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Middle School Monday: Teens, Body Image and Wonder Woman

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A couple of weeks ago, my teenage daughter came to me, lifted up her shirt and told me she was thin. And I had what may arguably be one of my worst parenting moments. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “I’m not, so what.”

As the mom to a middle school girl, I remember very well how I developed an eating disorder in middle school. I am now an adult woman the age of 44 and I continue to struggle with body image issues, a healthy relationship with food, and how to help my daughters not have my issues. Parenting and librarianing to teens can be hard y’all.

Which brings me to Wonder Woman.

I have been looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie for years as it languished in production, changed directors, etc. And I didn’t really realize it was coming out so soon until The Mary Sue shared an article about how they weren’t really marketing the movie, and they’re not. While I couldn’t avoid a Guardians of the Galaxy commercial or tie-in, I had no idea that Wonder Woman’s release was fast approaching (June 2nd).

Fans Want to Know Where All the ‘Wonder Woman’ Marketing Is

As the mom to two girls, I have made it my mission to financially support female centric entertainment because there just isn’t enough of it and we know that in the world of entertainment, box office receipts and viewer ratings are what speaks to the gatekeepers. So we go see the movies (if we financially can when they come out).

This Was Not the Wonder Woman Marketing We Were

But then I learned that they were doing some marketing tie-in with the Wonder Woman – with a health diet bar called Think Thin. That’s right, we finally get a solo female superhero movie and the dangerous marketing tie in they choose is Think Thin. I can not even begin to tell you about the disgust I feel in the pit of my stomach. This is dangerous messaging to send to the tweens and teens who are anxiously awaiting their first chance to see a female led superhero movie. It reinforces every negative body image message these young people receive, and they receive a lot.

And now as a mother and a woman, I am forced into a deep ethical quandary: do I go see the movie to support women in film and risk endorsing this message or do I take an ethical stand of opposition and risk having the studios say see, we tried a female superhero movie and it didn’t work? As a woman, I resent that the studio have put me in this position. As a mother, I resent that they are once again telling my daughters that “thin” is the ideal. As an eating disorder survivor, I can not emphasize to you enough the harm that this does.

Make no mistake, I have boycotted film and television before and I share with my daughters the reasons we are doing so. For example, though The Teen wanted to go see Passengers I explained to her what my concerns about the movie were and we decided not to support it financially.

But I really don’t know what to do about Wonder Woman. And I resent that I am put in the situation of having to try and figure out whether I want to support a female superhero movie or whether I need to boycott it to make a statement about how we harm women with our messaging about body types.

#MHYALit: The Fantasy of Being Thin and YA Lit, a guest post by Katelyn Browne

Last week, we had several conversations about the book Kill the Boy Band and body shaming. You can read post 1 and post 2 for background. In the midst of all these online conversations, Katelyn Browne contacted me and said I want to write a post about “the fantasy of being thin”. Today, we are honored to present that post to you.

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I don’t think I’m alone when I say that Kate Harding changed my life. She continues to do good work as a feminist writer–I was on the Amelia Bloomer List committee that recognized her book about rape culture, Asking for It–but for me, it was Shapely Prose (RIP) that forever altered my understanding of myself and my ability to exist in the world.

In 2007, a post called The Fantasy of Being Thin (aka TFoBT) spelled out a cultural mythology I’d never been able to name or claim. In short, it describes the magical thinking that associates weight loss and/or thinness with character development. The list of examples ranges from “When I’m thin, I’ll be really extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with” to “When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.”

Kate’s initial post about TFoBT served to explain why, in part, it’s so hard for many people to fully convert to fat acceptance for themselves, even after they’ve come around theoretically on fat acceptance for others. But today, I want to talk about the ways in which TFoBT is such a perfect, pernicious trope to hang a YA novel on.

TFoBT squares so completely with dominant American cultural values that it’s almost invisible. Of course weight is an issue of character and morality. Of course thin people take better care of their bodies than fat people, so of course they’re more morally sound. Of course anyone could be thin if they had enough self-discipline, and of course all fat people are binge eaters who don’t understand nutrition. Of course fat bodies are hilarious and desexualized, and no worthy partner would be attracted to a fat person.

