When I was in high school, senior year "superlatives" were a big deal. Graduating students got to choose who among their peers was the most popular, best looking, funniest or most likely to succeed. But at one Washington high school, the only thing that matters is who is the hottest. Students at Issaquah High School have created a controversial "May Madness" bracket, according to msn News, that pits female students against each other in a NCAA Tournament-style contest ranking nothing but their looks.
Pissed-off parents tried to have the May Madness website taken down, but school administrators say their hands are tied because the contest isn't school-sanctioned or run on its property.
"I think it's certainly a form of harassment and bullying," Issaquah School District spokeswoman Sara Niegowski told a local Fox News affiliate. "I don't think it's set up to make people feel good and just from the start you're basing things on looks, personality, popularity. That's preying on people's confidences when you're already at a very vulnerable age."
Maybe I'm naïve. Maybe kids will always be kids, and maybe that often means that they will be stupid, shallow, cruel and insensitive. But when I read this, the first thing I thought was Where are these kids' parents and what are they teaching—or more aptly, not teaching—them? In our house, we talk about bullying a lot. But the lesson I try to drum into my daughters' heads isn't just "don't be a bully"or even "don't be a victim" because neither of those things is enough.
We talk about advocacy and speaking up and banding together to have a stronger voice. We talk about how it's not okay to judge people based on their looks or to form exclusionary clubs and groups. We talk about karma (yes, we do!) and about the idea that what you put out into the world you get back ten-fold. We talk about popularity and how it's fleeting and meaningless, and I admit I've told them that the kids who peak in elementary or high school aren't usually the ones who turn out to do amazing things—but that they should be kind to them anyway. Yes, because of karma and also because it's the right thing to do.
I feel sad for the kids at Issaquah High School. Not just for the ones being objectified by the contest, but for the ones who are organizing or encouraging it and can't see how small-minded and damaging it is.
Jenna McCarthy is an internationally published writer, TED speaker and the author of five books including If It Was Easy They'd Call the Whole Damn Thing a Honeymoon: Living with and Loving the TV-Addicted, Sex-Obsessed, Not-so-handy Man You Married (Berkley Books, 2011). Find her at JennaMcCarthy.com.
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A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.