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?”
“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.”
Related posts by Rebecca Hains:
- “Modern beauty standards imposed on classic art show narrowness of today’s ideal”
- “When women look strong: The sexism at Wimbledon”
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.