Thesis Spotlights – Gendered Childhood, Media Beauty Ideals and the Role of Education
Galatia Kallitsi, PhD student, Cyprus
Email: galatia.kallitsi [at] gmail.com, kallitsi.galatia [at] ucy.ac.cy
Institution: University of Cyprus, Department of Education
Time: September 2011 – May 2018, date of defence: 26th of April 2018
Supervisor: Dr. Miranda Christou
Funding: Scholarship for PhD studies by the Department of Education, University of Cyprus, November 2016, and other scholarships, grants and awards
This thesis explores the ways children construct their gendered and sexual subjectivities through the negotiation of the beauty ideals that media promote. The overall aim is to create a productive dialogue between feminist theory on beauty and the sexualization of culture with empirical data from children’s own experiences. In addition, the thesis explores the role of education in cultivating agency and critical thinking skills in children towards issues of media beauty portrayals.
The thesis is based on an ethnographic project that included twenty boys and girls between 8-13 years old in Cyprus, from diverse socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds. The children were interviewed in their home space and participated in tasks such as, wardrobe show-and-tell, discussing fashion magazines, school pictures and dolls dressed by an online dress-up game. Subsequent interviews with children’s parents provided additional information on parental intervention strategies regarding fashion and consumerism. Data were also gathered through focus groups that were conducted in the school setting and through an educational intervention that was based on the media critical literacy approach.
I argue that “beauty” is an issue of great material, sociocultural and symbolic importance in children’s lives and that it constitutes an essential means for constructing their gendered and sexual subjectivities. Most of the times boys and girls construct their gendered selves by obeying to hegemonic and mainstream gender discourses regarding appearance. Very often children interpret “beauty” as an order, they tend to follow strict gendered norms regarding appearance and resort to surveilling both themselves and others according to these norms. There are times, though, that children act in a postfeminist context whereby, their personal choices for “beautiful appearance” become a source of empowerment. These children use beauty practices in order to alternatively and creatively redefine the meaning of masculinity and femininity. Children also tend to attribute to “beauty” a moral dimension, thus, connecting “beauty” with positive ethical traits, such as goodness, kindness and popularity. Beauty also seems to be a double-edged sword, especially for “beautiful” girls that perform “sexy” (hetero)sexual femininities: they are often socially rewarded because of their appearance, but can also be easily deemed as cheap or shameful by their peers.
Education constitutes an important means for cultivating children’s critical thinking skills in negotiating cultural messages regarding beauty and gendered representations. However, there is a fluid transition between “knowledge” and “influence”, therefore children’s competence in an agentic and interpretative approach to media does not necessarily erase the pleasure that media beauty ideals might convey.