Camp is over now. My tenure in the classroom, with these wonderful and invigorating and frustrating kids, is over for this summer. And as much as I hope I taught them a thing or two, I’m mostly still thinking about the things they taught me. Wednesday, I had an interesting moment with some of my students and I’ve been thinking about it since. And since this space is supposed to be where I reflect on teaching and self-representation, I think it’s a pretty fitting time to bring it up.
Some background: one of the courses I’m teaching this summer is an introduction to media literacy course that I’ve titled “Reading the World Well.” The overall goal is to help students learn how to read media images more critically and become more analytical, skeptical, and conscious consumers. Our first week focused on advertising images and my students proved to be amazingly adept at discerning the hidden messages that advertising sends us about our bodies, our selves, and our society. In this second week, we look at how we represent and “sell” ourselves, focusing on how internet platforms like facebook, twitter, and personal blogs change the way we present ourselves and interact with others.
This image — from a recent Ralph Lauren campaign — is one that we discuss at length. One of the things I try to get my students to realize is that we see images like this and we find them disgusting, horrible, and repellent. We see this and we protest the unreasonable, unattainable, inhuman images pitched to us by advertising firms that are banking on our self-loathing spurring us to spend money on their product. But we only challenge what we notice and we only notice stuff like this image, where the model has been so drastically photoshopped that she looks like a praying mantis. What we don’t notice is the subtle alterations that blanket our media landscape and that may be the biggest problem.
We spend more time on this image and the subtle, skilled photoshoping that’s been done to make Katy Perry “acceptable” for the cover of Rolling Stone. We discuss how much time, energy, makeup, lighting, etc., went into making Perry look how she does in the before, how demonstrably beautiful she is, how unattainable her body is for many women. And then how even despite all this supposed perfection, the physical Perry isn’t good enough and she must still be digitally altered and transformed into the impossible image we see on the cover. Is this not as troubling as the Ralph Lauren ad?
So in this class we try to make the connection between the images of bodies (and female bodies in particular) and how we feel about our own bodies, how we imagine our selves: on Wednesday, we spent time talking about how we want to be seen and what we do to make that happen. Do we de-tag pictures of ourselves that we think make us look unattractive, that make us look boring, that make us look fat? Do we edit ourselves to make our image acceptable, to others and to ourselves, to fit into that impossible beauty ideal? For example, I told them all that it’s important to me that I am seen as smart, so I try to use proper grammar, a large vocabulary, and I make reference to myself engaging in “smart” activities (like reading the New York Times, being a Ph.D. student, or enjoying poetry). I think my candor helped them open up about how they, too, are doing this and we got a very interesting discussion going.
It was during this discussion that a student said something I was, am, and (I expect) will continue to be floored by:
“I want to be seen as confident in my body,” she said, “but I’m not skinny or fat enough.”
I paused, completely unsure of how to respond. “I’m sorry, can you explain that to me?” I asked.
“Well,” she elaborated, “it’s like, if I was really skinny and pretty, I could be confident in my body, because I’d be pretty enough, you know? Or, since we all, like, know we’re not supposed to feel bad about our bodies, I could be confident if I was bigger. But I’m, like, just a normal size, so I feel like it looks weird if I am all, like, confident and strutting my stuff and whatever.”
I didn’t know how to handle that statement. I just stood there, mouth agape, looking at this young girl. She’s 13 years old. By my eye, she’s beautiful, with the kind of coltish enthusiasm and awkward grace that I can already see growing into the real beauty of womanhood. Moreover, she’s someone who I would call thin. She looks healthy, well taken care of, comfortably growing and changing and turning into an adult. And yet. And yet she feels unsure of how to treat her body because she’s just, well, just healthy. Because the images of beauty and of ideal femininity that she sees most often do not look like her, do not resemble her body. And yet she feels like she cannot be confident because her body — healthy, average, etc. — is not something she sees regularly.
I think I missed a real teachable moment here, because I couldn’t articulate just how sad, astute, and important her statement was. Because I couldn’t imagine how to stand in front of my classroom and say that yes, I, too, wonder where the women who look like me are. That I, too, wonder what exactly a “healthy” body is supposed to look like, what an “able” body is, what it means to feel “pretty”. That I, too, sometimes look in the mirror and hate my body — a body that treats me well, that works the way I want it to, that exists in a comfortable equilibrium with itself — and then, on the same day, look at pictures of myself on this blog and love what I see. That I, too, am uncertain of the standards I’m holding myself to.
I talk to my students regularly about what a “good” body is. I repeat, over and over, that a good body is the body that we’re in. That a good body is a body wherein the cells continue to split via that miracle of mitosis, wherein the blood still delivers the lungs’ oxygen to our muscles and our fingertips and our brain. And yet. And yet this idea of what a good body and a good woman and a good image might be is not so simple as just rejoicing in the efficacy of our physical selves because it’s absolutely bound up in how those selves are sold to us.
I think back on the girl I was at her age and think, yes. Yes I hated myself, then, for being neither so thin that I was acceptable nor so strong that I could not care. And I’ve regularly looked back at pictures of myself in embarrassment, unsure of how to love myself in retrospection when I still feel the sting of the shame and self-loathing I foisted upon myself then.
We moved on. I lost the moment. I didn’t say anything to this girl. But her statement stuck with me such that I sat there that day, typing that explanation, that question, while students in my next class were writing their short stories. While the class was imagining something new, crafting fictive worlds of their own creation, I was thinking back on that one girl in that one class and wondering what the world will look like for her, for them, as they all grow up. And now here I am, reading over these words, days later, and wondering what I could have said then, to her and to them and to myself at that age, about how we know ourselves, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves and why, sweet goodness, why we are being taught to so very much loathe ourselves.