A few years ago, I based a writing class for older teens and young adults on the way the media portray the female body. We focused primarily on hypersexualization, whitewashing, body image and the pressure to be thin. Students also brought up other related topics.
I wanted to focus on the portrayal of the female body because I recalled becoming aware of the objectification of women as a high school student. Girls who weren’t recognized as pretty or beautiful or striking, or who weren’t white or thin, were aware of how they didn’t fit in. I remember friends being critical about skin color, weight or hair texture. Many said they wanted to get a “boob job” as soon as they were 18. High school was often a painful place.
In my class of predominantly white, middle-class students, we looked critically at ads from magazines in print and online. We noted how the women were posed, whether they were being touched by men and how often the ad implied sex. We talked about the shapes of the bodies, both male and female, being portrayed. Men, my students found, were “ripped” and had sharp jaw lines. They were thin. Women were often skinny—one student counted how often he saw ribs on the models—and generally white.
As we explored the ads, students became more aggressive in their analysis of how sex, and the sexualized female body, is used to sell products. One student made a montage of ads for a particular brand of mint chewing gum; the ads showed hypersexualized women who’d been covered with glitter to give them the appearance of being “frosty.”
Then we talked about how the incessant portrayal of a very narrow type of female beauty might be damaging for young women. The young women in my class talked about eating disorders and the beauty routines they saw others performing or performed themselves. Very few of these young women said they did these things for themselves.
It wasn’t just my female students taking on these concepts. One young man talked about his struggle with weight and eating as a wrestler and about how he believed he needed to look like the men portrayed in men’s magazines.
It was clear that my students understood that the images they saw were altered, but they had never thought critically about what the media portray as “normal.” This was especially true when we talked about the presence (or lack thereof) of people of color or people with disabilities. We talked about how the media can render people invisible by not including them.
I had hoped this class would help students become more critical consumers of advertising and examine exactly what it is they’re being sold—both the product and the idea. About six months later, I received evidence that our class discussion continued to resonate with students. A male student emailed me to say my class had helped him understand why his girlfriend often complained she was fat. He now tells his girlfriend specific things he finds attractive about her, and they deconstruct the images on billboards from time to time when they are out together. “She doesn’t ask me for reassurances about her body as much anymore,” he wrote. “That’s good, I think.”
Indeed, it is good. It is the start of the evolution of our culture.
Clift is a writer and a substitute teacher who focuses on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs for seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional settings.