Debate Magazine

Endangered Species Summit: Our Generation and Body Image

Posted on the 29 April 2011 by Juliez

The Endangered Species Summit – an international movement focused on improving the way women around the world view and treat their bodies, in the media and beyond – took place last month. There were branches in London, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Sao Paul and New York. I was lucky enough to be involved with the New York branch thanks to the incomparable Courtney Martin, who is a goddess (and who flawlessly planned the NYC summit). I had the daunting task of representing our generation on the Intergenerational Panel, which also included such amazing women as Jean Kilbourne, Erica Watson and Rachel Simmons. So, you know. No pressure or anything.

Needless to say, it was an incredible experience, but more than talking about my impressions, I figured I’d share the video of the speech I gave. Hopefully I represented our generation well and from this video I hope you get a better idea of what the conference entailed. So without further ado…here it is:

Endangered Species New York – Julie Zeilinger from Endangered Species – NY on Vimeo.

I’ll never forget the moment I realized that how you feel about your body in this culture has nothing to do with how you actually look. A few years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I found myself alone in the bathroom with the most beautiful and popular girl in the senior class. I was the kind of freshman who had five friends – and really, only five friends – and who read books like the Second Sex for fun. So as soon as she entered the bathroom I prepared to leave, so that Aphrodite could descend to envelop this senior girl in an otherworldly glow…or to let her do whatever it was the pretty girls did alone in bathrooms.

But before I could leave, the senior girl blurted, “Does this shirt make me look pregnant?”

The awkwardness was setting in. I couldn’t speak or leave, so I did the rational thing. I stared at her (incidentally flat) lower stomach. Then a realization passed between us. She turned her back towards me. I walked back to class.

Even though I was a lowly freshman, and of course wouldn’t tell anybody about what had transpired, we both realized the code had been broken. Girls are supposed to be perfect, sure. But they’re supposed to be effortlessly perfect and somehow completely unaware of said perfection. And while this principle applies to every facet of life from grades to boys to scoring the winning goal, it’s probably most intense when applied to our bodies.

And I knew that. It seems like my generation was born with that message encoded in our DNA. But somehow it still surprised me when I saw a girl who really was so close to being perfect (at least to the rest of us) revealing her insecurities. So much so, in fact, that she’d been desperate enough to seek affirmation from somebody whose opinion didn’t really matter.

While girls today arguably have more power and control over our bodies than ever before, we feel as though we have none. If we’re not bingeing, purging or exercising ourselves to death (or engaging in some combination of all three), then we can instantaneously name our least favorite body part or tell you exactly which flaw haunts us, keeping us up at night.

In most respects, it’s currently a good time to be a teenage girl. For example, we can enter the top colleges and later become the CEO of our own start-up company or a partner in a top law firm, in fact, we’re expected to. But with such opportunities come immense pressure and competition, enforced internally, by our own high standards, as well as externally by equally competitive parents. And if this pressure weren’t enough, we’re barraged with images of unattainable bodies – by 17, the average woman has received over 250,000 commercial messages through the media.

Our problems with our bodies are harbored less in blatant self-hatred than they are in a complete state of contradiction. The hard work of previous generations of women to secure us relative equality with men has been invaluable, but it seems that those generations – the first and second waves of feminism – assumed that when women infiltrated patriarchal institutions, then our work was done. While my generation of young women has a world of opportunities available to us – in fact, equal opportunity is all most of us have known – I truly believe we’re still working as hard as any past generation to really earn those opportunities. So we end up living the contradiction of outwardly appearing perfect while internally feeling like a ten-ton boulder is crushing us. And our bodies and body image shoulder the brunt of this burden.

Now, I’m obviously not the first person to reach the conclusion that an unhealthy body image stems from otherwise unbearable pressures and the way we treat our bodies is a means of gaining control. Courtney Martin brilliantly wrote about the topic in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and many psychologists and physicians agree. But I think the element that’s truly missing in the discussion is the paradox that girls are largely aware of the sources and reality of our negative body image – we know that we’re under more pressure than we should be, we know that we’re comparing ourselves to unachievable standards – and yet our terrible body image rages.

Thanks to older generations as well as some brave souls in our own generation, there’s no shortage of people telling us about unrealistic body images in the media. Organizations like the Girl Scouts of America, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, and the Dove Self-Esteem Fund have commissioned studies on girls and body image and have made information widely available to my generation through innovative advertising campaigns, viral videos, workshops and other resources. We’re largely aware that most of the images we’re bombarded with every day undergo intense photoshopping. Our teachers and many of our parents try to talk to us about the problematic representations of women’s bodies in the media.

But in the end, this understanding is often on the surface. There are so many voices talking to us at once. The media – thrown at us in a practically continuous stream during all conscious hours – teachers, parents, our peers: when people are talking at you it’s hard to take the message to heart. Especially since their sincere messages of body acceptance don’t make the competition for, say, that spot in our top choice university go away. And as long as our peers are still competing, you better believe we will be, too.

