Girls, Worms, And Body Image

A teacher deals with gender stereotypes among her second- and third-graders

By Kate Lyman

“I need to lose weight,” Kayla was saying. Another second-grade girl chimed in, “So do I. I’m way too fat.”

My students’ conversation shocked me. Distracted from my hallway responsibility of monitoring the noise level at the water fountains, I listened in more closely. Linda, a third-grade girl who is thin to the point of looking unhealthy, grabbed a piece of paper from Kayla. “I’m the one who needs this.” “No, I need it!” insisted Rhonda.

The hotly contested paper turned out to contain the name of an exercise video that my second- and third-grade class had seen in gym class. The gym teacher later assured me that the student teacher had stressed that the exercises were for health and fitness, not weight loss. However, the girls were convinced that the video would help them lose weight and were frantic to get hold of it.

Issues of women and body image are certainly not new to me. I thought back to when I was a teenager struggling to make my body match the proportions of the models in Seventeen magazine. I had learned that the average model was 5’9″ and 110 pounds. I was the ideal 5’9″, but even on a close-to-starvation diet of 900 calories a day I could not get my weight down to 110 pounds.

But that was in the 1960s. Hadn’t girls liberated themselves from such regimens, I asked myself? And even back in the 1960s, it wasn’t until high school that I remembered my classmates living on coffee and oranges. Seven-and eight-year-olds ate all the cake and candy and potato chips that they could get their hands on.

I wondered how I could enlighten my seven- and eight-year-old girls who were so concerned about their body image. What follows are ways, sometimes successful, sometimes not, in which I struggled with the issue throughout my teaching last year.

At the time of the incident with the gym video, I had been teaching a unit on women’s history, and the class had shown an interest in learning about women’s struggle to get the vote. I realized the unit needed to take a new turn. It was time to move on to the gender issues they face as girls and women today.

FACTS AND STEREOTYPES

I decided to start by learning more about the students’ knowledge and perceptions about gender. I divided the students into two groups and asked the girls to decide on 10 facts about boys/men and the boys to do the same in regard to girls/women. Before the activity, I tried to clarify the difference between opinions and facts, but the lists of “facts” revealed the futility of my attempts:

Facts about Boys/Men
(written by the girls)
1. Boys are selfish.
2. Boys are different than girls because of their body parts.
3. Men make their wives take care of the children and house.
4. Dads make the moms do the shopping.
5. Men get paid more than women.
6. Men get women just for their looks.
7. Men are mean and lazy and jealous.
8. Men are picky eaters and like their dinners when they get home.
9. Men and boys are bossy.

Facts about Girls/Women
(written by the boys)
1. They always complain.
2. They are too loud and picky.
3. They are sensitive.
4. Girls and women are better bakers than boys and men.
5. They are bossy.
6. Girls are always talking about boys and men.
7. Girls and women aren’t as smart as boys and men.
8. Girls are more jealous than boys.
9. Girls and women spend a long time getting ready and want to look pretty.

We discussed the “facts” as a group and tried to come to an agreement about which statements were indeed facts and which were stereotypes, generalizations, or opinions. The girls protested vehemently to the idea that boys and men were smarter than girls and women. They insisted, in fact, that the opposite was true.

Many students were reluctant to concede the veracity of some of the other statements. One student, Yer, for instance, argued, “I know for a fact that women are better bakers than men!” Anna countered that not only was her dad a good cook, but he also helped with the shopping and didn’t insist on his dinner on time.

The other students saw Anna’s dad as a single exception to the rule, but were willing to add the qualifier “most” to the statements about men and household tasks.

It occurred to me that a short story, X, would be a good vehicle for further discussions on gender stereotypes. In X, written by Lois Gould (in Stories for Free Children, ed. Letty Pogrebin. Ms. Foundation, 1982), a couple agrees to let their baby be part of a scientific experiment in which no one is allowed to know the baby’s gender except the parents and the baby him/herself.

At first, students responded to the dilemmas posed by X’s situation with their own gender blinders. In the story, X’s relatives cannot figure out what kind of presents to buy X -“a tiny football helmet” or “a pink-flowered romper suit.” The students in my class were equally confounded.

“Maybe they could buy an outfit that was split down the middle, half blue and half pink,” said one student. Another suggested that X “could wear a baseball top and pink lacy bottoms.”

I asked them to look around the room at each other’s clothes. To a child, they were wearing unisex outfits – mainly jeans and T-shirts. But it still didn’t occur to them that there might be baby clothes that would be suitable for either a boy or girl.

After my frustrating attempts to define fact vs. stereotypes about gender and my less than successful attempts at discussion around the story X, I again thought back to my childhood. A photo taken of me at about my students’ ages shows me in a lacy dress, cuffed white socks, and patent leather “Mary Jane” shoes, my hair tightly braided and tied in ribbons. I am sitting on a bench in my yard, surrounded by my dolls. My head is turned to the side and I am smiling shyly. What would I have said about men’s and women’s roles? Would the story of X have made any sense to me? I’m not sure how that ’50s girl would have fit into the gender discussion, but I do remember that under the neat, frilly dress was a girl whose heroes were TV cowboys, a girl who daydreamed about being a boy so she, too, could have adventures on horseback.