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YA fiction is, by its nature, about the adolescent development process of taking ownership for your own life, taking responsibility for your own decisions, and building the relationships that will carry you into adulthood. Because we’re conditioned to view thinness as a visible indicator of invisible virtue (self-discipline, self-esteem, self-care, a right relationship with food and exercise, and enough class markers to fill their own essay), it makes “sense” that weight loss is an appropriate outward journey to signify that internal character development.

Recently, we saw this in Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything: Mac’s secret backstory is a weight-loss plotline that signifies his journey to seeing value in his own life, while simultaneously making him worthy of romantic love. (Sarah Dessen has a long and complicated track record with weight-loss tropes; Keeping the Moon, which has long been my favourite of her books, has a more complicated version of this same ideal going on as Colie struggles to inhabit her post-weight-loss body.)

For girls, it so often dovetails with the other obvious moral “truth” of YA media: that girls who care too much about their looks are vain, but girls who are good are naturally beautiful. We see this intersection in books like Fat Cat by Robin Brande, where Cat’s paleo-esque diet is motivated by science and vague notions of health; becoming thin and popular and loved happens as a side effect.

We see it in middle-grade books like Shelley Sackier’s Dear Opl, where weight is an indicator of mental health, and both are throughly rolled in with physical health.

We see it in Jen Larsen’s Future Perfect. Ashley gets non-specified weight-loss surgery because her grandmother bribes her to–she’s too good to care about her appearance, but the pursuit of her education comes with a magical opportunity to stop being fat.

And speaking of magical opportunities, my thirteen-year-old self read a paperback series book called Stranger in the Mirror about a gajillion times; its main character wishes on a magical meteorite that she can be as thin and beautiful as her sister, whose boyfriend she’s in love with. Instead of magical insta-weight loss, she wakes up with a sudden love of running, and the sense of self-discipline she gains from running wins her a romantic interest. (Stranger in the Mirror was co-written by Cherie Bennett; you may remember Bennett’s Life in the Fat Lane, about a beauty queen who has a metabolic disorder that causes her to gain weight for exactly as long as it takes to learn a Serious Moral Lesson about appearance, at which point she’s able to start losing it all again.)

Maybe it’s just a little thing. Maybe you feel like this book that uses a character’s weight to mirror their moral development is different, or is a subversion, or really deserves it. And this is somewhere that I think deeply about Karen’s recent post about the way trope-weary adults read books, versus teens who don’t have decades of mimetic knowledge piled on their shoulders. When I was thirteen, these books didn’t make me angry. They filled me with hope, with the false knowledge that once I grew up and learned to love myself and so forth, my body would change into something worthwhile.

(There’s a whole ‘nother essay here about how deeply Protestant-work-ethic-y this all is, but I’ll save it.)

For today, all I want you to come away with is this: the Fantasy of Being Thin is not neutral, even though it feels as natural as breathing to everyone who’s known since preschool that fat = bad. We need other narratives around fat bodies. (Yes, I love Gabi: A Girl in Pieces and This One Summer and that other book that’s on the tip of your tongue, but we need more.)

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Katelyn Browne is the Youth Services Librarian at the University of Northern Iowa. She is also currently a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project and curates the Feminist Task Force’s Women of Library History project. You can find Katelyn on Twitter at @brownekr.

One Book, Two Radically Different Opinions: An experiment in reading

killtheboybandYesterday, I wrote a post about losing my confidence as a reviewer. But tucked in that post I also touched briefly about the difference in the way that teens read books versus adults, focusing on the title Kill the Boy Band.  I was intrigued by the difference when I stumbled upon Sarah Hollowell and I believe Angie Manfredi and perhaps a few others discussing the topic of fat shaming in this book. In fact, Sarah Hollowell and I had an interesting private discussion about the book and the way adults were reading the book vs. the way our TLT teen reviewer read the book. Ky, our teen reviewer, has raved to me many times about this book and wrote her brief review stating: Kill The Boy Band is a book filled with crazy twist and turns, betrayal, and murder!?!? Though you might think the title tells it all, you’ll be surprised to find out that the title is just the beginning of the story.  This book had my mind racing and i could hardly put it down.

So out of curiosity, I asked Lexi to also read and review this book for us. Lexi is an older teen, a frequent reviewer, and a very prolific reader. She is also an intelligent and thoughtful teen and reader. We’ve had great conversations about books. Here’s what she says:

Lexi’s Review

“Happiness isn’t always easy…but it’s a priority.”

