Within the last semester, we have discussed various ways we use and view our bodies. Whether it be fashion, body image, hair, intersections of race and class, body modification, or masculinity, it all comes back to the what we think of ourselves and others and where we learned to think this. Much of the dialogue in class revolved around our personal experiences with all these topics and more specifically, what influenced these opinions or experiences. As a sociologist, I think this is the most important concept, as body studies aims to better understand why we think the way we do about our bodies. Having struggled with body issues my whole life, whether it be my skin, weight, or tattoos, I can remember being heavily influenced to think a certain way. My family was always overweight, always working to be thin. Both my mother and brother have had weight loss surgery, not because they had health issues but because they just wanted to be thin. I’ve always had acne, but the commercials said I should have clear skin and models looked to perfect, so I tried every cream, serum, and pill to make my skin better. My grandparents are very religious and thought my love of tattoos was a sign of sin. When I got my first tattoo they told me I would never amount to anything. All my ideas about my body were influenced by everything around me, all the messages from friends, family, and society. My story isn’t new, it’s been replicated and dramatized for centuries. My goal, not only with the project or professionally, is to help others realize that no opinion matters but their own. That being uniquely you is perfectly okay.
This semester I have primarily focused on skin and the different ways we view it. While much of my work as focused on an Asian perspective to skin, whether it be tattoos or skin color, I know as an educator here in America I need to inform on relevant issues that effect Americans. For my final project, I have created a toolkit featuring 3 workshops that can be used to educate young girls on skin color, body image, self-esteem, bullying, and how their bodies can be used to carry out their future goals. I have used these workshops in a variety of different settings, from university summer camps to local conferences and the conversations created through them have been eye-opening. The workshops I have created focus on encouraging young girls to think about where they learned how to view bodies and what they can do to improve negative perceptions.
Working with young girls is key, as many start to view their bodies in a negative way as young as five years old. When I presented one of the workshops at an AAUW STEM4Girls conference in March 2018, the girls helped create quite the interesting conversation. The conference was for girls aged nine to twelve years old and featured mostly middle school girls of color. I always like to start my workshops with asking the them to tell me what they want to be when they grow up. I think this helps ground the conversation and get the girls thinking about all the possibilities out there. In the beginning, conversation focused on the media and images we see every day. I did a simple Google search of the word model and found so many images, mostly white, skinny, airbrushed models. We discussed how the images seen are not always real, as many are heavily altered. The girls expressed felling self-conscious, envious, or inferior when looking at the images and thought that the messages they gave off were negative. The images showed what we are “supposed” to look like: skinny, perfect hair, effortless makeup and full features. Many of the girls use social media and the internet over traditional magazines and TV commercials, which can lead to a whole different set of issues. Every single girl in the workshop expressed feeling self-conscious about their body and said they had experienced bullying at some point in their life. This bulling lowered their self-esteem and made them think twice about daily actions. Peer groups were also not the only group of people doing the bullying, as many expressed that family members had made comments on their appearance. This experience was consistent with much of the discussions we had in class this semester, showing that views of the body have and continue to be warped to fit “ideal” representations.
The workshops featured in my final project, all of which build off each other, help young girls have an open and inclusive space to talk about such sensitive topics. As someone who has struggled with body issues my whole life, I know how hard it can be to talk about my experiences. Working with young girls over the past couple of years has really given me the confidence to be more open about my experiences with weight and appearance. When I first started, I was hesitant to bring up my struggle with my weight, as I have always been fat. I have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), which makes it extremely hard to maintain a healthy weight without medications. Having tried every diet and exercise plan under the sun, I finally gave up. I stopped caring what others thought about my body and started to embrace it. It was a struggle to open up about this journey though, but after hearing the girls and other educators I presented with talk about similar experiences, I became more open. Now, I hope my battles with body image can help inspire young girls to ditch the scale and start enjoying the skin they are in. When I was growing up, there were no workshops like this available to me, no one talked about it. By creating a space for young girls to learn and grown together, I hope these workshops will inspire them to truly love themselves and never conform just to fit in.
Below are a few examples of the tools created for these workshops:
Angel Kearns is a graduate student in the Applied Sociology program at Old Dominion University. Serving as the current coordinator of the M-Power Peer Education Network, a peer education program out of the ODU Women’s Center, she is dedicated to educating others on issues related to interpersonal violence, gender roles, diversity and discrimination, and leadership development. She enjoys cats, coffee, and Netflix marathons.