Feminists, Meet the Next Wave: Don’t Take Body Image Activism Lightly

Image via iStockPhoto/digitalskillet

It seems that someone is always talking about the supposed death of feminism. The kids don’t relate to the big, bad F-word anymore. Younger generations are self-absorbed and apathetic. Oh, the “Sex and the City,” the “Girls,” the blogging, the stilettos, the Spanx. No one cares about the real work of feminism anymore. We just sit around and tweet about our bad body image. That last one is particularly misguided because if we dismiss young women’s body image issues, we will effectively shut down one of the biggest entry points to the feminist movement.

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. That’s a huge wake-up call, people. It’s also a huge opportunity. Because when girls and young women begin to get angry about the fact that all this shared body hatred is not just some grand coincidence, they are much more likely to turn to feminism for answers, for healing, for social change. And the next wave is already proving that body image activism is not “feminism lite,” but rather an essential piece of the movement to gain equality.

Julia Bluhm, 14, was frustrated that her peers were constantly caught up in conversations about how they wished they could look more like the perfect images in magazines. So she started an online petition asking Seventeen Magazine to be more transparent about the fact that the “perfection” on the pages is a digital illusion. More than 80,000 signatures later, Seventeen Editor-in-Chief Ann Shoket made a public declaration that the magazine will not alter models’ faces or bodies, be more transparent about what is and isn’t Photoshopped, and show diversity in their fashion and beauty spreads. Then 17-year-old Emma Stydahar and 16-year-old Carina Cruz picked up the torch and started a petition to Teen Vogue, asking them to follow suit so that “real girls can be the new standard of beauty.”  They got a meeting with the editors. Unfortunately, it was a brush-off with a side of scolding and so far the magazine has not promised any changes.

Magazine responses aside, there is an undeniable win to celebrate here. It’s apparent in 13-year-old style blogger Britney Franco’s post recapping her participation in a mock fashion show staged outside of Teen Vogue’s offices. She titled the post “so it’s called feminism and it actually matters”:

“This was one of the most awesome, inspiring days ever. I’m seeping with the inspiration that I soaked up today. Okay. I’ll take a moment to calm down…The entire experience was just so incredibly exciting and inspiring (this is the tenth time I’ve said that, isn’t it?). So many people got to see how strongly we felt about how magazines alter the images of their girls.”

Young activists are using the internet and social media to mobilize and organize, but they’re not afraid to step away from their computers and take to the streets either. This October, Julia Bluhm will be the keynote speaker at the Proud2Bme Summit, a one-day conference for young people I’m helping to organize with the National Eating Disorders Association. She’s also on the planning committee for the event.

Body image is a feminist issue for these young women because they understand that there is a larger injustice at the root of their insecurities. As Proud2Bme blogger and intern Brittany wrote in her essay about the bodysnarking of Hillary Clinton:

“While Clinton is scrutinized for not looking feminine enough, Sarah Palin faces the problem of being seen as too sexy and therefore unprofessional… This double standard is perhaps another barrier that prevents women from seeking public office.”

This is not about fluff or vanity. Young women see clearly that equality and political progress are at stake. We need to keep encouraging them.

If I can say one good thing about my own past struggles with poor body image and disordered eating, it’s that they made me a feminist.  Years of therapy got me to healthier place, but there was something else that helped a whole lot. I went from being a “sufferer” to being an activist—with a voice, with a mission, with power—when I began to reject the notion that my pursuit of perfection could be chalked up to individual pathology. No, there had to be some larger forces at work when so many other girls in my sixth grade class were adding up the calories in their brown bag lunches too, when I spent so much of my teens comparing myself to models in magazines (the actual paper kind, my 90s-style “thinspiration”), always feeling like I came up short—and fat. Girls growing up today are exposed to an even more exhausting amount of messages about who they should be, what they should weigh, what they should eat, what they should wear, what they should look like in order to be “beautiful.” They’re starting to push back. And that’s my kind of feminism.

Claire Mysko is an expert on body image, leadership and media literacy. She is the author of You’re Amazing! A No Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self, an award-winning self-esteem manual for girls, and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. She oversees Proud2Bme, the National Eating Disorders Association’s new youth website.

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