I was trapped in the much more rigid gender expectations of the 1950s, and yet I wondered if my girls in their jeans and sweats really had that many more options than I had had. The girls in my class were right. Most women do have the major responsibility for taking care of the children and house. Most men do still get higher pay in their jobs. And the stereotypes still abound.

I was stuck in this examination of gender roles. Stuck in the classroom and stuck with my own personal history. I did not know where I was going with the unit.

A SAVING RAIN

But then, just as lesson plans were failing me as often as not, nature cooperated with a heavy rain that forced hundreds of worms up from the soil onto the playground. At recess the boys picked the worms up and dangled them at the girls while the girls ran screaming. Kayla, Stephanie, and Melissa, who will take on any drama, were leading the group with their screaming. Linda, Mandy, and other more shy, usually passive girls were joining in, following their lead.

Kayla came running up to me, “Help, help, Tony’s got a bunch of worms and he’s chasing me with them. The worms are going to bite me!”

Reasoning was useless. Boys and girls were too engrossed in their drama. I picked up a worm and demonstrated that it did no harm, but my attempts to educate the girls failed. The chasing and screaming continued. I was successful at stopping Tony from coming into the school with worms in his shoes and pockets, but the screaming continued into the halls and music class.

I felt defeated. Times had not changed. This playground scene could have occurred in my elementary school in the 1950s. I decided that before I moved on to more subtle aspects of gender stereotyping, I needed to deal with girls and worms.

Then, after recess, Stephanie and Kayla took a brave step forward. They came back to the classroom with rubber gloves that they had gotten from the “lunch lady” so that they could touch the worms. I suggested to the class that we could collect worms for our classroom, but that the rubber gloves were not necessary.

I put Kayla in charge of the terrarium and gave Stephanie the spoon. A group of 10 or 12 girls followed them outside to collect worms for the classroom.

“Can’t boys help get the worms? Only girls?” asked David dejectedly.

I assured him that he could help, and several other boys joined the project, but the ringleaders were still the girls. They quickly got over their squeamishness.

“I’m not scared of worms anymore!” Anna proudly announced.

Soon we had about two dozen large, fat earthworms and several cups of dirt. The worm center was so noisily enthusiastic that I could barely hear the principal’s announcement over the intercom. I think it had something to do with keeping the halls clean by not tracking the mud in from the playground.

The girls had conquered their fears of worms, but I still heard conversations – and, even worse, insults – about body image. One girl told another student that he should think about going to Jenny Craig.

TOYS AND MEDIA

I decided to lead a critique on two sources of stereotypical images of women: toys and the media. I wanted to give the students an opportunity to analyze images of women that they see every day, to have some understanding how those images influence their self concepts.

I began with a lesson focused on a Barbie doll. Most girls in my class said that they owned Barbies, but none remembered to bring one in, so I borrowed one from another classroom. I started with an open-ended question: “Tell me what you notice about Barbie.”

I was somewhat nervous because there was a university student visiting my classroom and I had little confidence in what my probing would bring about. Quickly, however, the observations poured out. Kayla, who is of stocky build herself, as is her mom, was quick to point out that Barbie has a very skinny waist.

“But she has big boobs,” added Stephanie. I asked Stephanie if she knew a respectful way to refer to that part of a woman’s body and she nodded. “Breasts,” she corrected. “She has huge breasts.”

“Barbie has tiny feet,” someone said. “They are made for high heels.”

“She has a cute, turned up nose.”

“She has a very long, skinny neck.”

“She has very skinny arms and legs.”

Students agreed that Barbie looked very different from the women they knew – their moms, grandmas and teachers. The students didn’t bring up Barbie’s ethnicity, so I asked them to look around the circle and see how else she was different from many of them. They looked around at each other, over half with dark or various shades of brown faces, and only one blonde-haired child among them.

“She’s white!” yelled out Shantee. “She has yellow hair and blue eyes.”

“My mom will only let my sister play with Black Barbies,” added Steven.

“Do the Black Barbies look like real-life African-American girls?” I asked.

“No, they have hair like white people,” concluded Shantee. “Only it’s colored black.”

I asked them why the toy manufacturers might make a doll for girls to play with that looked so different from real girls and women. The consensus was that girls want to look like her so that men would like them better. The only dissenting voice was Kayla, who said that her mom’s partner liked his women big.

Other comments were that women wanted to look beautiful, like Barbie, all skinny and pretty, with hair down to their waist. To further probe why that might be, I moved to the part of my lesson dealing with women in advertisements.

I hoped my students could grasp the concept that advertisers create an illusion that their product will transform a woman into a younger, prettier, more appealing self. I also wanted my students to practice looking at advertisements more critically – to analyze the hidden messages and to begin to see how women are objectified and minimized. I didn’t expect them to understand all these concepts; I saw the lesson as an introduction.