First off: FAN GIRLS ARE CRAZY!

No matter what this book tells you about how these girls aren’t as crazy, don’t believe a word because these four girls are crazier.

Kill The Boy Band is told in the perspective of teenage superfan who isn’t the most reliable narrator and has the reader questioning her sanity at points. But compared to her friends, whom are all residents of locoville, she can be said to be the most sane but in the loosest meaning of the word.

This girl, (which I don’t think we are given her real name so I will call her Sloan), tells her version of a rather scandalous and murderous series of events revolving around a group of a British teen boy band.  There are lies and secrets that hold friendships together and tear people apart. But it’s not without great consequence that Sloan and her ‘friends’ make it out Scott free.

Even with the absurd obsession of the boy band , the Rupert’s, this book also displays a lot of feminism. Being a social media based story, a lot of things that are widely discussed and argued about  feminism and slut shaming on the internet is seen in the book. This book, I feel, would help girls understand a little about what feminism is and to be the most bad ass girl they can be without the excessive apologizing to others for being who they are.

A major thing I admired about this book is the condemning of slut shaming. Boys can be as promiscuous as they want to be but if a girl simply goes out in revealing clothing they are criticized left and right. This book reminds girls that its okay to dress how we want, to not be ashamed of what we love, to have sex or don’t and to be who we are.

The thing I really love about this book is the diverse image of girls. You have Apple, who is a 267 pound Asian girl whose size is never seen as an issue. Fat shaming is a huge deal in our culture and by writing a character whose size doesn’t mean she is any less is something we need more of. Then we have Isabel, a Hispanic girl who can break a person with one look. She is not your stereotypical girl. She is tough and has a masculine edge to her that by no means makes her any less of a girl. These are girls who don’t fit what society says makes a girl feminine and yet here they are.

This book is about girl power. It’s about reteaching our girls on how to behave because society has told them that only feminine, slim, white girls who don’t question things that need to be questioned are who they need to be. If anything I hope this book teaches girls that it’s okay to who they are and to never apologize for the way they look because they are perfect when they are themselves.

Read it. It’ll blow your mind in the best way possible.

A Third Point of View

In comparison, at Women Write About Comics, Sarah Hollowell states, “This is spectacularly bad fat representation.” She gives very strong examples to support her argument that Kill the Boy Band perpetuates fat phobia, fat shaming, and problematic fat representation:

Two chapters in, and here’s what we know about the fat girl:

  • she stress-eats so compulsively she’ll chew on her hair without food around

  • even as a baby she ate so much she’d eat right out of the trash.

Hollowell goes on to state that she is disturbed by the positive reviews that she keeps seeing and how they don’t mention the awful fat representation. In addition, she notes “there are also issues of race, mental health, homophobia, and beyond . . . ”

And in a Twitter discussion yesterday Jenn H told me that she had several teens that DNFed this book because of both fat shaming and racism.

This fourth reader raises another good point about the way that members of a fandom are stereotyped. Even Lexi above basically says fangirls be crazy and uses the term “locoville”.

So here I have four different conversations with several radically different opinions of this book. It’s a reminder that every reader approaches the same book differently. It is especially interesting to me that Sarah sees this book as being fat shaming while Lexi sees this book as being fat accepting. Is the age of the reader the difference? Or are we not doing a good job of teaching teens about the topic of body and size acceptance? Or are other factors at play? As Sarah notes in her review, readers seem very divided on how this title approaches the story of Apple and her body size.

I, to date, have purposely chosen not to read Kill the Boy Band yet because I found this discussion to be an experiment of sorts and I wanted to be able to follow it without my own personal bias or opinion clouding my observation of the conversation. It raises for me a lot of questions about teens and reading and how they approach a book versus how adults approach a book. It also raises for me interesting questions about teens and the idea of fat shaming. Are we doing a good job of making our teens aware of this topic? We hear talk a lot in the media about the struggles teens face regarding self esteem and body issues, but are we doing a good job of teaching teens to examine and critique messages about body shapes and sizes in the media they consume? I fear the answer is no.

