It's clear that women all over the world are under intense pressure to conform to impossible beauty standards at increasingly younger ages. It's also clear that many courageous women — in the modeling industry, on social media and beyond — are fighting back and redefining beauty on their own terms.
But according to one child health expert, the real secret to women's body acceptance is approval by men. This is not just demeaning to women. It is plain wrong.
Dr. Aric Sigman, who, according to his website, works independently in health education and is the author of The Body Wars: Why Body Dissatisfaction is at Epidemic Proportions and How We Can Fight Back, made the case for including male students to a closed gathering of teachers at the British Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference on Wednesday, according to the BBC.
His plan, as outlined by the Telegraph, was seemingly well-intentioned: Teachers should enlist boys to help combat women's body dissatisfaction by telling girls about the feminine qualities apart from physical beauty they find attractive, in order to fight girls' "neurosis." It's also based, at least in part, in science: One recent study showed that heterosexual women derive body satisfaction from hearing that men don't desire the thin-ideal.
"Boys don't have in any way near as rigid a view on what an attractive figure should be and they value many other physical qualities, including eyes, hair and body language," Sigman explained, according to the Telegraph. "There are women who appear model-perfect visually but are just not sexy and there are girls who do not seem model material but are very attractive," he said.
Sigman also argued that engaging men in a conversation about women's beauty standards will allow male figures, whether students, parents or teachers, to engage and fully comprehend "the sensitivity of the subject."
Here's the rub: This plan is superficial at best, and deeply flawed at worst. First, no matter what supposedly feminine qualities these boys cite, they're still upholding certain things as ideal. By encouraging girls to live up to particular standards, they reinforce a sexist framework in which women derive satisfaction from men's opinions of them. It ignores the possibility of women finding fulfillment within themselves, or even from the support of other women.
The added element of authority — including Sigman's suggestion that older boys describe these ideal qualities to younger, female students in a classroom setting — only reinforces these opinions as fact. Furthermore, while men should absolutely be engaged in the conversation about body image and perfectionism, they should do so through a lens of empathy and compassion, and utilize this approach to change the conversation for everybody — not to dictate alternate standards. At its core, this tactic just teaches boys that their opinions of girl's bodies inherently carries more weight than the girls' opinions of themselves.
Not quite, Dr. Sigman: While perhaps well-intentioned, Sigman's advice fails to disrupt and alter the true sources of body dissatisfaction, instead speaking to a broader, problematic trend in the ways society approaches women's self-esteem. It reflects a system in which women are considered valuable primarily for their bodies, while men are valuable for their voices, thoughts and opinions. By emphasizing men's ability to shape women's opinions about themselves based on their conceptions of female attractiveness, Sigman's solution only reiterates this sexist double standard.
Ultimately, Sigman is right: Men do need to enter the conversation about body dissatisfaction, — but not as the authority on the subject. They need to engage with women as partners, not damaged individuals over whom they can wield power or oh-so-benevolently choose to fix.