I had torn out dozens of ads from women’s magazines, general magazines such as Ebony, and other sources, showing women using products from cigarettes to weight-loss formulas to cosmetics. We discussed several ads as a group. I asked my students to look at how the woman was shown, what product the advertiser was trying to sell, and what the advertiser was telling women about what would happen if they bought the product. Then I sent them on their own to choose one of the ads and write about it. After they typed and edited their writing, they made the ads and script into posters that I hung in the hall.

Stephanie chose a cigarette ad with the message “A Taste for the Elegant” and the picture of a thin, sophisticated woman in a white pantsuit and high heels. Her commentary (see graphic below), noted in part:

“‘A taste for the elegant’ is what it says on my poster, but it can’t be a taste for the elegant because cigarettes don’t taste good. Cigarettes are bad for your lungs.”

Anna wrote that her ad for a perfume product was saying that “Women have to be skinny and have a dress with no sleeves and if she uses this perfume then she gets a man.”

Kayla wrote, “I think she’s trying to get people to get the Oil of Olay to look young when they just look fine the way they are. I mean they don’t have to listen to a woman that wants people to look young. That’s stupid. The people look fine the way they are!!”

Rhonda interpreted the message in a shampoo ad as, “You should be cute and be skinny. The ad says that you should use Redken Shampoo, and wear a lot of makeup, and wear cute clothes so you can look like a Barbie doll.”

Nathan saw some humor in his ad about a weight-loss product: “It is telling women that they have to be skinny, wear lipstick, and wear high heels. And from the picture of what she used to look like, I think she looks so different [now] that she should get a new [driver’s] license.”

Afterwards, I thought of many things I should have done differently with the lesson. More background on advertising. More time for discussion and dsharing. Perhaps a follow-up action product. The visiting university student, however, was impressed that elementary students could handle such a complex topic so well.

Maybe I was on the right track.

AN OLD-FASHIONED DAY

But just to make sure, I wanted to provide an opportunity for the class to experience gender discrimination first-hand, in an exaggerated yet playful setting. For the last day of our unit, I decided to have a role-play of an old-fashioned school day, with an emphasis on how girls and boys were treated differently.

I sent home interview sheets in which kids questioned their parents on what school was like when they went to school, including how boys and girls were treated differently. The students shared their findings (one student noted, “My mom got hit with a PADDLE!”). My student teacher shared some old books and a slate that her grandfather had saved. Students read a book, Early Schools, and, using information from it, wrote first-person accounts about a day in an old-fashioned school.

Not concerned with strict historical accuracy (also knowing that schools varied regionally), we planned the morning based on the parent interviews, the book on early schools, and our own experiences. We sent home a note preparing the families for this experiment. Girls were to come dressed in dresses (not above the knees) and boys in slacks and shirts with collars. We pushed back the tables, moved the chairs into rows and set up an “old-fashioned” schedule of handwriting, spelling bees, rote math, and textbook science. We used a variety of discipline techniques: children got sent to the corner, they had to write 100 sentences, they had to wear the dunce cap – anything short of physical punishment.

We also incorporated differential treatment for boys and girls in everything we did, from having a boys’ line and a girls’ line, to calling on the boys more often than the girls, to chastising the girls more for messy handwriting. The experiment went on for two-and-a-half hours, with the participation of the gym teacher and principal. The latter came in sporting a white wig and a paddle.

After gym class, we gathered back in our circle to discuss how the kids felt about the morning. I was especially interested to hear if they noticed the differential gender treatment, which was not as obvious as the differences in the set-up of the room, work, and punishments. Not only did they notice the bias, but the girls were indignant, while the boys were gleeful.

“You were paying more attention to the boys!” was the first comment.” Boys were called on more and they were getting all the answers.”

My students noted that there were different rules for boys than girls. A boy had been allowed to whistle. A girl had been reprimanded for the same behavior.

“I didn’t like how you said, ‘That’s not lady like,'” said Stephanie.

“I liked how you didn’t make us do it over when we smudged our handwriting,” noted Henry.

“Yeah, you tore mine up and made me start over,” said Melissa.

“And I hate wearing dresses,” added Rhonda.

Girls were upset about how they had to play with hula hoops while the boys played dodge ball in gym and how in science, boys did hands-on experimentation with worms while girls filled out glossary definitions from their science book.

“I know why you did this,” said Anna, her face lighting up with a sudden realization. “You wanted us to know what prejudice feels like!”

Well, Anna was close. I thought that if I exaggerated the effect of gender discrimination, maybe then they would be better able to recognize the more subtle forms that they encountered within and outside of themselves. Certainly, my experience growing up had made me sensitive to gender stereotyping. But, at the sametime, the cynical side of me knew that experiences with gender discussions, worms, and media critiquing paled in the light of Barbies, television, and Jenny Craig.

As I was packing up to go home after a long day, one especially exhausting due to our old-fashioned school experiment, Stephanie and Rhonda ran through the classroom to cut through the back door. As they stepped out to head for home, I heard Stephanie ask Rhonda,”So if I come over to your house, will you still be on your diet?” “Oh, no,” answered Rhonda flippantly. “I don’t do that on the weekend.”

Kate Lyman teaches in Madison, WI. The names of the children in the story have been changed.