Book Review: Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu

Use this mascara for longer, fuller lashes. Use this cream to reduce wrinkles and fine lines. Use this cream to fade your dark spots. Use this hair dye to cover your gray. Use this lipstick for fuller. more kissable lips. Wear this type of dress/shirt/pants/skirt/top to look slimmer/bustier/more appealing to men. And here are the things women do that men hate . . . These are just a few of the constant messages that women start receiving at an incredibly young age, messages that tell us that we have to look a certain way to be confident and attract the opposite sex. Messages that tell us we have to do more, be more, and suffer more in order to be “desirable”. This is a huge part of what MAKING PRETTY by Corey Ann Haydu is about – how we teach girls from a very young age to hate the way they look, thus hating themselves.

Sometimes a book so moves me that I feel like I have to write a letter to the author. Sometimes I have done that publicly, but MAKING PRETTY led me to write a very private one to Corey Ann Hyadu. You see, I have never been comfortable in my own skin. I have never felt good enough or pretty enough, and in some ways I know the reasons for that. Part of it is culture and part of it is the things that have been said and done to me and around me in my home and in my personal life. I related all too well with the girls we meet in MAKING PRETTY. I have been these girls. I am these girls. And I have worked with these girls for 20 years now. Corey Ann Haydu captures so much of these girls in pitch perfect ways I was moved to compassion for myself and every girl like me that has to weather the storm that is being a girl in contemporary society. It’s so hard to love yourself in a world that constantly tells you that you have no reason to.

Cultural messaging can be a harmful beast.  The institutionalized and internalized image issues that get handed down to us in subtle and often unconscious ways can really mess with your head. It’s the photoshopped images in magazines. The way we talk about girls weight to them and in front of them in ways that we don’t with men. It’s the way we sit around and watch award shows just to pick apart the way the women look in ways that we often don’t with men. It’s the constant barrage of ads aimed at women about make-up and fine lines and wrinkles and beauty creams and hair dye. We are constantly being told if we buy this and do that then it might make us more worthy, more loveable. There is an entire industry that is bankrolled on the backs of women’s insecurities, people grow rich telling us the lie that if we just did x, y or z then we might finally be worthy of love and acceptance.

The stories I could tell you. That I want to. The girls I have seen hurting. And before anyone leaves me a comment saying but what about the men, I will readily admit that men can and do struggle with body image issues, we have even written about that here at TLT. But it also feels like they aren’t targeted as much as women. For every male baldness or Bowflex ad I see it seems like I see 10 ads for women’s beauty products. Entire industries are built on making women hate themselves.

In addition to the way Haydu perfectly captures the brokenness that we often inflict upon our girls with our unreasonable beauty standards and messaging, MAKING PRETTY is also just amazingly well written; it’s a good, well written story. There are so many perfectly written and emotive sentences that I am going to go back and write in my quote journal. There are so many girls and parents I want to hand this to and say here, read this. To the girls I want to say you are enough. And to the parents and our culture I want to say stop making our girls feel like they aren’t enough. This book is a great tool to help do that. It’s a good story with poignant insight. We’re so busy trying worrying about “making pretty” we forget to worry about “making whole”.

Everyone – every man, woman, and teen – should read this book. I highly recommend it.

I love this book. Thank you for writing it.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Montana and her sister, Arizona, are named after the mountainous states their mother left them for. But Montana is a New York City girl through and through, and as the city heats up, she’s stepping into the most intense summer of her life.

With Arizona wrapped up in her college world and their father distracted by yet another divorce, Montana’s been immersing herself in an intoxicating new friendship with a girl from her acting class. Karissa is bold, imperfectly beautiful, and unafraid of being vulnerable. She’s everything Montana would like to become. But the friendship with Karissa is driving a wedge between Montana and her sister, and the more of her own secrets Karissa reveals, the more Montana has to wonder if Karissa’s someone she can really trust.

In the midst of her uncertainty, Montana finds a heady distraction in Bernardo. He’s serious and spontaneous, and he looks at Montana in the way she wants to be seen. For the first time, Montana understands how you can become both lost and found in somebody else. But when that love becomes everything, where does it leave the rest of her imperfect life?

Coming May 12th, 2015 from Katherine Tegen Books. ISBN: 9780062294081

Ally Watkins sent me a copy of her ARC to read.

