“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.
I am so glad that this is being discussed by a man, it needs to be said from a guy to other guys. Sadly.
Jeanne de Montbaston said:
I’m glad you wrote this, because I just didn’t have the energy left.
As I was reading this I had an image of Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters in mind – a life of dressing to appeal to eligible bachelors, and feigning a quiet but cheery demeanour at all times, because that is what is expected. Life should not be a performance.
Ugh why do men keep having bright ideas to “fix” women??? We’ll liberate ourselves without their input fanx…
Your point about the contradictory expectations put upon women and girls is so key. That’s why no woman will ever conquer the “having it all” question–someone will always see her as defying one end of the spectrum. Would that we all heeded the words of Leslie Knope of ‘Parks & Rec’: “Am I trying to have it all? That question makes no sense. It’s a stupid question. Stop asking it.”
The Goldfish said:
I quoted you in my F-Word post on the subject. But to be honest, I’d already almost finished my post when I read yours and you put it so much better than I did.
MarinaS (@marstrina) said:
This is disgustingly good. You’re making me feel like a failure to feminism. Stop it at once.
Ha, thanks, Marina – comes of a lot of listening to people like you!
Vicky Walker said:
Having heard recently from 11 and 12 year old girls starting secondary school that they’re navigating interest and invitations from 16+ year old boys – who they currently find gross and weird “don’t they know how old we are?!” – this advice is so, so damaging. Your post sums it all up incredibly well.
Thanks – and that’s so depressing to hear it starts that young.
Sian White said:
I commented on the article, saying:
“How about we teach girls that their worth lies in more than just what men find attractive?”
What disturbs me is the response I got:
“As a woman you have the choice to do the hard work a man is obligated to do (choosing a _real_ job – not a fluffy study of art or similar BS) to make a living or to find a man who will provide her while she can feel empowered doing a fluffy job.
For the latter she need something to attract a man but not any man but the best man (means: highest status, most money) and the best way to do this is to look good/sexy.
That’s the “worth” many woman want to achieve because it makes their live much easier.
That’s the truth why “beauty” is so important to women.
If men wouldn’t be interested in beautiful women, they had only option 1 and beauty would be as “valuable” as it is with men. You ever wonder why a guy can be ugly but it doesn’t matter as long as he is wealthy?”
Medusa Jordan said:
Another issue is the assumption that all girls are heterosexual and therefore hang on to boys every opinion desperately trying to be ‘liked’. I was vulnerable to this as a young teen. If I had been told that being a lesbian was fine I would not have spent years trying to force myself into heteronormative performance. I cannot imagine how much better my life would have been then if I had not been so enslaved to what older boys thought of me.