My eighth-grade girls squealed at the shirtless male movie star photos in a magazine. “Oh my gosh! Check out the abs on this one!”
“Yeah,” responded another. “And look at that picture of Taylor Lautner. His face isn’t very good looking, but who cares. Look at those muscles!”
This is a typical exchange in my classroom during lunch or before morning meeting. As a teenager, I remember flipping through fashion and celebrity magazines, looking at female models with long legs, luminous skin and perfect hair. They represented what I was supposed to be. Knowing how far away I was from looking like them definitely made me feel ugly. But the magazines were also telling me what kind of guy I should find attractive. Apparently, not much has changed in teenage popular culture.
When the girls talk like this, the boys in my class get very quiet. Some look down or away. None of them, to my knowledge, have “six packs” or “ripped” muscles. Sometimes I hear them comparing muscle size, trying hard to prove that their biceps are the biggest and they make fun of each other for being too short or too skinny.
I have only recently realized the extent to which boys worry about such things. Does the cultural expectation that they turn into “strong, manly men” leave them feeling inferior, unattractive and worthless? Until I became a teacher, making me privy to the confidential conversations between adolescent boys, I only thought girls felt inferior to the beautiful people they see in magazines and in the movies.
For centuries, societies have projected specific, physical expectations onto both men and women. There exists a double standard in the discussion of body image and muscular endowments in schools. It would be totally inappropriate to discuss women’s body parts in a similar manner. If my boys brought in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue and starting shouting out comments about the models, the girls and I would both scold them.
I pointed out this dichotomy to my students, but the girls insisted that this was different. When I pressed them for an explanation, they were unable to produce one. They claimed that this sort of talk is harmless. But looking at how their comments were affecting the boys, I wasn’t so sure. Besides, these types of comments make my girls sound shallow; it sends the message that what a girl wants in a partner is not intelligence, kindness and a sense of humor, but a well-sculpted body.
What it comes down to is that any type of objectification can be harmful and can negate what makes a person an individual. Therefore, I have asked that there be no more talk of abs in my classroom. Although the girls protested a bit at first, they respected the reasoning behind it. They understand how painful it is to be judged solely on your looks. I want to provide an environment where my boys can feel confident, worthy and important- regardless of muscle tone.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.