A School Where We Comment on Each Other’s Appearance as a Greeting—Is It Okay to Leave It This Way?

For the Diversity and Liberty of Women’s Body Image!

Yoon Daon 2021-02-05

Teaching at a girl’s middle school for the past four years, I had grown weary of chitchat about people’s appearance. Regardless of my intention, students greeted me by commenting on my style and physical appearance. The situation in the teachers’ office was not too different, as wearing makeup and going on a diet were the major topics of our conversations.


Mostly, I did not initiate a discussion of students’ appearance because the teenagers were already preoccupied with this topic without my contribution. I also knew that putting in a word or two would not change the situation, and this made me feel helpless to the point of silence: If my input will sound like a mere scolding, what is the use of saying it?


In school, where small talk about people’s appearance was prevalent, students passed time as if nothing special was happening. Compared to when I was a student, there wasn’t a significant difference between now and then: A few more students hid their faces under flu masks if they didn’t wear makeup; a few more students skipped lunch in order to lose weight; some of them occasionally fainted in the schoolyard while fasting to make their bodies look better; a couple of them wore black hoodies to cover their “fat” bodies.


In this society, where eating disorders are considered the cost of becoming beautiful, students are smothered by the homogenized standard of beauty. And the invisible problems the students experience with their confidence, emotional comfort, and achievement aren’t even deemed social costs.


Smartly enough, teenagers appeared to know that there are two contradicting “truths” in our society. The fact that “lookism is bad” is common sense, but “a woman should beautify herself” is also common sense. Everyone agrees that evaluating and discriminating against people by their looks is bad, but it becomes an entirely different matter when one has to identify “discrimination” in one’s daily life, where women’s bodies are categorized, regulated, and evaluated nanometer by nanometer.


With the social structure where women’s bodies are traded as commodities kept hidden, people think women take care of their appearance because that’s their “true nature”. Similarly, people think girls obsessing over their appearance is simply “a characteristic of teenagers”. Neither of these issues is taken seriously. When we discussed this topic, students with one voice criticized the harmful effects of this tendency, as if there is a clear answer to it . Nevertheless, they already knew that it’s a lot more enticing to have a “pretty body” than to follow what is right.


Having fervent interest in the body without knowing one’s own body?


What was more interesting than the fact students wear makeup or go on a diet was how fervently they were possessed by a certain type of body image. They truly believed that the body of a skinny woman on TV was “beautiful” and hoped to attain that beauty themselves. Even though I told students that they were beautiful as they were, their ordinary and curvy bodies were never “beautiful” to their eyes. The desire to reach that beauty was strong in them, as it was crucial for them to have the skinny and beautiful body of that woman.


▲ A picture of a woman’s body students drew in a club activity. They came up with very specific conditions for “a woman’s body”.   ©Yoon Daon

On the other hand, their fervid interest in appearance did not result in understanding of their bodies. During sex education, I asked students to draw their naked bodies, and they seemed to be shocked at my suggestion. I told them it was okay to look in the mirror or imagine how they look to sketch, but a lot of students were still hesitant. At most, they drew a tiny picture in the corner of a huge paper or filled the paper with the picture of their face.


More important than the embarrassment they felt when asked to draw their own genitals is the fact that the majority of them didn’t know how women’s genitals looked, even though they should’ve learned that in science class. Students are obsessed with every gram and millimeter of their bodies, yet they possess no detailed knowledge of them—How can we explain this disparity?


As our society is bombarded with the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies, the students’ imbalanced body image may be the natural result of socialization. Even girls who have just entered middle school consider their bodies to be objects that are displayed or possessions that should be looked after in order to be displayed. Their bodies are no longer a part of themselves that is experienced and taken care of on a daily basis.


A desire to step closer to the image of “a skinny and pretty woman’s body” is a desire to be included in the category of “woman” as defined by the society. Simultaneously, it reproduces the distorted view of a woman’s body. To expect teenagers to be free from this problem, which even grown women are not free from, is a foolhardy expectation or an evasion of the reality.


Can a woman’s body image be an educational topic?


Nonetheless, in school, the quintessential place where socialization happens, there are more than a few ways to change the distorted image of women’s bodies.


For example, a media literacy class can teach students how to critically approach the media’s rendition of “woman-ness”; physical education can help girls strengthen their bodies; diversity education can show students that people have differences in gender, race, sexuality, and able-ness and help them naturally accept this diversity; a balanced sexual education can promote a healthy body image and confidence among students; and much more. It’s possible to reinforce a strong body image within the educational system we have. Furthermore, like schools in the United Kingdom, we may create a separate curriculum for body image or ask an outside organization to facilitate a class with government funds.


However, the problem isn’t solely one of the school system. Rather, it is also important to think about whether teachers, parents, and students regard the passive body image of women as a problematic reality that must be changed. Teenage girls are forgoing happiness and opportunities to achieve accomplishments; their self-esteem is ruined. Unless this is recognized as a social cost and a loss, schools will only continue to reflect the greater society as is.


If we don’t contemplate the fundamental reason why children find the media’s forced image of a “thin and pretty woman” attractive, they will continue to harbor the same desire and to endeavor to realize that desire. Moreover, this is a problem that matters to grown women too, not only teenage girls. The imbalanced image of women imposed by the now-huge cosmetic surgery industry and by the commodity-obsessed media considerably limits women’s choices and suppresses the presentation of diverse bodies such as plump bodies, old bodies, and disabled bodies.


The vast majority of women yearn for a skinny body while at the same time wanting to pursue “beauty” as defined by themselves, not others. And this proves that this problem no longer pertains only to a personal choice but rather necessitates an external change that can profoundly affect body image, like in the media and beauty industries. Of course, the most important thing is that a greater number of women realize that today’s reality is a problematic situation that must be changed.


In order to protect the freedom of having different bodies


To be honest, I don’t know how to teach students to love their bodies as they are. While aesthetic standards (though I don’t know if I can call the blind endorsement of  a skinny body “aesthetic standards”) or values can be influenced, they can’t be transplanted wholesale.


Children sometimes learn more from one facial expression an adult makes than a hundred words they say. What they need is not a push to study or an enigmatic phrase like “love yourself as you are”. Instead, they need the presence of women who feel comfortable in their bodies even if they do not conform to the image of a “woman’s body” and thus have high self-esteem; they need women who cultivate their own styles and uniqueness, traversing standards set up by the society.


We have the right to enjoy a divergent notion of beauty. We have the right to live happily even if we aren’t “beautiful”. And children learn that they also have these rights through the adults who enjoy them. In this society, where women’s bodies are dumped on the market wholesale and marked with grades, how can we enjoy the rights to be beautiful and not beautiful? How can we show our children that it is possible to become happy even if we don’t chase after current body image ideals?


If grown women can be liberated from distorted body images, options for teenage girls will naturally multiply. Whether I’m free of this problem as a woman and, if not, what I should do to free myself—my contemplation starts from here. 


By Yoon Daon

Published: September 08, 2017

Translated by Shyun J. Ahn


*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7990


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English-language blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

기사입력 : 2021-02-05

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