Sex Education: Lessons in Fatphobia
In the sex nerd equivalent of The X Files, I recently found myself face to face with a varied and convenient sample of images from various sex ed materials. First, my partner showed me a book his father gave him on the eve of his parents’ divorce. He was about seven; it was of the “you’re a big boy now sort, a book about life and the changes that it brings to your scrotum.
The second came up during a little dinner party. We were discussing the etiquette of sushi boat plate pile-up, when Jehovah’s Witnesses and their publication – Awake! – came up. In their most recent edition, there’s an article about the miracle of life, the amazing birthing process. It included images of various stages of gestation. As always, these images made my vagina clamp up in fear and indignation.
I took these two instances “ scarcely three days apart – as a sign. So, I figured I’d dig for a third, just to make a point. Voila. Exhibit C. From the ever-ready, overused, but too-convenient-to-pass-up: google images.
Does anything strike you about these images? Yes, they’re all meant to teach the eager reader about their cervix or epididymis, and, yes, lots and lots of us grew up sneaking pictures just like this into the bathroom so we could have a better look at the giggle-inspiring pubic hair (if you got something published in the 70s) or the masturbation-inducing nipples/flaccid penises (as the case may be).
In doing research about fat women of color for my Master’s thesis, I started thinking about where people exactly get the idea that fat is really bad and, more importantly, that thin is the norm and the standard. The answer I came up with: lots of places. Many were the same ol’ culprits as usual: television, magazines, beer ads. But what I found most interesting was that people were getting some of the fat-negative ideas from images that originated in a theoretically progressive place: Sex Education.
So, when we look at these images – meant to be neutral and apolitical, there for pre-teens to learn about the basics and the facts (only the facts) “ we see that in fact they teach them lots of things about what is “normal and who is sexual. Not only do these images tell the viewer that the only people from whom we learn about our bodies are thin, but also that they are white, able-bodied, young, and (if that Ann Taylor knock-off says anything) at least middle class.
I read a book about sex education disparities in the United States a few months ago, and it made similar claims to sex education’s “hidden curriculum. I noticed these problems with sex ed when I was a sex educator myself working with young women of color. Even the colorless partial images of torso-less, spread-legged vulva close-ups or side-views of male innards tell us something about the size of its owner.
The frequency of these images in sex education seem to indicate some kind of uncritical standard operating procedure. It’s not malicious exclusion, but a seemingly innocuous reproduction of what seems perfectly normal and natural.
The problem is that beyond sex ed, youth and adults learn about sex through porn. We see the same problems there: largely thin women, muscle-clad men, predominantly white, almost entirely young, and able-bodied.
Excitingly, every single one of us who might use an image like this has some power over changing the paradigm. What did I used to do? I added pubic hair. I took the extra time to shade the image brown (rather than that peachy “nude). I added a belly. I made the breasts saggy. If it was a side view, I added some booty. I showed them Joani Blank’s book Femalia so that they could see the cornucopia of vulval beauty. If you publish sex ed materials, change the images of your nude models. If you teach sex ed, demand it or do it yourself if you’re as resource poor as I was.
Or you could just sit and think about it for a while, get mad, promote this article on Facebook, whisper something loving to your muffin top or your jelly roll, and call it a night.