KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the high school girls filed into the Coterie Theatre, three hormonal sixth-grade boys already seated in the theater took aim.

Watching the girls pass by in their short gray uniform skirts, the boys rated them.

“She’s good,” one boy told his buddies, pointing to a blond girl with a ponytail pulled high. “She’s good,” he decided about the girl walking behind her. And so the ratings went.

“Good.”

“OK.”

“Good.”

In those moments, the boys demonstrated why the Notre Dame de Sion girls were in the theater that morning. Playwright Laurie Brooks had visited the all-girls Catholic high school the week before to launch a series of drama workshops encouraging a discussion about body image. What is “beautiful” today, and why?

At the Coterie, the girls watched Brooks’ play “Between Land and Sea: A Selkie Myth,” which ended its run last weekend.

The story takes place in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, where young heroine Elin Jean has known her whole life that she is different from everyone else in her village. She hides her webbed hands in the folds of her sleeves.

Elin Jean’s mother thinks her daughter is quite “bonnie” as she is. But Elin Jean knows what other people think of her. They don’t care about what’s on the inside, she astutely observes, because they’re too busy looking at the outside.

Just like those middle-school boys.

Skinnier, richer, blonder

“All girls feel self-conscious about the way they look,” freshman Kayla Hodges, 14, said after watching the play. “And you don’t really know where you belong.”

Pretty has always counted. But today’s cultural icons are skinnier, richer and blonder than ever.

Can you say Paris Hilton? She is this generation’s standard of beauty, Kayla said. “Skinny, tall, straight blond hair. …”

Where, then, does that leave Kayla’s classmate Chera Hishaw?

“It’s really hard if you are not white,” said Chera, who is black. “I’m not considered beautiful or whatever, but I don’t really care.”

Brooks, the mother of three grown daughters and creator of several plays for young adults, thinks girls need to talk about these issues more often. She spent several mornings and afternoons with Sion’s freshmen.

She encouraged them to think about their concept of beauty and how they treat each other. “I have it in my mind that I’m going to write a play about what we’re discussing,” Brooks told the girls.

Girls’ point of view

On her first day with them, she challenged the girls with a series of statements. To demonstrate their response, the girls had to stand on one side of their meeting room or the other: the yes side or the no side.

I’m not interested in any right answers, Brooks told them. I’m interested in your thoughts and what you have to say.

If people feel good about what they’re wearing they feel good about themselves.

Most of the girls stood on the yes side.

Who we are is directly reflected in the way we look. Most headed toward the no side.

People are in control of how they look. The girls stood evenly divided.

Being beautiful guarantees being popular. Almost everyone lined up on the no side.

People base their image of themselves on what other people say about how they look. Half and half. “It’s all about the looks,” one girl grumbled under her breath as she joined the yes side.

The discussion that followed revealed frustration. With boys. With beauty magazines. With each other. With Mother Nature.

Magazines preach to be happy with the way you are and at the same time feature the latest makeup and ways to lose weight, they pointed out.

It’s a lot easier for boys to “cuten themselves up,” said one, because all they have to do is lift weights and make themselves more muscular. But even though girls can change the way they dress they can’t as easily change those two things that boys notice most – “boobs and butts,” one girl said.

“Guys are terrible!” another girl blurted out.

If guys are terrible, what about girls, Brooks asked?

In an all-girls school, the students agreed, they constantly compare themselves to each other. “You know there are people out there who think they’re better than you,” one said. “You can always say you won’t listen to it, but everyone does.”

What I like about ME

Brooks next handed out note cards and asked the girls to write down 10 things they like about their physical selves. Giggles rippled across the room.

“We are so hesitant to ever say anything good about ourselves because everyone is so quick to say what’s wrong with you,” Brooks said. “It seems to me we’re all kind of hard on ourselves and less likely to own the good stuff.”

Why was this exercise so hard, she asked the girls?

“We don’t think we look good.”

“We’re told we don’t.”

“There’s always going to be someone better looking than you.”

“We’re our own worst critics.”

Delving deeper, Brooks had them decorate “graffiti boards” with words and drawings to show what society’s “beauty” message is, what people do to achieve those standards, and what the results are.

Under “Society/Media” they wrote: Be like somebody famous, skinny, hot, no zits, perfect, clear skin, blonde hair, show a lot of skin.

Under “Attempts to Achieve”: Become a party animal, buy expensive clothes, drinking, just not eating, going on a makeover show, plastic surgery, be someone else, lose weight.

Under “Results”: anorexia, losing yourself, lonely, no friends, breast implants, druggie, obsession, bulimic.

“I know that, as a parent and a teacher, I think about those things a lot, how much the media has an effect on young girls and their body image,” said Shawn Watts, who worked with Brooks and is head of the school’s English department.

“They immediately knew the things that we as adults notice. And at the same time, most of them, anyway, realize that trying to be that way is destructive.”

Having Brooks lead group discussions lets students hear from girls they’re not close to say things that surprise them, Watts said. “In that way they make assumptions about other people, like “Oh, she’s too trendy,’ or “I could never be her friend.’ But then they’ll hear one of those girls say something in a session like this, and you know what? She is a lot closer to me than I thought.”

One thought the girls agreed on universally: That it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.

Yet in a school where some girls walk the halls carrying expensive Louis Vuitton purses and wearing Ugg boots, the girls know that, in truth, it does.

And that’s an unfortunate conflict, their teacher knows, that the girls will have to deal with for a long time.


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