In the August issue of Seventeen magazine, editor-in-chief Ann Shoket responds to a fierce campaign to “keep it real” by vowing to keep photo shoots transparent, celebrate all body types, and never change the shapes of girls’ bodies or faces. And it’s about time.
Many teen girls are caught in the body-image trap, but it snares people of all ages. Last month, talk-show host Anderson Cooper kicked off his guest – the British mother Sarah Burge – because he could no longer hear her defend the decision to give her eight-year-old daughter vouchers for breast implants and liposuction, redeemable when she turns 18. Ms. Burge has reportedly spent more than $500,000 in plastic surgeries to become “the human Barbie,” as she calls herself.
The following week, news broke that the US Senate Federal Credit Union sent out a mailing with a photo of a smiling tanned blonde featuring large fake breasts in a low-cut, tight shirt. The mailing urged credit union members to consider borrowing cash for any upcoming “big plans.”
The over-tanned human Barbie could be any Botox addict I see at the beach every summer in California’s Orange County. In fact, the city where I was raised, Irvine, Calif., is so notoriously appearance-conscious it ranks as the No. 1 city in America in household spending on high-end fashion.
Last year, I returned to my hometown to lead several discussions on the documentary film “Miss Representation.” The film, written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, attempts to refute the media portrayal that “a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality,” as the film’s website describes it.
I had high hopes of creating radical change around issues of female empowerment and body image among Irvine’s youth. But I found resistance instead.
After I asked a question about the difference between growing up male and female, one young woman insisted that this difference – of girls being pressured to dress or act in a certain way – “just doesn’t exist anymore. There is no pressure in high school.”
I was speechless. She attends my alma mater, and when I went there in the early 2000s, girls obsessed about weight – and teeth whitening, shopping, manicures, pedicures, waxing, and hair salons. With plastic surgery, it’s getting worse. And all over Orange County, mothers sign waivers for their underage daughters to tan.
In the all-girl groups I led, I tried to steer the talk about body image to leadership and empowerment. But the girls consistently re-directed. “Guys are only into really skinny girls, like Lady Gaga” one teen admitted, “so I’m always on a diet.” The group eagerly echoed, “I KNOW!” and “ME TOO!”
So much for no pressure in high school.
On the flip side, Lady Gaga tries to empower youth with her new Born This Way Foundation. But I believe female youth need to look elsewhere for a leader in the next body-image revolution. After all, like the high school girls I met suggested, Lady Gaga’s strutting on stage in a bra and panties like a stripper has not helped them one bit on campus. High school boys watch her suggestive videos and expect their girlfriends to perform the same role.
As long as we don’t reconfigure the way girls see themselves on TV, in movies, on billboards, in fashion magazines, and in music videos, even our smartest teenagers will continue to believe the media lie that all their worth is in their fastidious attention to the superficial and transitory.
Michelle Obama is working hard to cultivate nutrition and healthy living awareness. We need more female leaders like writer Lisa Bloom, author of the book, “Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World,” and documentary maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. They can help create a new generation of empowered females around the topic of healthy female body image.
Various youths are finding their own way to combat the media canard that a woman can only be attractive and happy if she is skinny.
Julia Bluhm, a teen from Maine, created a Change.org petition demanding that Seventeen print one unaltered photo spread per month. With fellow activists, she handed the petition – with more than 84,000 signatures – to the executive editor of Seventeen. The magazine listened, and has committed to “celebrate every kind of beauty.”
These efforts are vital if we are to prevent the next media and beauty obsessed mother from giving her preteen daughter vouchers to grow up and become another human Barbie.
Chelsea Carmona is the West Coast regional manager of The OpEd Project, which aims to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in public discourse. Joe Loya, an essayist, playwright, and author of the memoir, "The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber," contributed to this commentary.