Ed note: We talk a lot at SPARK about the negative outcomes of girls internalizing impossible ideals of beauty, but not much about the dangers of boys internalizing those ideals. This post, while sometimes harsh and shocking, illustrates an issue that, from where we’re standing, isn’t addressed enough: how impossible media images affect the relationships between girls & boys. We think this is a jumping off point for a rich discussion, and we welcome your thoughts in the comments. 

by Zachary Kimmel, age 13, Brooklyn, NY

Scene 1 Boys Locker Room of a Middle School

Enter three teenage boys

BOY 1 Yo! Have you seen Jessica’s boobs? They’re huge!
BOY 2 Yeah, but Ashley has got the awesome birthday cake! (Cake = very large butt)
BOY 3 What about Maria and Carmen?
BOY 1 Ew no, Maria is not skinny enough, and Carmen is flat as paper. Like seriously, dude, she doesn’t have anything in her shirt!
BOY 2 Yeah bro, and have you seen Rebecca? She has crazy acne!
BOY 1 I know, I know, her skin should be smooth.  It’s disgusting! And Courtney would be so much hotter if she didn’t have braces!
BOY 2 Yes! And same with Emma without glasses!

On May 29th, Ben Ubiñas posted a blog post about how the media, especially young women’s magazines (cough, cough Seventeen) have drastically changed young girls’ perception of what’s beautiful. Since he’s the first male blogger on the site, I wanted to applaud him. Kudos to you, my friend. At the end of his post, Ben touched on how guys actually like real girls; ones that don’t look like the models in the magazines and in commercials. While this may be the case for him, I’ve experienced quite the opposite in my own life.

When guys at my school and at my summer camp talk about girls, they mainly mention their looks and bodies. There are often raging debates (like the one above) in the boys’ locker room at my school, and probably schools all across the country. All of these arguments basically discuss the same three things: a girl’s facial features (glasses, braces, acne); a girl’s curves (usually a girl’s lack of curves); and finally, a girl’s waistline (“Ew no, Maria is not skinny enough”). Now you may have different ideas about why boys discussing a girls’ bodies is so common, but I believe it is for the same reason that Ben brought up: in the media, mostly in magazines and commercials, guys are seeing images of women with perfect complexions, huge breasts and unnaturally thin waists. In fact, guys are so constantly bombarded with these images, that what we see becomes our idea of the “perfect woman.” So, whenever guys see girls who don’t fit that description exactly—which is every single girl they meet—the boys think the girls look “fat,” “flat-chested” or “flawed” in one way or another. But even the models don’t actually look like their pictures in the magazines, thanks mostly to the incredible deception powers of Photoshop.

Since girls are ridiculed if they don’t appear like the models, I think many girls feel that their only way to be accepted is to conform to what they see. This pressure is clear to me in the clothing choices of my female friends. Even if we’re just hanging out in the park or going on a school field trip, my friends always try to dress attractively and “sexy.” Spaghetti strap and strapless dresses, pencil skirts, tight spandex for gym class, and “booty shorts” in the summer. From what I see, magazines make girls think they have to dress alluringly and show off their bodies in order to avoid criticism from the gender those same magazines set up to be their judges: boys.

I’ve also noticed that girls are starting to shave their legs earlier and earlier. My school recently had an end of the year ceremony where the fourth graders attend their first Middle School event. It’s a formal event, so many of the fourth graders were wearing dresses. I noticed that many of them had shaved their legs already. Fourth grade! I told this to my mom, and she wondered why any fourth grader would want to get started with such relentless body “upkeep” so soon. I mean, if you think about it, it’s kind of a simple equation, really: since the boys think that the models are hot, and the models have smooth legs, then these girls think that shaving their legs will make them look hot in the eyes of the boys. These fourth graders are shaving their legs because there is a lot of social pressure for girls to look attractive and sexy all the time—at any age.

And just as girls are beginning to talk about these issues and about the ways that these images are destructive to their sense of their own beauty, we guys have gotta talk about the way that these images create our standards of female beauty. (I’ll write about this in a future post, but media creates unrealistic standards for us guys as well. I remember one time going to the movies and seeing a trailer for Twilight, with Taylor Lautner ripping his shirt off to show his chiseled eight-pack–I don’t think I ever felt lousier about my body than at that moment.)

The images are everywhere – on big billboards, on TV, on our computers, in our phones. They’re in our heads, too, so they’re all over our peer groups. But these images aren’t real beauty, and they may not be what any of us – girls or boys – really think is beautiful.  It distorts our perceptions of the girls in our lives and it alters the girls in our lives perceptions of us, too. It hurts us all.