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Paint me like one of your Instagram girls

By Tricia Ferdinandt

I remember when I was younger and in primary school, we started to learn about puberty in Health Education and how girls and boys alike would see changes in their bodies as they grow up. I did not really think much of it and instead, I welcomed these changes as they made me feel like a woman and not a little girl anymore. I started getting these changes when I was 9; I remember that not many of my classmates caught on as early as I did. I wore a singlet under my clothes, but I didn’t look into it much. I still went about my gymnastic and ballet classes all the same.

Over time, as I transitioned into secondary school, I was not as lean and skinny as I used to be. I weighed steadily at 55 kg pretty much throughout secondary school, which was acceptable for my height. I never really gained or lost weight. We ran a lot during P.E. classes to train for our 2.4 km run. Other than that, I did not really look after my diet or health. That would go on to be something that I regret.

Members of my family would joke about my weight and observed if I had lost or gained weight at practically every family gathering. I did not look to them for their approval nor did I understand why they were policing the way my body looked as if it were of any concern to them since it was my body. I would understand their genuine health concerns for me as they advised me to take less sugary drinks and eat less junk food. Other remarks like how my hips would get more round in the future once I had kids of my own just fell upon my deaf ears. Honestly, I loved my hips. I had a small waist and I loved the way my rounder hips would complement my figure. Of course, that’s a different story now that I gained almost 30 kg in the last 4 years.

I have been struggling with depression and anxiety over the course of my adolescent years. I have difficulty coping with my emotions, leading me to sometimes harm myself and others. There have been many low points in my life, some of which I brought upon myself. Others habits include horrible eating habits, a disruptive sleeping pattern, and a non-existent exercise routine. Looking after myself was not important to me at all. As the number on the scales kept increasing, I chose to avoid it and run away, like I always do with my problems.

The comments from family, friends, and even partners kept coming. They were mostly hurtful words stitched together with good intentions. I would think a lot about what people said after, about the “burger going down to my butt” or oil creating more “moon craters” on my face. Not only did I struggle with my weight, I hated my acne-scarred skin. The acne on my cheeks, forehead, and even my back could be connected with a pen to create constellations. I was extremely sensitive about my body, weight, and the way I looked. Something as simple as someone staring at me too long could send me into a frenzy. I remember my boyfriend staring at my protruding stomach when I asked if we could have our lunch at my favourite American fast-food chain. Although he had no ill intentions and did not mean it in the way I interpreted, it scarred me.

I wished with all my heart that I could just be like the girls of Instagram, with the killer figure and perfect skin. Beautiful, stunning, but not realistic. While praying hard to look like someone else, I learnt the hard lesson of acceptance and self-love. We are all beautiful and unique in our own special ways. Ironically, it might seem like the grass is greener on the other side, but I can assure you that everyone has their own insecurities. People who pick on others’ flaws and faults and take joy in bringing someone pain are battling demons of their own. That is why instead of getting upset with a classmate of mine who made a rude comment about my weight or appearance, I prayed for him. He can make 1000 comments to bring me down, but I will not give him the permission to hurt me. These people in your life are nothing to you and one should never give them the power to make you upset in any way, shape, or form.

My goal in this journey is not about the numbers or seeking a thumbs up from  others. If I do this to seek approval from others, then I will never be happy. I am doing this for myself, to be the best version of myself. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have flat abs or a bubble butt. Girls on the covers on magazines have their bodies photoshopped and retouched. Love your love handles, muffin tops, and thunder thighs. Treat your body right and it will treat you right too.

Author’s Bio: Tricia Ferdinandt is your resident brown baby. Her hobbies include adding memes to her album collection and binge-watching makeup tutorials. When she’s not stuDYING in school, she’s probably at Starbucks trying to convince the barista she has 60 stars to redeem a free drink.

Featured image by Colleen Clark.

 

 

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Body Shaming: “Harmless” Teasing

By Jasmine Loo

When I was 12, I used to tease my best friend about her larger than average breasts. My nickname for her included adding the title “Big Boobs” at the back of her actual name. She’d tell me to stop, but I didn’t really think much of it – after all, it was just harmless teasing.

Back then, there was also a plump girl in my class. She was teased by everyone who called her mean names like “fatty”, “whale”, “fat girl”, amongst others. At that age, we viewed it as harmless fun… But was it really just that?

