Opinion: The crisis for our adolescent boys

Opinion: The crisis for our adolescent boys

As an educator working in schools for three decades, twelve of which have been in girls’ schools, I have been proud to see the journey of empowerment of young women where, in today’s world, many don’t give a fleeting glance towards the opportunities once denied women since they are now just a normalised part of their daily lives.

This is very welcomed since it is a far cry from my own adolescence where girls who worked at the local council offices had to give up their jobs once they married.

The condemnation of such practices fuelled the feminist rhetoric in the 70s which meant at my all girls’ school, morning hymns were replaced by more meaningful and contemporary anthems such as Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and authors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer were mandatory texts on the senior English reading lists.

The heady messages of those times, that we received from our school and from the challenges we could see to established patriarchal hegemonies, encouraged my friends and I to act and feel ‘liberated’. 

However, over that time, whilst there has been considerable success in breaking through stereotypical gendered conventions assigned to women and girls, with girls’ education playing a critical role in achieving this, there appears to me to have emerged an absence or omission, an empty space, in discussions around gender equity when we turn our attention to the constructions of ‘masculinity’ as applied to adolescent boys.

Whilst there are many glass ceilings still to smash for women, my concern is that whilst the objectification of girls by boys has been ‘outed’ and challenged (rightly so and remains a work in progress), there has not been the same vigilance in addressing the ways adolescent girls, purposefully or not, objectify adolescent boys. 

To me, that uneasy silence signals an unacceptable gender double standard and remains a significant challenge for girls’ education to address this gendered construction perpetuated by young girls, purposefully or not, if the achievement of gender equity really is the end game.

A couple of events have sparked my concerns beginning, several years ago, when I visited a locked child psychiatric facility where a friend of mine’s twelve year old son was being tube fed because he was suffering from bulimia. Repeated physical and emotional abuse regarding his slightly overweight and less than athletic physique on a school football camp by older boys, led to an obsession with attaining the ideal profile.

Whilst statistically, ten to fifteen percent of people with eating disorders are male, Metzger (2013) suggests that it is more like thirty percent due to chronic under reporting. As well, eating disorders in boys are the highest cause of death from any psychological illness causing around twenty per cent of fatalities.
Body image is critically important to young boys and girls of 12, 13 and 14 know what they want. 

Whilst they are adamant that they do not want to be judged for their looks or physical attributes their male ‘hotties’ still fit the relatively simplistic binary stereotype  that boys are either physically buff and dumb or intelligent and nerdy.

Girls describe the most desirable qualities in boys as  being confident and having high self-esteem, qualities which rather ironically have strong associations with body image. So, whilst not directly objectifying desirable body traits, adolescent girls are in fact doing exactly that which enables the media to jump on board.

In the absence of scholarly articles that address these issues (and there are few), there are a plethora of websites that set out to ‘assist’ boys through the murky journey of puberty that are frankly, insulting but develop a strong on-line readership because, apparently, they identify what girls want. 

Whilst demeaning websites that suggest boys’ attractiveness to girls is enhanced by tip one - wearing deodorant and, tip two - showering each day, can be removed at the click of a mouse, the greater concern is that their existence is ratified by some societal sense of legitimacy or currency towards discussions such as this.

As well, a recent article in this magazine referred to a principal taking down a ‘hook up’ wall of photographs of young men set up by senior girls at the school. While this is deplorable for just what it is, it is even more concerning when one boy interviewed revealed that the ‘wall’ was common knowledge and had been there for some time but no action had been taken because it was ‘only of boys’.  I would suggest that this feeling exists for boys across our nation and is symptomatic of a sense of disempowerment in young men when it comes to issues of gender identity.

In summary, I am wondering if a similar ‘patriarchal’ sin has been committed by not challenging the objectification of men and boys when we can see the psychological and societal consequences for them are so disturbing. While this is a challenge across the whole education sector, it is of particular significance for girls’ education since without confronting this apparent double standard, and applying the core equities of gender to men and boys, many will remain marginalised outsiders and women will be lesser for it. 

The consequence of this is that the still intact glass ceilings will remain impenetrable for today’s girls and tomorrow’s women.
*This is an edited version

The full article can be viewed here.

Metzger, L. “What I’ve learned about eating disorders and teenage boys.” The Huffington Post.  9.6.2013.

Dr Donna Evans works as a sessional lecturer & researcher with Federation University in Churchill Victoria & has her own consultancy - Compass Education www.compasseducation.com.au. She can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected]