In an age when girls are expected to be hot before they even know what it means to be sexy or can grasp their own sexuality and their body is not only commodified but more highly valued than their smarts of their talents, it’s time for a full-scale revolution.
It’s time to raise our consciousness, take action and make some change.
I didn’t want to be seen in junior high school. I’d hide under baggy t-shirts, walk with my shoulders hunched forward, eyes focused on the ground and never raise my hand in class. I thought that I would eventually become invisible, and I found comfort in that.
I’d been raised in a family of women obsessed with their weight and appearance, who placed an incredible amount of value on being thin even if it compromised their health. Their neurotic preoccupation with calorie restriction, exercise and weight loss as measures of self-worth and self-esteem were supported and exacerbated by the cultural landscape I grew up in during the 70s and 80s. And things have only gotten increasingly worse, not better, for girls when it comes to developing a healthy body image and cultivating self-love.
After being placed on many unsuccessful diets before the age of 12, I considered myself a failure, felt unworthy, unlovable and perpetually uncomfortable in my body. And I was not the only girl to feel that way and certainly not the last.
When I couldn’t shrink my body to meet a supposedly ideal image of beauty, invisibility was the next best thing.
That’s a problem, a really big problem that plagues countless girls and women across the United States and in many other parts of the globe. As I said to Dr. Dawn Dalili in a recent interview for her online Body Image Summit, “We limit our full potential, and we hold back from investigating other aspects of our life because we don’t feel worthy, and we don’t want to be seen.” The time and energy that girls and women expend in pursuit of a culturally crafted, ephemeral and illusive beauty ideal is time and energy that could be spent on other things.
It’s not just a personal loss; it is a cultural siphoning off of talents, skills, and creativity that we desperately need.
I’ve been teaching sociology and women’s studies for 11 years. All my classes come with a heavy dose of media literacy and an examination of the effects of media culture. Obviously, discussions of body image are part and parcel of the dialogue. This is where my students, mostly young women between 17-21 years-old, become most engaged because most of them can relate to feeling the pressure to squeeze their bodies into a one-size-does-not-fit-all beauty ideal.
Many of them have battled clinical eating disorders, and at minimum most of them have an ongoing history of disordered eating and distorted body images that impact their moods, decisions and aspirations for the future. Basically, their pre-occupation with their own body project has made their world small
As my colleague, Soraya Chemaly, pointed out in 2011:
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has consistently found that the more time a boy spends watching television and movies the more stereotypically sexist his views become. The more exposure a girl has, the fewer options she feels she has in life.
I know body image issues matter; I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen these issues plague my family members, friends, and students. I’ve studied and researched body image statistics; listened to tales of body dysmorphia, distorted body image, eating disorders, disordered eating; and advocated for solutions.
Not only is the beauty myth that is proliferated sexist, racist, ageist, size-biased, heterosexist and elitist as well unhealthy physically and emotionally, it becomes an obstacle to a person’s ability to become anything else, or focus on anything besides her body. That’s the last thing girls need to contend with as they grow and develop into young women and members of society.
“Eating disorders and body image issues are not ‘feminism lite.’ Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have encountered women who have not-so-subtly rolled their eyes when I describe my beat. Oh, that’s not as important as the ‘bigger’ feminist agenda. After a certain point, don’t you just have to get over all that silly beauty stuff and move on to the more grown-up feminism? You know what? Fuck that. And here’s why: girls and young women have clearly identified these issues as the source of their hesitance to take on leadership roles. The feminist movement cannot afford to dismiss them. After all, our future kinda depends on our ability to get a clue and engage young activists.”
In discussing the mental, emotional and physical health of girls and women, we must have honest and open conversations about body image issues, eating disorders and the cultural climate in which they exist. Because it’s only then that we can begin to create solutions.
In the end, it’s not just about girls and women; it’s about all of us. Healthy girls and women with a sense of self-worth that doesn’t solely hinge on their body have the opportunity to become self-actualized and complete human beings.
This equals a healthy, functional society in which we all strive and benefit from the fully realized talents and gifts of each member.
And that is the mission of the Brave Girls Want! alliance, a think tank and community of activists, writers, academics, parents, artists, businesses, experts and non-profits that are fiercely committed to the empowerment of girls and their capacity to live authentically.
We are committed to allowing girls to be the authors of their own destiny, one that doesn’t come with a corporate logo. Girls aren’t played and trite gender stereotypes. Girls aren’t just their bodies. And it’s time we expand our representation of girls as the largest agent of socialization in our culture, the media—from social media, to comic books, video games, magazines, television shows, movies and cartoons.
Let’s expand our horizons and lift girls (and society up). Because healthy girls equals a healthy society.
Change can happen.
Join us and find out about our campaign to take over Times Square and tell the world what brave girls want.
An earlier version of this post was posted at MindBodyGreen as part of xx in Health Week, a celebration of female leaders and visionaries in healthcare.It has been modified to support and promote the vision and work of Brave Girls Want!
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Ed: Bryonie Wise