Body Image and Eating Disorders

Dear Lego, we want building bricks not beauty tips

In my home and in my libraries I am a huge champion of Lego. They are, to me, a great STEM/STEAM tool that make for a solid foundation for my Mobile Makerspace. I was, personally, a little dismayed when they introduced Lego Friends “for girls”, because Lego was the perfect gender neutral toy. But honestly, we do have some Lego Friends (they were gifts) in my home and if you mix them up with all the other Lego blocks it really isn’t a big deal, just a wider variety of colors. But I was dismayed to learn that Lego was including “beauty advice” for girls in its Lego magazine, which is targeted towards 6 to 12 year olds. Rather than writing up a post about how disappointed I am with more traditional gender messaging creeping into the Lego brand I thought I would share several tweets shared yesterday on Twitter that highlight how off brand this messaging is.

I did get a response from Lego on Twitter:

Sunday Reflections: The Skin I’m Not Comfortable In, looking back and looking forward at a life with an eating disorder

I am a teenage anorexic in the body of a fat old woman.

My struggle with an eating disorder began when I was 12. I was diagnosed with Scoliosis and fitted with a back brace, a type of fiberglass corset. The first time I ever had to wear it out in public I became so body conscious that I threw up. You see this back brace, it was big and bulky and distorted the way my body looked. I had to wear different clothes, elastic waist pants that would fit around it and big baggy shirts to hide the way it flattened my butt. Everything about it made me look bigger and, in my eyes, so abnormal. So I wanted to be smaller, to shrink away so no one would notice. I wanted to disappear.

At the same time, I was being abused by a family member. It’s not something I like to talk about a lot, but I can’t deny that this too was part of the reason I wanted to shrink away. Living in that state of constant fear, lying awake at night wondering if tonight would be the night, more than anything else I wanted to disappear.

By the time I entered high school I hovered consistently around 100 pounds, give or take a few pounds. I was 5 foot 9.

I got some treatment in high school during my junior and senior years, but my main treatment came in college.

Ironically, I’ve read enough of the literature out there to know that the reason I am now over weight may be due in part to all of those years of starving my body. Apparently it changes your body metabolism and  fearing periods of hunger, your body stores up fat. I have programmed my body to fear hunger at some basic level. And the truth is, I’m just tired of starving and once I started eating again it became so much harder to stop. Six years of barely eating and then three pregnancies with Hyperemesis Gravidarum, I’m tired of the growling pit of starvation and trails of bile that make up so much of my past.

Now I’m the mom to two little girls and the two greatest fears I have for my daughters is that they will somehow be sexually violated or themselves become a member of the eating disorder statistic. I never look in the mirror any more, hoping that they won’t see me obsessing about my weight and pick up those cues. We don’t own a scale. We talk about eating healthy because food is fuel for our bodies and we want to give it the right fuel. I put on a bathing suit and go swimming with them, even when I want to cover myself up in a towel and hide away. I do everything I can to make them feel loved and valued and accepted. But I also appear in very few pictures with them, always using the excuse of hiding behind the camera.

A rare picture of me with my beloveds

The other night I had a scare. I was reading a book on my phone when the battery died. This is a frequent occurrence actually. So I grabbed The Tween’s phone and opened it up and there was an Internet search page full of articles on bulimia. She had searched the term bulimia. I panicked. Why, I wondered, was she searching for this term? Was it for a school assignment? Was she concerned about a friend? Is she okay? Her and the bestie were talking about it and she looked it up. But my vigilance has kicked up a notch. My greatest fear is that one day one of them might come to hate the skin they are in they way I have.

They say you are never cured of an eating disorder, well that’s what my college therapist said. And I must say, I can see the ways in which it lingers. I still hate my body. I still often want to shrink and disappear, hoping that maybe no one will notice me. Sometimes I am still fiercely proud of the extreme self control I had during those days where I only ate a daily bagel and drank 1 can of Pepsi. Sometimes I am fiercely ashamed at the lack of self control I now exhibit when it comes to food. I know that teenage me would look at adult me with nothing but disgust and contempt.

February 22nd through the 28th is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Four out of ten individuals struggle personally with an eating disorder or is somehow affected by someone who is.  Eating disorders do not discriminate against gender, skin color, income level, or educational background, they can happen to anyone. I’m here to tell you that having an eating disorder sucks. Being hungry and tired and just – languishing – all the time sucks. Hating yourself sucks. The constant dialogue in your head – you’re too fat, you’re disgusting, you’re too weak – sucks. The amount of time you spend obsessing about food, trying to hide whether or not you are eating food, and bargaining with yourself in your head – if I eat this today, I will only eat this tomorrow – sucks. Trying to meet the unrealistic standard of beauty that lives in your head is exhausting. I am tired of thinking about my weight. It’s been thirty years, when can I be at peace with who I am?

