Why Body Image Activism Matters in a Big Way
More than 85,000 people signed Julia Bluhm's petition asking Seventeen to include an un-retouched photo spread each month. And she’s not the only activist stepping up. It’s time for a revolution. Here’s why.
We're Losing a Generation of Leaders
"By the time we’re old enough to seriously consider becoming leaders, the majority of us are crippled by insecurities about the way we look, which we internalize and equate with our sense of worth on all levels," writes 18-year-old author Julie Zeilinger in a Forbes article titled "Why Millennial Women Do Not Want to Lead." This self-doubt is amplified to the nth degree by the way our culture treats women who are at the top of their professions. The public eye is critical. It counts pounds and zeroes in on every freaking "flaw." It makes us utterly fearful of landing in its line of sight.
"I've been spending a year and a half meeting teenage girls who just hate themselves," singer Kate Nash recently revealed in an interview. "They're really insecure about the way they look, and at the age of 14, dismiss the idea of becoming a musician because of the worry about how the media would treat them."
Young women are shying away from all kinds of stages, including political ones. The relentless appearance-focused jabs at women in public office--from Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann to German chancellor Angela Merkel--do not fall on deaf ears. "The glass ceiling is hard enough to break through and when a powerful woman is thrown into the spotlight, she is bound to be criticized for being either too feminine or not feminine enough." writes our blogger Brittany Cullen. "This double standard is perhaps another barrier that prevents women from seeking public office."
In a recent Proud2Bme poll, we asked if your body image had ever prevented you from participating in an activity you enjoy or would like to try. An overwhelming 92% answered "yes." Our body insecurities aren't simply holding us back from wearing bathing suits and having fun at pool parties, (which is bad enough); they're stopping us from taking on leadership roles. And when women are still maxing out at 16% of the top positions across every sector, it's clear that we need to nix the vanity talk once and for all. This is not a battle with the mirror. It's a battle for equality.
We're Being Erased
When 14-year-old Julia Bluhm petitioned Seventeen magazine, her request was far from outrageous: "I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that’s supposed to be for me." That. Right there. That is the issue. The thin, white models are not the problem. The problem is that we ONLY see thin, white models (except for those rare cases when we might see a few thin, light-skinned models). It's not that Photoshop is inherently bad. It's that the overuse of and overdependence on Photoshop ends up making us feel bad--really bad. When magazines brighten and lighten, when they erase every little pimple and curve, they're erasing us too. As a teen activist from Sisters Action Media points out in this video, "The only diversity I see is brunettes, blondes, and redheads."
Following the huge outcry of support for Julia's Seventeen petition and Seventeen editor-in-chief's public response, Carina Cruz, 16, and Emma Stydahar, 17, created a petition to Teen Vogue. "It’s time for an end to the digitally enhanced, unrealistic 'beauty' we see in the pages of magazines," they wrote. "We are demanding that teen magazines stop altering natural bodies and faces so that real girls can be the new standard of beauty."
This is what body image activism is all about--and why it's important that we seize this moment and this momentum. We need to talk back. We need to make our own media with our own messages. We need to speak up when we feel invisible. We need to keep reminding media makers that real girls are here. We're watching. We're listening. We're ready to change the game.
We're Getting Sick
Fifty-three percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. The number increases to 78% by the time they reach age 17. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives. Disordered eating and poor body image are complex issues and we can't blame the media--entirely. But no way, no how should we let them off the hook. Seriously, is it such a coincidence that we have an epidemic of body hatred in a culture that is constantly telling us that life would be better if we were thinner, more fit, had straighter hair, lighter skin, if we could somehow fix our “problem areas”? Of course those are all empty promises. There is no beauty prescription that will really lead us to happiness. But the message is that we’ve got to keep trying—and keep buying (products, “plans,” “solutions”). So what happens when an entire generation is plagued by bad body image? We get preoccupied with all the wrong things. We get sick. We lose our power.
Young women--and an increasing number of guys--face intense pressure to conform to an ideal that blatantly rejects the diversity of who we really are. On top of the constant noise about what we should look like, we're exposed to a steady stream of toxic media snark that targets women's bodies, cruelly reminding us of what we should never allow ourselves to be: imperfect, different, human. Yes, each of us needs to work on our own self-acceptance. But we also need to step up and advocate for social change. Because this is not just your problem or my problem--it's a full-on crisis. And the stakes are high.