Welcome to the first edition of Ask an Educator.
I am a male currently in an institution of high learning. Recently, in one of my classes, a substitute professor – who is female – made a comment regarding female standards of beauty. Specifically, when we were reading over a description of a more petite woman’s height and weight, she announced something to the effect of that being “the ideal” height and weight that all women are striving for. Several of the women in my class were uncomfortable with the statement; however, they didn’t feel that it was worth confronting our professor about in-person nor via other modes of communication (i.e. email, professor evaluations, etc.). I felt motivated to bring up the point myself, but I was worried about my status as a male and the power-imbalance in the situation of a male correcting a female – especially regarding an issue that most directly affects women. I chose not to talk to my professor about the comment during class; however, I still have the opportunity to contact her through email.
From a feminist perspective, what would be the most appropriate course of action here? Simply put, I’m torn between avoiding paternalistic actions and desiring to point out an offensive comment.
LT: What a wonderful question, JFD. First off, thanks for being the first person to ask an educator a question! I appreciate your caution considering your position of privilege as a man. I will say that I could write a book in response to your question. You could present a book to that professor about why that statement was problematic and plays into white, Western, patriarchal standards of beauty that plagues this society. It seems that a book would take a long time to write and I’d have to do a lot of research, revisit how to cite sources properly, and devote most of my time to writing for a long haul. And I don’t really have the time/energy for that right now so hopefully a blog post will suffice.
I think it’s important for you to say something once you’ve sat and reflected on why what this professor said is bothersome to you. I say sit and reflect first because I think people with privilege often jump the gun, spew out reactionary things without considering the power that they have, and make a mess of stuff (being a person with tons of privilege myself I think it has a lot to do with being socialized to think that “what I know is best” and “my experience is important” therefore “I know what is right/wrong”). Maybe ask questions about whether or not you would have felt the need to call out male professors; is it easier for you to confront her because she’s a woman?
It seems as if you have been on the reflection path already, considering you submitted a question to us, so on to the next step. If you feel like your intentions are to keep someone from policing the bodies of other people, then go for it. If it’s because you are trying to be a white knight for women or because you feel like mansplaining, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
From what you said, it seems that what the substitute professor said made you uncomfortable. I’ll assume it made you uncomfortable because her comment assumed a lot about women. She assumed that women are a monolith and all must want the same things, in this case the same body type. She failed to realize that women are pressured to look a certain way. She failed to realize that many women are hurt in so many different ways by the notion of an “ideal body”. That girls are taught from a very young age that so much of their worth has to do with how they look. Most unfortunately, her comments were fatphobic and potentially isolated and further marginalized any person in the class whose body doesn’t fit into that narrow conception of conventional beauty.
So, how do you, a person with male privilege confront a woman with authority about her fatphobic comments?
- Make “I” statements that centralize your own experience and emotions. You can’t speak for women, but you can speak for yourself. The comment bothered you for a reason.
- Acknowledge your privilege.
- Explain why you were uncomfortable (it was fatphobic, perpetuated the myth that there is a single “ideal” body type, that women should be valued based on their appearance, the comment sent the message that women’s bodies need to be policed, etc.)
- Give resources. There are plenty of resources out there about this stuff. Seriously SO many resources. She could stand to read a few.
- Don’t mansplain. Don’t tell her why you thought she made the comment, don’t assume that you know anything about her experience, and don’t try to tell her about herself. You may have guesses, but people are complex and there are a lot of unknowns involved.
Good luck, JFD. Thank you for your thoughtful question. I hope this helps. Be sure to ask us more in the future. When in doubt, Ask an Educator.