“Schoolboys should tell girls their idea of a perfect woman” is the extraordinary idea being put forward by an “expert” who is setting out to deal with the problems our society has over body image. Aric Sigman has told journalists that this project would have to ensure that it was boys from an older year-group explaining to younger girls what they found attractive in a woman, since that would be more influential. He explains in quotations from this article:
It would be helpful for them to explain that what they find attractive is not just physical qualities but also qualities like caring, the sound of a girl’s voice and her body language.
Boys don’t have in any way near as rigid a view on what an attractive figure should be and they value many other physical qualities, including eyes, hair, and body language.
This is such a ridiculous suggestion that I’m not sure where to start, but let’s begin with the idea that schoolboys should start telling girls what they think a woman should be like. Start? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mixed educational environment in which young women aren’t continually and graphically informed what men think is important and attractive about them. The notion that girls are uncertain as to what men demand of them is so naïve as to be faintly endearing, if it wasn’t dangerous. Woman are constantly bombarded with messages about how they should look, how they should behave, how they should react to men. Schoolboys are not famous for their reticence is discussing girls in front of them.
It’s also unbelievable that Sigman thinks girls should be instructed in these matters by older boys. As if the power dynamic between men and women isn’t skewed enough, he wants to ensure that girls hear strictures on how to remake themselves to please men from people who have more authority and social credibility. It is difficult to see how this won’t come close to legitimising the sexual grooming of underage girls by older school students. Girls are already encouraged to rely on men’s attention for their emotional and social validation. We regularly see the horrific problems which can caused when older men’s sexual interest is accepted as a scale of value for girls. This would appear to install that power imbalance as an approved way of girls to develop their sense of self.
That sense of self is to be developed along very specific lines, as well. The emotional quality mentioned in the quotation is “caring”, a stereotypically “feminine” characteristic which is frequently invoked to ensure that women feel expected to carry out unpaid labour. Childcare, cleaning, mentoring at work, emotional reassurance: these are all loaded onto women’s plate with the glib excuse that women are naturally “caring” and so it isn’t really work for them. Encouraging girls to see “caring” as something they can offer older men sounds as if they are being told to think less of themselves and more of other people. It’s an oddly negative quality to pick on, since it relates to how the girl ignores herself and concentrates on other people. No mention of creative talents, intellectual acumen or sports ability, I notice. Not anything she does or achieves. Just how she sounds or appears.
The argument also seems to rest on a belief that girls are getting one set of messages which can, and should, be changed. The “rigid…view of what an attractive figure should be” is presumably the blonde, slim stereotype familiar from Hollywood and children’s dolls. But that’s not how a sexist society like ours operates. Women aren’t all given a single standard and rewarded by how far they live up to it. They are subjected to contrasting and contradictory standards, ensuring that they can never be “in the right”. Be slim, but don’t be skinny. Take care of your looks, but don’t be vain. Remake yourself in the image we want, but don’t look “fake” or “artificial”. Wear makeup so you can look “natural”. Be sexually available, but don’t be slutty. Be caring but don’t be mumsy. Be quirky but don’t be a freak.
These aren’t demands for a happy moderation, even a rigidly patrolled one. They’re overlapping and clashing instructions, which ensure that girls are always infringing against some requirement or another. That “neurosis” about their bodies which Sigman so airily diagnoses and sets out to “cure” is not something girls dreamed up to make their emotional lives more interesting. It’s a rational state of confusion and angst when caught up in this aggressive and irrational set of narratives about how women should be.
All of this is underpinned by a frankly creepy assumption: that the problem with girls is that they don’t really understand what men want them to be. Just as in the discussion of “choreplay”, it frames women entirely from the perspective of men. Men’s gaze, men’s desires, men’s needs and convenience. If only women understood better what men wanted from them, then their problems would be over. It doesn’t imagine that women might find fulfilment in being released from a continual stream of demands on them. That they might need to reflect upon themselves and their own needs. There is no hint here that men’s sense of entitlement to determine how women look and act might be the problem rather than the solution. The objectification of women is not going to be solved by better objectification. Girls don’t need older boys to instruct them in being better boy-pleasers. I can’t believe this isn’t totally obvious.