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to solving this problem is making girls realize that hating our bodies is a real problem. We’re lectured on the dangers of eating disorders. We’re told to love ourselves and hate the media. But when the sources of this problem, like competition, are reinforced as not only positive, but essential to our current and future success, we’re forced to choose. In comparison to securing future jobs, husbands and ultimately, happiness, what we do to our bodies in order to get there seems like a small price to pay. Girls need to realize that it is, in fact, quite a hefty toll.

I can personally speak to the power and pervasiveness of this message. I struggled with my body image throughout middle school and well into high school. While I would never profess to having had an eating disorder, I engaged in behavior that was certainly disordered in the sense that it interfered with the way I lived my life and prohibited choices I otherwise would’ve made. Essentially, I developed routines that maintained negative views of my own body. I avoided shopping at all costs, lest I was forced to try on a size larger than I felt I should be. I physically wouldn’t let myself get too close to anybody else, somehow convinced that the closer I got, the more magnified my flaws would seem, which would inevitably lead to ostracization.

And yet these feelings raged within me at the same time that I began to develop my feminist identity. Even while I was reading texts that told me I was worth more than those feelings of worthlessness and that I was playing into society’s way of controlling me as a woman, I found it impossible to alter the way I viewed my body.

Like alcoholism, body hate seems to be something that just always stays with you to some extent. Even when you come to feminism, and empowered by it, feel its ideals deeply and try to live by them, the external factors are still there. The media still streams advertisements featuring unattainable beauty standards. Classmates who have not yet reached such conclusions surround you. We live in a disordered society – a disordered body image is our norm. So it’s no wonder that finding, developing and maintaining a healthy body image is such a struggle for a generation that doesn’t even want to be normal, but wants to be perfect.

The major factor that really helped me to overcome my negative body image was the FBomb – the blog and community I founded that’s written by and for teenage feminists. The FBomb is run primarily by submissions from teenage girls (and guys) from around the world. Submitters have written about everything from classic feminist issues like the right to choose, sex education and their personal feminist “click moments” to pop-culture and personal issues like a critique of movies geared towards teens, sexist advertisements, or social media like Facebook. When people ask me why I started the FBomb I often say that I felt my generation’s voices – our real voices, not the Seventeen Magazine version our voices – needed to be heard. But the truth is, I also started it so that we would listen to each other.

Writing about my own issues with body image on the FBomb was a healing process for me. The act of trying to cull together all of the insecurities and doubts that had run rampant through my mind for years, the effort of organizing these often incomprehensible yet tormenting thoughts into a succinct post made me feel as if I had trapped them once and for all and condemned them to live forever in cyberspace – a welcome change of residence from my head.

Reading the comments section once the article was posted was equally therapeutic, as other girls related emphatically to my experience. The common thought of, “Why do we put ourselves through this,” began to emerge. Once said (or typed) aloud, it seemed so obvious, yet even as an established teenage feminist, I’d never before seen my insecurities for what they were: destructive, damaging, toxic thoughts undermining my own true potential and self-worth. They were always thoughts I kept on the backburner while trying to appear perfect.

In fact, body image is probably the most written about topic on the FBomb. Whether it’s personal tales from the front lines of the battlefields that is high school, a critique of images in the media or thoughts on beauty pageants, eating disorders or the newest “get-thin-quick” gimmick, the conversations are starting. And they are conversations that we desperately need to have. There are few other places where my generation can talk amongst ourselves – and completely among ourselves – about our body issues. And in this culture, I truly believe the revolution needs to come from within the ranks.

It’s not that there isn’t room for intergenerational conversation in the body image debate, or that it’s not important. Of course there’s room and it’s incredibly important to hear from older women who have been where we currently are. But that alone won’t solve this problem. Dialogue amongst my generation is crucial. In fact, women need to take charge of this issue for themselves regardless of what generation they’re in.

However, there is one major way in which the older generations can help to alleviate this problem. Our parents – especially our mothers – can play an integral role in shaping their daughter’s view of her body. I can’t even count how many of my friends have grown up with mothers who are watching their own waistlines. They’ve grown up around dieting, compulsive exercising, weekly weigh-ins and, most detrimentally of all, “fat talk.” And many of them were dragged into the world of body projects by their mothers – as diet partners, as support, as the replacement body project when their mother’s had failed – before the media or their peers could even get to them.

Positive role models are essential and I can’t emphasize enough how much it matters, in order to develop our own healthy self-perceptions, for our mothers to feel good about their bodies. It’s not enough to tell us we’re beautiful inside and out. You have to believe it about yourself, too.

Ultimately, I’m hopeful for the future. Every time there’s a post about body image on the FBomb, I see my peers engaging in discussions that are essential for us to have. Because in reality, none of us wants to live like this – it’s fundamentally problematic and unsettling to be at war with yourself. And with every conversation we have, with every realization that we’re not only not alone, but actually very much joined together as a generation in our hatred for this societal reality, we come one step closer to a new reality – a radical future in which we’re at peace with ourselves.

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