When I was 13, I started getting really bad breakouts. People started noticing and pointing it out. At first, I wasn’t really bothered by their comments. However, I started getting really upset when they constantly commented on my pimples. It made me feel very self conscious and uncomfortable in my own skin. I started getting pretty annoyed when people told me that I should “wash my face” or that I shouldn’t “eat peanuts or drink milk” because those food cause acne. Despite trying almost everything, my skin was still the same – disgusting, bumpy and damaged.

I really envied my classmates who had clear, blemish-free skin. I hated my own pimply and bumpy face.

Now, I’m 19 years old and still uncomfortable in my own skin. But, I’m learning how to love and accept it. I may not have clear skin, but it will not stop me from going out without make-up. The fact that I don’t have clear skin does not define who I am.

In retrospect, I should not have joined in on the “harmless teasing”. I should not have teased my best friend for having big breasts and making her less confident. However, I cannot change what has happened. The most I can do is to try and stop myself from making other people feel bad about themselves. I will strive to use my words to encourage others to embrace their flaws and be confident from here on out.

About the Author: Jasmine is an awkward teenager who wants to make a difference.

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Struggles with Body Image: It Begins with the Ones Closest to You

By Min Khoo

My struggle with my own body image began with the comments made by close family members and relatives.

I’m sure many Singaporeans have experienced the horror brought by family gatherings where, instead of talking about something mundane like the weather, conservations are started with comments like, “Ah girl, you’ve gain weight” or, “Ah girl, so many pimples why never wash face properly?” Instead of giving encouragements when we need it, parents tend to give what they call “tough love”.

Sometimes, it is difficult to delineate the line that separates “tough love” from bringing down your kid’s self-esteem. How many times do we need to be told that we are “fat”? How many times do we need to hear that our faces are full of pimples? Even when we’ve lost weight or managed to clear our facial acne, people somehow still manage to find a way to detect flaws.

As I grew up, I started to see the impact of my family and relative’s words. I had no idea how to handle praises given to me by others. I had no idea how to compliment others. I had no idea how to love my own body, let alone anyone else’s. It was really terrible when I reach adolescence. Along with other struggles in various aspects of my life, it seemed as if I had reached a low where I couldn’t spiral down any further… And I just snapped. I no longer wished to live the way I was living. I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin. I was tired of allowing others to feel like they owned my body. I was tired of it all.

At low points like these, most of us are able to find our own ways of channeling our energy into something more meaningful. For me, it was Harajuku Fashion. I decided that my body was no longer an object for others to critique as they pleased. My body became my own canvas, for me to paint as I wished.

As much as I could, I avoided toxic people who found joy in bringing others down. I surrounded myself with supportive friends who were capable of seeing others beyond their appearance. Even now, I remind myself that I look okay the way I am.

But of course, it’s not always easy. Sometimes, you fall back into that dark world full of self loathe. Sometimes, you can’t help but compare your body with others and start finding all sorts of flaws you’ve never realised before. Sometimes, no matter how much positivity you surround yourself with, negativity just has a way of sneaking up on you.

Today, I’m still struggling to find full acceptance for the way that my body looks, but it’s getting better. All I know is, no one else should be made to feel that way about their body. The words you say to others have more of an impact on their lives than you may think.

About the Author: Min is a psychology undergraduate at NTU. When she’s not busy drowning in assignments and deadlines, she’s busy playing games, choosing and coordinating her outfits, and volunteering for various causes.

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Policing fat bodies and misogyny

By Louise Low, Change Maker

“You would look so much better if you lost all that weight!”

“Wah! You still want to eat so much!”

“She shouldn’t be wearing that – she’s too fat.”

louiseDoes this sound familiar? These statements are commonly directed towards fat people in attempts to control or police their bodies. Fat-shaming is the act of discriminating against a person because of their weight, and often involves publicly policing fat people’s appearance, behaviour, and attitude. We’ve all likely experienced fat-shaming as a victim, perpetrator or as both.

In societies like Singapore, many social factors combine to produce a general disapproval of larger bodies. Individuals feel entitled to police fat individuals – condemning their diet and attire, among other lifestyle choices, and sometimes openly disparaging them. It can be directed towards celebrities, strangers, friends, and children. People whom feel judged for their size often in turn internalise such attitudes and discriminate against other fat people. People of any gender may be subject to such treatment, though one’s age, race and environment among several varying factors affect their experience of fat shaming. This article focuses on the policing of women with fat bodies, its underlying misogynist roots, and its harms.

How do people police fat bodies?

The intolerance of fat women’s bodies and the denial of their autonomy manifests itself in various forms. People hold fat women to certain expectations; in terms of behaviour, they are judged for what they eat, their physical activity, and their attire. For instance, fashion magazines or well-meaning friends or family might tell a fat person how to dress to appear slimmer, and deem certain articles of clothing unflattering or only meant for thinner frames; fat people, women especially, thus have an imposed limitation on their choice of clothing. In this manner, the fat individual’s attire is policed.

In terms of attitude, they are expected to be apologetic, self-conscious, and uncomfortable with their bodies, and to want to “remedy” their “problem”. They are obliged to feel responsible for the perceived unhealthy and unlikeable state of their bodies. I recall a joke on ‘The Noose’ in which a character proclaimed, to combat inappropriate attire, that uniforms should be imposed on polytechnics, “but not the sleeveless kind, like SCGS, because some of the girls’ arms are very fat.” Incidentally, I was studying at said school and wore an uncomfortable jacket everywhere out of insecurity – which was funnily affirmed by this aforementioned joke. Even though it might be done in jest, the constant and cumulative rejection and ridicule of large bodies has real impact on the self-esteem of individuals, particularly young women. 

trqlq-st_-81Why is it harmful?

The policing of fat bodies compromises an individual’s physical and mental health. Studies have proven that fat-shaming is not only unhelpful in losing weight, but also exacerbates weight gain. It may also lead to body image issues, to which young girls are very susceptible, potentially causing mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders. A person pressured into losing weight via fat-shaming is not necessarily healthier, and may in fact hold misinformed ideas on health.

Decreased confidence and poor self-esteem could also affect a person’s choices and behaviour, forcing them to limit what they can or cannot do, and make decisions out of fear. They may also deem themselves unworthy of things such as love, from others or themselves. This belief may affect fat individuals too; it is a result of, and worsens how society deems fat people less deserving.

Besides compromising their health, the act of fat-shaming dehumanises fat people. I realised even accomplished women were subjected to discomfort and policed their own bodies when a highly skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable university professor would make self-depreciating jokes about her weight during lectures. Policing fat bodies dehumanises fat people, and may mislead some, including fat people themselves, to believe that it is a definitive and shameful aspect of their identity, regardless of their character and personal achievements.

louise2How is the policing of women’s body size misogynistic?

“Misogyny” refers to the exhibition of hatred towards, or the mistreatment of, women. The policing of plus-sized women’s bodies are inextricably linked to and rooted in misogyny. The main reasons for fat-intolerance are male-centric views on female attractiveness and mainstream beauty standards. Take a walk down Orchard Road, and you’ll easily spot fashion advertisements featuring women of similar, slender build. (Another disturbing pattern you can observe is that a disproportionately large majority of the female models we see in beauty advertisements here are Caucasian or East Asian. This of course reveals not only the mainstream discrimination of women’s beauty by body types, but by race as well. Beauty standards are very often racialized, and this also stems from patriarchal systems as well as the objectification of women who are ethnic minorities, and is an issue that warrants its own discussion.)

Conversely, fat bodies receive negative media portrayal, and are regarded as a problem that needs to be fixed – women are bombarded daily with advertisements for weight loss treatments. They send a clear message as to what society deems acceptable – a narrow range of body types that excludes fat bodies. A more disturbing connotation, that is not always acknowledged, is that women’s bodies are not their own, but subject to male approval, and women are thus obliged to change their bodies to fit male standards.

Although there exist supposed counter-movements that praise “curvy” women and claim to inspire body positivity, they are unhelpful when acceptance for fatness is centred on it being more appealing to men, while rejecting smaller bodies. For example, ‘All About That Bass’ relies on lyrics that supposedly celebrate fat women by putting down thin women – “You know I won’t be no stick-figure, silicone Barbie doll” – even though body positivity is about acceptance of all bodies, and claiming that the former is more attractive to men – “boys they like a little more booty to hold at night”. This merely shifts sexual objectification from one body type to another, and personally, does not empower me as a plus-size woman. Women are not in competition with each other for male approval; no one body type should be deemed inferior to the other, by men. People should acknowledge women’s autonomy over their own bodies, instead of viewing “beauty” as something bestowed upon them by men.

