How Our Classrooms are Damaging the Female Body Image

Turning a critical eye to girls’ bodies from a young age teaches them that they must live up to society’s expectations of how they should look and dress. Why should females value how they look over who they are?

by Choo Kai Lin, Change Maker

 “Math class is tough,” said Barbie. Those were the first words this iconic blonde symbol of the femininity declared back in 1992 in a segment titled Barbie Teen Talk. Clearly, gender stereotypes are not a new concept. Obviously, the world’s most famous doll agrees with the age-old cliché of females being intellectually inferior to their male counterparts. How often do we overlook the potential damage these stereotypes do, especially in an educational setting?

 In today’s society, gender bias influences each and every individual. As members of this gendered society, we recognize and accept characteristics of femininity and masculinity, moulding our bodies and altering our body images accordingly to fit social expectations.

 These gendered attitudes are emphasized in our system of schooling, creating and maintaining gender inequalities, part of which includes society greatly emphasising and controlling the female body. Young girls in Singapore today are at an increasing risk of negative body images and low self- esteem, which may be due to social stereotyping and cultural notions of female bodies that are reinforced within their schools.

 Stereotyping girls as intellectually-inferior to their male counterparts damages their notions of self-worth, and instead overemphasizes the importance of female physical attractiveness, instead of personal traits.  Hailing from a single-sex secondary school, my schoolmates and I were commonly described as “bimbos” and “girly” by others. The identity of an entire school community was reduced to simplistic, and not-so-flattering, stereotypes of femininity, often despite its evident merit in both academics and sports. In fact, it is common practice in popular culture for schools to be ranked based on the perceived physical attractiveness of their female students. This attitude assumes a woman’s natural state as an object valued for aesthetic appeal. Her potential as a person is undermined by sending the message that women are more valued for their appearance than for their talents.  What effects will the subtle, yet large-scale, objectification of female students in schools have on their perception of themselves?

 Perhaps what is even more distressing is the school administration’s growing role in imposing unrealistic ideals of the female body. At a recent family gathering, I found out that my seven-year-old cousin has been deemed overweight and forced to join a “Health Club” at school. Apparently, in many primary schools all over the country, it is becoming increasingly common for “overweight” children to be forced to join health clubs, skipping recess and partaking in physical activity as part of an initiative to combat childhood obesity. Essentially, “Health Club”, or more commonly, TAF (Trim and Fit) clubs, are premises to enforce rigid notions of ideal body types, and, perhaps even more dangerously, equate being thin with being ‘healthy’. As a result, adolescents are body-shamed into believing that being “skinny” is the ideal body shape.

In an interview with NBC News, a primary school girl expressed that she felt “sad…to look at people [because they were] so skinny and could wear so many clothes”. At just ten years old, this little girl has already developed a distorted body image and an inferiority complex. Demanding that she forgo food during recess in favour of dribbling a basketball, as in many such clubs in the name of ‘health’, will only worsen the problem. One could argue that these school policies, designed originally with good intentions, are now creating body image problems for future generations. By policing their bodies from a young age, these girls are taught that they must live up to society’s expectations of how they should look and dress. Damagingly, this then results in females themselves learning to measure their value by their appearance.

However, gender stereotypes are harmful to all, even male students. With emphasis on masculinity in the media, more boys are under pressure to live up to society’s notions of what a “real man” is. In a study conducted on participants who had undergone penile enlargement surgery, a majority of the participants had expressed previous reservations about going into shared school showers and engaging in physical activities in school–showing once again that the negative effects of gender expectations start from early on, most often at some point in school. Many participants cited anxiety about their peers’ perception of how ‘macho’, or masculine, they were as a prime reason for undergoing such an intensive surgical procedure. More and more young boys feel increasing pressure to have an idealised male body as popularised in the media, and uphold traditionally ‘masculine’ traits like strength. These attitudes are not helped by others in their peer group reinforcing and perpetuating these pressures on the individual. Gender stereotypes and expectations, if accepted as a normal, run-of-the-mill part of our society, may predict insecurities for the male population as well.

Obviously, society’s strict adherence to gender stereotypes and body ideals can be injurious to both females, as well as males. When education systems emphasize these suffocating constraints of gender inequality, there are potentially dangerous implications for one’s perception of self. Moreover, considering the power school wields over our youth, we, as a community, have to take steps to increase awareness of the harmful gender stereotypes we see in our classrooms, and everywhere else.