My oldest daughter is now the age that it all started to go downhill for me. She’s the age of when my abuse started. She’s the age of when my eating disorder started. I just want to get her through this minefield called adolescence intact. I need you to help me. I need my friends and family and neighbors to do better. I need the TV and radio and movie screens to do better. I need the Internet to do better. We need to be aware of the things we say, the messages we send both explicitly and implicitly. We all need to do better for our youth today. If you break my babies, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to forgive you. Do better world.

Can you imagine how different our world would be if we cultivated a world where our kids were nurtured intellectually and emotionally? Can you imagine how much better our world would be if we were raising these kids to be healthy adults? But we’re not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t.

For more on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, check out check out NEDA

For more discussion about body image and eating disorders here at TLT, including an updated book list, check out these posts:

Sunday Reflections: What a few minutes searching Google Images for “Prom Dresses” taught me

Friday night, The Tween had friends spend the night. Like her, these are all girls on the verge of 13. Between the 3 of them they consumed 2 pizzas, 24 chocolate chip cookies (or the equivalent in cookie dough), 12 sodas, ice cream floats, cheese sticks, and in the morning, 9 donuts. They did crafts, they played truth or dare, they stayed up far too late getting punchy – and they looked at Prom dresses.

That’s right, at one point in the evening one of them busted out the iPad and did a Google Image search for prom dresses. “Hate it.” “Love it, but not in this color,” they said. Sometimes they oohed and aahed.

But soon a disturbing trend became clear.

This is an image that came up labeled www.ultimatepromdresses.com

As they flipped through picture after picture of prom dress ads, it became evident that most of the models where white girls. Usually they had long, silky, flowing hair. They were almost always thin and reasonably endowed in the chest area – enough to hold up a strapless dress, which were very prolific, but not so much that you would question whether or not they were taking a huge safety risk by forgoing any straps or support.

We occasionally saw a model who might have been Latina, though it was hard to say for certain. We stumbled upon two models who were people of color, though they were light skinned and had straightened hair that mirrored those of all the models that came before.

And then they clicked upon this picture . . . .

How it ended up in this search is an example of the pitfalls of keyword searching. The image itself is tagged under “worst prom dresses.” It stands out among all the shiny ads for a variety of reasons, but there is no escaping the horrific stereotypes when presented with this image. It’s especially horrible when you consider that we had scanned pages and pages of prom dress ads and one of the very few diversity representations these 12 year old girls came across was this, a biased representation that seemed to perpetuate negative stereotypes of black girls. Of course the black girl in high school is pregnant, and we should probably assume she is on welfare if the stereotypes are to believed. But they’re not true by any means, so why, when less then 5% of the dresses we saw featured a person of color was this one of them? The answer, of course, is that we are still doing a horrible job of representing people who don’t fit our pretty, thin, white girl dynamic that dominates our culture. Even better if she’s blonde.

I had been growing increasingly disturbed as I took stock of the images they passed by in their search. There was almost no body diversity. If any of these girls in my home were struggling with body image, and statistics tell us that they probably were, this was not the way to help assuage their fears.

Now this seemingly simple and fun search had several strikes against it. These girls were subconsciously being inundated with a variety of negative messages and I needed to intervene.

So I gently told them that they needed to find a different activity to do. I mentioned that I thought it was wrong that there wasn’t more diversity in the models that they used, and we talked about how those images didn’t represent the people that they saw in their schools. We talked about real people and respect and being comfortable with who you are. And I thought about how so many preteen and teenage girls are sitting in their rooms alone doing these very types of searches, with no adult to ask them what they think about what they are seeing, challenging them to put these prom dresses pictures into the context of the real world.

My daughter and her friends aren’t always going to have a thoughtful adult looking over their shoulders asking them to question what they see on the Internet, but maybe if we ask them every time we can, it will become a part of their daily routine. I want the teens in my life, whether they be the one I gave birth to or the ones that come see me in the library, to question the world that they live in and to work to make it better. I want them to come to expect diversity so routinely that it’s absence would seem unquestionably offensive. I want them to reject narratives and marketing that suggest girls should all be and look and think a certain way. I want them to feel free to embrace not only themselves, but the various people they will meet in the course of life who will be radically different than them.

It was a simple search, “Prom dresses”. But it ended up telling me so much about the world that my daughters are growing up in. The results weren’t representative of any type of reality that our teens are navigating, which means we are failing them all. We have to do better. We have to be better. Diverse books are a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. There are so many elements out there shaping how our teens view themselves and the people around them. Let’s all be better consumers of culture.

That Time Matt Smith Perpetuated Street Harassment Culture at Comic Con 2013

Please read this note about the comments:  I wrote this post with the intention that we would consider how we talk to and about people, and that we consider doing so with respect.  I ask that if you comment, that you please comment respectfully.  Comments calling people or people groups names, using curse words, etc. will be deleted. (Note added 7/23/2013)

Fan: What would you like to do before you die?

Matt Smith: To start with, Jennifer Lawrence
(referenced multiple times on Tumblr)

Screen Shot of This Blog is a Mess at http://aldrineriksen.tumblr.com/post/55992976129  7/22/2013 9:24 AM
 Dear Matt Smith,

I have a bone to pick with you.  To begin with, you should know that I only learned who you were about a month ago when my two daughters and I started watching Doctor Who this summer.  We immediately became immersed in this wonderful story of a man, well alien really, who had tremendous integrity, valued life and people, and did hard things at often great personal cost to himself because they were the right things to do.  After a few episodes it became clear that this was a show that we could all watch and enjoy as a family, and we did.

Let me take a moment and tell you a little bit about what it is like to be a woman raising two daughters.  My goal is to help create a culture, an environment, where my daughters can walk safely down the street without being hooted and hollered at by men who feel that they can yell out that they want to “do” them because by golly, they have seen something they like and they are entitled to objectify and harass my daughters because – well – they want to.  I want my daughters to be judged not by their bodies, but by the body of their work.  Not by how they look, what lust they might inspire in a man, but who they are as a person.  And I want the men in this world to grow up understanding that all human beings, including female ones, have the right to walk around the world freely without fear of cat calling, whistling, being fondled, or being raped simply because that is what a man wants (and vice versa). 

So here you sit, a popular cultural figure on one of the world’s biggest stages and you were asked a question: “What would you like to do before you die?”  And you response, “To start with, Jennifer Lawrence.”  That is, at least, how you are being quoted around the Internet.  Not that you wanted to do a movie with Jennifer Lawrence, or to do lunch with Jennifer Lawrence.  No, you wanted to “do” Jennifer Lawrence.  Maybe you don’t know how this can be interpreted, but I can assure you after having worked with teenagers for 20 years now that everyone understood you to be saying that your first goal of things you would like to do before dying is to have sex with Jennifer Lawrence.  Wanting to “do” someone is dripping with sexual innuendo.  And in making this statement, you objectified a talented, hardworking actress and reinforced a lifetime of cultural norms that suggest to girls that they are nothing more than objects put on this Earth to satisfy the sexual desires of men.  You also reinforced the cultural norms that suggest that men are nothing more than an animilistic set of base desires that can hardly be contained.  Basically, your answer did no one any favors.

Here’s the rub: You definitely have a right to answer the questions anyway you would like.  It is your life, they are your last dying wishes after all.  But I would hope that you would come to understand that words have meanings.  These words are all over the Internet.  Fans of yours, of the Doctor Who universe, are reading them and taking them in and they see it as someone they look up to reinforcing this notion.  While we read in the news about rapes taking place in Steubenville and gang rapes taking place in Texas, we are asking ourselves: How can we change the culture so that woman are safe and the landscape of our lives, our cultural legacy, is something other than the fact that men and women are getting raped at all, let alone at such alarming rates?  Part of the answer is that we must take responsibility for our actions, learn to control our desires.  But the other part of our answer is that we must stop objectifying people and instead begin to see them as fully formed and worthy human beings.  Not simply bags of flesh that we can use to satisfy our sexual urges or that we can demean so that we have more power or a greater sense of self.

