I was rummaging through an old filing cabinet last week when I came upon a folder that had slipped down below the other files. I pulled it out from the bottom of the cabinet, opened the file folder, and looked down on a stack of yellowing papers that looked as if they had been stashed away during the Nixon administration. The papers reveled themselves to be original research my students had done back in the 90s on the impact of media on teenagers’ self-perception. My students had put together a questionnaire, for their schoolmates on media usage and self-perception.

One of the questions was especially poignant:

If there were one thing about your appearance that you could change, what would it be?

I held their dusty answers in my hands and wondered if reading these surveys was an invasion of privacy. Was it really any of my business what these students thought about themselves? I wavered, and returned the file to the cabinet. But sitting at my desk, looking longingly at my file cabinet, I thought: these students graduated ten years ago; their responses were anonymous. And besides, I was really curious. I got the files back out and read the students' answers one at a time:

If there were one thing about your appearance that you could change, what would it be?

·      I like the way I look; it makes me who I am. If I had to change something I guess I would give myself less fragile nails so I wouldn’t have to keep them super short.

·      Legs and face

·      Flexibility

·      I would probably like to be 10 pounds lighter and have lighter eye color.

·      I wish I were thinner

·      Less hair: I hate shaving

·      I would change my chest proportion. I would change my feet size. I would change my veiny eyes

·      This is an interesting/hard question. Coming from someone who has a low self-esteem, there are several things I’d like to change about me but I’ve come to accept most of my flaws and appreciate them. One thing I’d like to change the most would be my upper legs, haha. Ah well. We can’t be perfect right?

·      I would have a different nose

·      Probably height…would want to have long legs

·      Hmm wouldn’t want to age

·      I don’t know. I wish that I could change my face. Not too Attractive.

I put the file down and wiped my eyes. It was heartbreaking to think of all these lovely young people thinking about their flaws instead of their beauty. And all this was before the internet tsunami that's swamped our lives have become since these questions were asked. I read on, hoping for more people whose worst flaws were their nails.

If there were one thing about your appearance that you could change, what would it be?

·      Hmm…prob the bone structure on my face because I don’t really have defined cheekbones.

·      Smaller lower body

·      18 inch waist FOR SURE

·      um, how about my entire bone structure!?!? I’m SO bulky; But if it had to be something humanly possible (as opposed to complete bone structure implants), my weight.

·      Nose

·      I would lose the butt

I held their fears in my hand, and shook my head, thinking: it’s only going to get worse. And I wondered how, a decade out of high school, those students’ answers might have changed. I’m not a physics teacher, but I’m over 27, so I can tell you that as we get older gravity begins to exert a stronger force, and physical beauty tends to slope downward.

I don’t think I want to ask my current students that same question that my students asked back in the 90s, but I probably should. I know that as a teacher one of my many jobs is to help my students learn to ask questions and find answers. So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to give my students more research assignments to take the pulse of their own generation with questions on ideology, civil liberties, race, perceptions of beauty, gun control, death penalty, media use, immigration, foreign policy, and all sorts of political and social questions. Students love to be asked questions (who doesn’t???), and when you listen to their answers, there’s lots to learn. Check back in over the next few weeks for new student research and surveys and please share your own.

Here's two wondrous videos my students made about beauty.