Facepalm
This woman has clearly just heard Dr Sigman's proposals.iStock

Psychologist and health expert Dr Aric Sigman hit the headlines recently when he claimed that schoolboys should be enlisted to help fight body image issues by telling girls what kind of women they find most attractive.

The Telegraph reported that Sigman, speaking ahead of a conference for head teachers, suggested boys from older year groups should be chosen because girls would look up to them. He is quoted as saying:

"It would be helpful for them to explain that what they find attractive is not just physical qualities but also qualities like caring, the sound of a girl's voice and her body language.

"Boys don't have in any way near as rigid a view on what an attractive figure should be and they value many other physical qualities, including eyes, hair, and body language."

It's certainly true that unrealistic body image is an ever-increasing problem, with enormous pressure on young people, particularly girls, to live up to an airbrushed, unrealistic media ideal. The 2012 All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report on body image found that girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance and one in four seven-year-old girls have tried to lose weight at least once.

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Having visited schools across the country and worked with thousands of young people on issues from body image to gender stereotypes, I can think of lots of things that might help to tackle the problem. Inviting schoolboys to share their musings on what makes women most attractive is not one of them.

Whilst Sigman's suggestions seem to be well-intentioned, his approach is patronising and his conclusions are unhelpful and illogical. The idea that older schoolboys should reassure girls by telling them that they can still win male approval in other ways even if they fail to live up to media mandated standards of thinness and perfection still maintains the overriding inequality of a world in which women are judged (and their value measured) by men's standards of approval.

Why should young girls be sent the message that their worth is dictated by how well they live up to the judgement of older boys at school? What about the message that they are neither the sum of their looks nor their attractiveness to men, but of their character and their actions?

This might sound like an overreaction, but for thousands of girls across the UK, their daily life already quite literally consists of a very acute awareness of being 'rated' by their male peers, and often found wanting. Countless Everyday Sexism Project entries describe situations where male students have shouted out numbers out of ten to evaluate their female classmates' appearance, or even their individual body parts.

These girls grow up in a world that sends them the repeated message, every single day, that their looks are all they will be judged on, regardless of their achievement, and that their worth is dictated by whether or not men find them appealing. They see it in the myriad images of the same young, thin, white, long-legged, large-breasted body, being used over and over to sell products from burgers to betting websites.

Schoolchildren
Schoolchildren should not be introduced to sexism. That's pretty obvious, right?iStock

They see it when women are portrayed as submissive, sexualised, consumable objects in the media, in video games, and in advertising. They see it when even our most successful female politicians are described as 'babes' and 'cuties', have their heads superimposed on scantily clad models in our national press or suffer childish and inexcusable commentary about their cleavage instead of their career.

Why on earth would any school want to reinforce the objectification of women?

It's nice that Sigman would like to diversify the criteria by which girls can achieve the praise of the boys at their schools, to include aspects like their voice, hair, eyes and body language. But we need to move away from telling girls they have to please boys at all. They are already deeply aware of the fact that their worth is unfairly determined by male judgement, in a system that does not similarly limit their male peers. Why on earth would any school take steps to reinforce that message further?

What is helpful however, is starting conversations about these issues, and helping to tackle some of the ingrained assumptions that media and advertising help to cement. Discussing gender stereotypes, airbrushing and unrealistic media images in schools can help children of all genders to deconstruct body image pressure.

Body positivity is a vital message and encourages a move away from the idea that anybody's worth is dictated by somebody else's judgement. And bringing boys into the conversation is a constructive step, provided it is on the same level as their female peers, not to stand in judgement over them. Indeed, body image problems are increasingly affecting young boys too, with the same APPG report finding that 34% of adolescent boys (and 49% of girls) have been on a diet to change their body shape or to lose weight.

It's also vital to give girls the power to change the conversation, rather than reinforcing the external societal structures that prioritise male judgement and speech, even in issues primarily concerning women. Girls are often the ones with the best ideas about how to tackle these kind of problems, as expertly demonstrated by a group of young feminists at a school I recently visited. After hearing the boys in their class giving them ratings out of 10 for attractiveness, they had T-shirts printed, with a slogan on the front demanding they be judged by their personality rather than their appearance.

And on the back of every T-shirt, emblazoned in large letters, the words: "I am 10/10".

Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collated over 80,000 women's stories of harassment and discrimination at work and in everyday life. She is also a prolific writer and the recipient of several awards. Follow Laura on Twitter here.