Internalizing negative portrayals leads to anxieties regarding one’s own body, and leads to the judgement of others as well. A person with body image issues as a result of the policing of their bodies may apply unrealistic expectations upon themselves, and project such negative and unhealthy expectations onto others. This results in a collective condemnation of fat women, the root of which is negative stereotyping and gender expectations.

It is time to let go of the misconception that fat people are obliged to feel apologetic about themselves, and to stop the normalizing of harmful, sexist condemnation of fat women. 

About the author: Louise is a feminist and an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. Her most despised TV/movie trope is the one where a self-loathing plus-sized or otherwise supposedly unattractive female character learns to love herself through (or even worse: loses weight for) a romantic relationship with a male character.

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Fat Woman

by Manessa Lian, Change Maker and Body/Language creative writing workshop participant. This piece was performed at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2014 and Breakthrough: We Can! Arts Fest in December 2014. 

When I was a child
I first learnt that bigger was not always better
Because those were the days
They sent the biggest kids for classes
Extra classes after school
Which should have been fun
Because we actually got to roller-blade
But because everyone knew who those classes were for
Nobody wanted in
We held our breaths
Our Physical Ed teacher
Scanned the class for those whose sizes did not conform
Singling them out with a crook of the finger
I was one of them

When I protested for being one of the chosen ones
The PE teacher turned to the class
And duly informed them that I was a time-bomb
A walking health time-bomb
I would drop dead any moment
From a heart attack or a stroke
All because I refused to attend the extra class
I went, of course reluctantly
Walked away without getting any smaller
Except for my self-esteem
I learnt little about roller-blading
Mainly how to fall safely on my butt
And I had the honour
Of having the cracks in the courtyard attributed to my name
It was the year we learnt about Hiroshima and Nagasaki
So I had a new nickname: Fat Woman

Eventually I left school
But I realised I never truly left school
The mocking eyes of the classmate who felt entitled to take my sandwich
Turned into those of the waiter
Who judged what I chose to order
That was why I chose to buy my clothes online
Because when I cannot be seen or heard
I cannot be judged
But I have always wondered
Why the need to pay more for a few more inches of fabric?
What was normal, what was plus-sized?
Maybe it was just like my high school friends
They insisted I pay more for our shared lunches
Because who would believe someone of my size didn’t eat more than they did

So I worked hard
So that I could pay
For the right to dress up and be beautiful
For my lunch appointments with the same high school friends
Even if all they talked about were the people
That they had the freedom to love
Not for me
I learnt the freedom to love was never for me
Many people would love to have a fat friend
Because it would make them look thinner
And because it’s hip in this era to say
“I don’t fat-shame!”
As long, as I stayed platonic
But when I forgot my place
I turned into a terrifying Godzilla
Striking horror into the hearts of the innocent
“Shameless! Get away from me, FAT bitch!”
When all I wanted to do
Was to love them
But
Some people’s love is less equal than others
Especially when you have a nickname like Fat Woman

My nickname is Fat Woman
But unlike Fat Man
I was taught never to explode
And incinerate all those who have ever hurt me
Instead I am expected to implode
Slowly
Killing myself from within
But there are other ways of dealing with bombs, isn’t it?
I fought hard
To exorcise the demons that others had planted onto me
Sometimes in the depth of the night
I would recall the things I did not want to
Reopening all the wounds that nobody could see
Inflicted yesterday on this body of mine
But when dawn comes
I defuse myself.

About the Author: Manessa Lian writes because she loves, and because she loves, she writes. Through her writing, she hopes to get people thinking and talking about various social issues simmering below the surface.

 

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Beauty and Body

by Charmaine Teh, Change Maker

rbk-empowering-illustrations-carol-rossetti-whitney-deWe live in a society where our appearances are constantly under close scrutiny. Due to rigid societal standards, picking on someone for their weight, whether they are plus size or skinny, is common. The media portrays the perfect female body as a skinny physique with killer abs or a flat tummy with the infamous thigh gap, and for the guys, a chiseled, muscular body. This sends the message that these features would automatically make you happier, more popular and more desirable.

