teach to high school students today. They just don’t have realistic ideas about the female body.”

“Oh, in what way?” I asked.

“Teenagers don’t know what real bodies look like any more,” he lamented. “They have a preconceived idea in their heads—a bias that they can’t see past. I can see in their drawings that they’re not seeing. So they complain: ‘Hey, Mr. Richards, how come all your women have muscles? They look like men. That’s gross.'”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Your students think that women with muscles look like men?”

10464138_10102463534299393_3682031155194906082_n“Yup, that’s what they say. I tell them, ‘Women have muscles, too! Their limbs aren’t just empty tubes.’ But they insist that the classic, idealized female form looks masculine. I can’t seem to convince them otherwise.”

As I thought for a moment, my son whooped with delight as the waves crashed over the ever-higher wall of sand that his new friend had built.

“Well,” I said, “I always say that our society should value girls and women for what they can do, not just how they look. The question is, ‘Is it better to be seen as a decorative object, or as a person who can do things?'”

We were quiet for a moment as the kids ran just past us to higher ground, the surf nipping at their heels. His daughter shoveled sand as quickly as possible, creating the walls of a new sand castle as the waves obliterated the old one. She was strong and in charge, and my little boy was enthralled to see her doing hard work that he, at five, could not.

“I never thought about it that way before, but that’s right,” her father said, nodding. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

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Related posts by Rebecca Hains:

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Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Her book, The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, is now available for pre-order from Amazon.

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.wordpress.com

 

22 Comments on “Girls, strength, and the beauty ideal: A beach conversation

  1. Thanks for sharing this! Sadly it’s not hard to imagine how all the visual input from the media keeps kids (and adults, too) from seeing what’s in front of them or even making sense of it.

  2. Reblogged this on Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker and commented:
    Interesting insights from a high school art teacher about how the thin ideal impacts girls’ image of not just their bodies, but bodies in general.

  3. I recently started a blog about female body perception and how social media is starting almost a paradigm shift — women need to be comfortable with who they are, and the media needs to stop delivering a falsehood of womanly beauty.

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  10. As a woman who rock climbs I find this very sad. I’m by no means muscly, but they do exist and I’m proud of them. I’ve worked hard to reach the level I’m at and think it is sad when you hear of teenagers having warped perceptions based on media.

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  15. My daughter is just 20 months old right now, and I find myself thinking about how to help her, in the future, focus on all the cool things she can do, and not just how she thinks she looks in the eyes of others. She’s so full of self-confidence and curiousity and tenacity that I want to do everything I can to protect and nuture it. Thank you for this blog, and for this insightful question!

  16. Reblogged this on Love Laugh Laundry and commented:
    My daughter is just 20 months old right now, and I find myself thinking about how to help her, in the future, focus on all the cool things she can do, and not just how she thinks she looks in the eyes of others. She’s so full of self-confidence and curiousity and tenacity that I want to do everything I can to protect and nuture it. This question is something I’ll put in my back pocket and save for when it’s needed.

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