Why is it that girls are still being encouraged to take up less space, while boys are encouraged to bulk themselves up?
In my gender studies courses at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time talking about the insidious influence of the media on both girls’ and boys’ self-image.
Girls receive the message that the ideal girl is thin and pale, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes. She’s sexy but not threatening—if she’s smart, she doesn’t flaunt it the way she does her big boobs and shapely legs.
Boys, on the other hand, are rewarded for being assertive and athletic. It’s a good thing if they take up a lot of space in the room as well as a lot of airtime in any social context.
It is no coincidence that girls are disproportionately affected by eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia—psycho-somatic illnesses marked by a distortion of one’s self-image and a manic desire to become smaller.
Girls with these eating disorders imagine themselves to be fat, a horrible three-letter word, no matter how waif-thin they starve themselves into becoming. Bulimics binge-eat and then purge, vomiting up their meal before it can be converted to the dreaded fat on their bodies.
Anorexics just starve themselves, and often add demanding exercise regimens to the mix to make good and sure they won’t be fat.
Meanwhile, boys abuse protein powders loaded with steroids to make themselves bigger and more muscular.
Yesterday I went to see a screening of the new short film “Selfie,” made right here in Great Barrington MA by filmmaker Cynthia Wade and photographer Michael Crook, who spent a week in our local high school talking about body image and self esteem with teenage girls.
One girl complained of the roundness of her face, another of her bushy hair, another of her red cheeks, another of her prominent nose.
But through guided discussions about body image and beauty, and the process of creating a photo show of their “selfies” and video-taped interviews of themselves and their mothers for the film, they were made more aware of how superficial it is to obsess over the places where their own human faces fall short of the air-brushed ideal.
Beauty is so much more than what we can see, the girls and the film audience concluded. It is not about conforming to some pre-established, often totally unrealistic ideal. How boring would it be if every girl looked like Barbie, and every boy looked like Ken?
Yesterday’s New York Times discussed the “Selfie” film, along with a new trend among adolescent girls to share “uglies,” that is, selfies that are deliberately staged to portray the self-photographer as “ugly.”
The Times seemed to think this was an advance—that girls who were unafraid to show themselves making “ugly faces” into the camera were more liberated, less browbeaten by media stereotypes.
To me, a much more profound advance would be represented by girls whose “selfies” were not about their physical appearance at all.
What if women and girls channeled all that nervous energy over how we look into our work in the world instead?
Following the screening of “Selfies,” Berkshire International Film Festival Director Kelley Vickery presented the short film SEPIDEH, which created quite a buzz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Made by Danish director Berit Madsen, the film is a documentary that follows the life of the titular teenager, an Iranian girl who grows from a young girl obsessed with Albert Einstein into a woman engaged to be married and heading to university to study astronomy.
Her passion for learning and her determination to achieve her goals are paramount. And in the end, these shining characteristics succeed in attracting to her a suitor who has every intention of helping her become the outstanding woman she is meant to be.
So should it be for every young woman. Teenage girls should be focused on zeroing in on their passions, defining their goals, and going after them.
What could be more beautiful than a girl who knows what she wants, is fully ignited with a sense of purpose, and is pursuing her dreams at full tilt?