Beauty is constantly being redefined. Currently, the media equates skinny to beautiful; and if you aren’t skinny, you can’t possibly comply with society’s standards of beauty. Anything other than that, you are not fitting in. It has become so ingrained in us that we may find ourselves alienating or disliking a person simply because he or she is fat. And if you are not skinny, you may be called names like ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’, which are meant as insults.

I used to be a victim of ridicule because I was chubby and stood out from my group of friends like a sore thumb. I had thighs that rubbed together when I walked and a tummy that bulged out when I sat down. Someone thought I was “ugly”, and saw fit to ridicule me. I was constantly humiliated for my size and it was a huge blow to my self-esteem. Even though I weighed 51kg standing at 1.57m, I started feeling ugly and believed that I was severely overweight. I turned to starvation by surviving on only one meal per day. On days when I felt ugly and fat, I would binge on food and then exercise excessively to account for the calories I had consumed. I became increasingly self-conscious about my body. I would never leave home in clothes that could not conceal the extra bulges I was trying to hide.

Although I was never medically diagnosed with any eating disorders, it did not mean that I was not harming my body. Within a month, I became obsessed with losing weight. I ate nothing but a plain toast for breakfast and drank water to stave off my hunger for the rest of the day. I felt weak all over but I saw it as something I had to overcome in order to lose weight. To make things worse, I was participating in intensive trainings for my extracurricular activity thrice a week. I was constantly hungry after training sessions but reminded myself that the only way to be skinny was to stick to my strict regime of excessive dieting and exercising.

body image2Why did I allow my beauty to be defined by anyone else but myself? I thought that by being skinnier, I would become a happier and more beautiful person but I only felt depressed and disgusted at myself all the time. I had forgotten that I am an unique individual who deserves to feel beautiful because I am born beautiful, regardless of how I look.

What I am trying to say is that no one should feel ashamed of their body simply because they are not as skinny or muscular. Everyone should be able to feel comfortable in their own skin even if they do not conform to societal standards of beauty.

Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, not just the body type the media portrays. Therefore, my message to anyone out there who feels insecure about their body is that the next time you feel inferior because you do not have rock-solid muscles or a thigh gap, just remember that your body is unique and that you are beautiful. Don’t let the media or society tell you otherwise.

photo (2)About the Author: Charmaine is a final year student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic pursuing Psychology Studies. Her interest in gender equality first sparked when she mentioned that her ex-netball coach was a male and someone had exclaimed ‘Guys can play netball too?’ She holds strong to the belief that no matter how big or small a change is, it is still something significant and thus we should never stop trying to advocate change in the society.

 

 

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Redefining Masculinity

A recount of the struggles of navigating and defining masculinity and what it means to be a “Real Man”
by Robert Bivouac

When I was 7, I had an operation done on my left ear. I couldn’t eat at all for 12 hours before that and I told myself I would never go hungry again. Back then I didn’t know what calories were and I got a dollar a day in allowance, just enough to buy a bowl of lor mai kai for recess. I knew it made me feel full, so I think I ate that at least twice a week, and on the other days I ate things like pork bao and those chicken-flavoured Petit Brunch crackers.

When I was 8 and our class was held back for recess I cried. I remember the teacher’s name. I think it was Mr Wong, or Mr Fong, or something. I don’t actually remember the teacher’s name but I remember what he did. He went over to my desk and looked me in the eye. He had this habit of puffing his cheeks up before he spoke. I don’t remember why I remember that but I remember what he told me. He told me that I was a boy, and boys don’t cry. I was a boy, and I was going to be a man in a few years, and men don’t cry either. I tried to stop crying and after I did, and he let us go for recess, some kid came up to me and told me I didn’t need to eat recess anyway. That was the first time I realised I was fat, and it was only the first time.

G44A0821In hindsight it was mostly the boys who bullied me, and in hindsight I should’ve known it was going to get worse in my all-boys secondary school. Literally the second week of class in Sec 1 someone had already broken my stuff. I think it was a pen, but eventually someone smashed my calculator. There was this thing going on where they’d take my stuff and run around with it because they knew I was fat and slow and I couldn’t catch up and when I couldn’t catch up they called me names. I remember being called a bunch of slurs strung together the way someone who doesn’t really know what they mean would use them. I remember my classmates pinning me down or slamming me into walls. I remember I was so physically weak that hitting back became an excuse for them to hit way harder. Someone threw a chair at me once and then someone threw me into a chair, and then into a table, and then into the lockers at the back of the class. I didn’t cry.

