Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of standing up in a room full of 6th grade girls at Minetto Elementary School, to talk to them about beauty ideals.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I would get.
Would they be engaged?
Would they get it?
Would they even care?
But I was reminded in the hour I had with them just how much our kids do pick up and understand when it comes to the messages from media.
My intention going into this presentation was to define the appearance (e.g. beauty) ideal with them, and to talk about where it comes from and why it’s not helping us be the people we’re meant to be.
I wanted to empower them to redefine beauty and improve how they feel about their own bodies.
You may be thinking, that’s a lot to accomplish in just one short hour.
You’re not alone. I really had no idea going into this how it would go. But I was pleasantly surprised by the results.
We started out defining the appearance ideal together, using an exercise from NEDA’s Body Project training where the girls are invited to share what attributes make up “the perfect woman.”
We co-created a list that made it pretty easy to see how impossible our current beauty standards are.
From there, I asked a lot of questions about the origin of this “perfect woman:”
How have we learned about these characteristics?
Has our present beauty ideal always been this way?
How do beauty ideals change across cultures?
Then I got them thinking about their own personal experiences with body image:
Have you ever been the recipient of a negative comments about your weight, shape or other physical characteristics from friends, family, people at school etc.?
How did that make you feel?
How do messages about the beauty ideal from the media or other people in your life affect how you feel about your own body?
And finally I asked them to question the culture:
What does our society tell us will happen if we are able to look like this “perfect woman?”
Do you really think these good things will happen if we are able to look like this ideal?
What are you missing out on when you spend your time and energy on chasing the beauty ideal instead of doing things that make you happy?
Honestly I had no idea if asking these questions would be like pulling teeth, or if they would go over the girls’ heads.
I was fully prepared with videos and sticker giveaways just in case they weren’t jumping at the opportunity to share.
But I was blown away.
The girls not only contributed to the conversation with thoughtful responses, they also embodied the bit of rebellion I first felt when I started unraveling the beauty myth (and I was in college, being prodded by my professors!).
They even shared personal insecurities and experiences of bullying, and offered each other compassionate support!
I felt as if I was standing in a room with the most woke women I’d met in a while, and they were in 6th grade.
While sharing my vast underestimation of the capacity of 6th graders to understand and want to change complex systemic issues, is difficult for me to admit, I share this because I want you to start having these conversations with the youth in your life right now.
Start asking them these questions before the messages from media take root.
Have discussions around where our ideas about beauty, health and bodies come from.
Get them questioning the messages from the media.
Ignite their little rebel fire within.
Help them understand their worth is not at all tied to their physical appearance.
Help them understand their beauty is not determined by their body, but by their heart, mind and spirit.
Imagine the possibilities.