I didn’t cry, but I was short, I was soft and I was physically weak, and to top it off I was in choir. I spoke a lot in class, did better than every single person who came at me and went up every week to challenge the principal during assembly. I didn’t know my place, apparently. In a school full of boys I was not a man, and I didn’t know my place, so that was all the excuse they needed. When the school counsellor and house head were brought in to investigate they told me what they’d heard. My “friends” thought they were training me to be a real man, as if all the insults, stealing and hitting could “fix” me; as if I needed to be “fixed”.

10458342_775298422505091_3667291884959981461_nThe thing about being “fixed” is that if you need fixing, that means you’re broken, as if not being a “real man” means you’re broken. See, if you’re a man, but not a “real man”, it seems you’re doing something wrong and if you’re doing something wrong, you need to be taught a lesson. It’s not just kids who do this. Like, turn on the television some time and you’ll see a bunch of “real men”, doing really manly things. “Real men” are strong and violent. “Real men” work hard and protect their families (which, of course, they want). “Real men” are attractive, or else “real men” are heroic, and “real men” always get the woman (and it’s always a woman), even though sometimes they really shouldn’t. It’s not all the time, but the implication is this: this is what a “real man” looks like, this is what he does and this is how he does it.

Guys, we’ve been caught. We’re told by these so-called “real men” to “be a man” when we’re hurting, when we’re sick, when there’s nothing else you can do but they want us to do it anyway. We’re told that if we don’t look or act like “real men”, we don’t deserve to be men at all. We’re something less than men if we aren’t “real men”, something they have permission to dominate, to hurt and to exploit. Frankly, guys, I’m tired.

I’m tired of this “real man” crap. All men are “real men”. We are men simply because we choose to identify as such, and nobody gets to decide otherwise. Not your parents, not your friends and certainly not anybody who thinks taking your stuff and hitting you is a good idea. We need an understanding of manhood that doesn’t exclude people who don’t fit the traditional idea of a man. We need to acknowledge that men who can’t or don’t want to find a partner, who aren’t straight, who were told they were something other than men at birth but consider themselves men, are real men. And yet, we also need to acknowledge that the men who do bad things? The men who hurt other people? The men who hurt me? Are real men too.

If we want a more inclusive understanding of manhood, we need to accept it’s for everyone, not just the good guys, and we need to do our part, as men, to fix it. Real men still do bad things, but good men stop them. and you, every single one of you boys and men in the crowd, can be a good man.

If you see a man who’s angry because he can’t get laid, tell him he’s got a problem. Tell him his problem is not that he can’t get laid, but that he believes he needs to get laid to be a real man. Tell him that he’s already a real man, and that no matter what he does, he will never deserve to get laid. Tell him that maybe he’ll find someone, or maybe he won’t, but either way it’ll be alright. He’ll still be a real man.

Youth at the event came up with different gender stereotypes they'd like to break. Warning: images in this mirror might be distorted by socially constructed notions of beauty.If you see a man going off about women, saying they’re the cause of all his problems, tell him he’s going in the wrong direction, and maybe ask him why he feels that way. Take his rage and point it at whoever told him women were to blame, because they’re lying. Tell him that’s who he needs to be mad at. He needs to be mad at everyone who told him being a man meant getting his way, meant automatically getting more respect than women, meant not being told he’s wrong. That’s who he needs to be mad at.

If you see a man harassing someone else by being sexist, homophobic or sexually aggressive, tell him to back off. Tell him he needs to back off, and that he doesn’t have the right to demand they shut up or do things just because he’s a man. Tell him being a man doesn’t make him more correct than anyone else, and that he really needs to stop. Say it firmly and with conviction and maybe the threat to report him to his teachers, or his superiors at work, or, if there really is no choice, the police.

Your voice is a vote, guys, and these are only some of the issues. All men can, and all men should, work together to make being a man something less aggressive, less exclusive, less sexist, and more proactive. We need to save our brothers from this myth that only some men are real, and other men are less real, and women are perhaps even less than that. We can play our part to help end violence by and against men, but only if we try. And we really have to try.

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How Our Classrooms are Damaging the Female Body Image

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.