Many people will think that you paid Jennifer Lawrence a tremendous compliment in your answer.  Some will say you were simply trying to be funny.  Others will realize that you stripped her away of all her hard work and accomplishments, demeaned her, and reduced her to a physical object.  Imagine what a different impact you would have had if you had chosen to say before you died you wanted to make great art, or to learn new things, or to make the world a better place.  But no, your first desire was to “do” Jennifer Lawrence. You were basically engaging in a large scale moment of Street Harassment.  Street Harassment is “any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and/or harassing and is motivated by gender or sexual orientation.”  (from StopStreetHarassment.org)  You took the stage and perpetuated a culture that others are working tirelessly to end because it harms others.  Teenage boys hanging their heads out their car windows telling women on the street that they “want to do them” will think nothing of it because, well, Matt Smith did it at Comic Con and everyone thought it was cool.  Bow ties are cool, street harassment is not.

I get that you are not the doctor, you are Matt Smith.  But I think we can all learn a lot from the Doctor.  And the first thing we should all learn from the Doctor is that people are more than simply beings that you want to “do”.  Perhaps you said it best in the character of the Doctor:

“Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. Do you know, in nine hundred years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.”
The Eleventh Doctor, A Christmas Carol

Merida Returns- Campaigns Do Actually Work but More To Be Done

So in case you missed it, the other day I was talking about body image in media, and Disney and their portrayal of Merida from Brave was a hot topic. They had decided for her integration into the official princess pantheon to change her to the smoothed down version (left) from the original Disney/Pixar version (right):

The original director of Brave came out against it, as did many parent groups, and evidently Disney listened-  Disney took off the new look for Merida and put back her arrow-wielding self. Disney has quietly been updating the look of the other princesses as well, as you can see from the pictures below, but Merida has gotten the biggest and loudest outcry.


The Princesses in their “older” versions







The Princesses in their “newer” versions

Notice the differences? Pointier cheekbones, sculpted faces, paler skin on those of color. Mulan is gussied up to no end and looks like she’s in a corset. Tiana has had a nose job. Cinderella is now golden blonde instead of strawberry blonde.  Jasmine’s pants are becoming more of a dress.  Pocahontas has had her ears pierced and her eyes widened. Rapunzel has been aged up, as well as Ariel. Yes, girls can be pretty/sexy/beautiful and strong as well, but what was wrong with the images before? And why did the PoC need to be changed?!?!?!


From the “coronation” ceremony last Saturday for Merida


The outfits for the characters in the park are slowly getting updated to match their cartoon versions as well- Belle, Ariel, and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) have had theirs done already, and rumor has it Mulan and Snow White are next. For kids, these are their *real* characters come to life- this is The Little Mermaid, this is Belle who braved the Beast’s castle. This is Mulan who joined the army in her father’s place.  What impressions are made when we’re glamoring them up like crazy?  What will children think when they see how their heroines have changed:  “if my favorite princess got a nosejob and a facelift since I saw her last, then what I thought was pretty before wasn’t good enough, and I must need plastic surgery too?”  

What about the fact that the princes are apparently fine as they are?

Take a Second Look, books that send empowering messages to teens about body image

At TLT, we have an ongoing discussion about books and pop culture and how it affects the body image of our kids.  We are all constantly being bombarded with subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – messages about the way we look, or should look.  Sometimes, as I start to read a book, alarm bells will start going off in the back of mind: Warning, Danger Will Robinson!  Subtle messages include the propensity to have beautiful, white girls in flowy dresses on the cover of every book, repeatedly sending the message that this is the standard, the ideal for beauty.  Today I want to discuss with you a couple of books that seemed to be one thing, but turned out being something altogether different, reminding me, as a reader, that the beauty of a book can be more than skin deep – just like a person. 

Don’t judge a book by its cover! And yes, we all do it.  But let’s remember to look into the heart of things.  Here are a couple of books that remind us all to do that, to dig deeper.


The Collector is about a boy named Dante Walker who has died and become a demon, a collector.  His job is to collect souls for the big guy downstairs, some call him Satan.  He is given an order and has 10 days to collect the soul of Charlie.  Charlie is where our body image discussion comes in.  When we first meet Charlie she is an average teenage girl, described as being homely almost.  She sits off to the side in the cafeteria with her two besties, at times ridiculed.  Dante can’t figure out why the big guy below wants her soul, but he figures the way to get it is to make her wish that she was beautiful, which she starts to do in baby steps.  Better hair maybe, better teeth, clearer skin.  These are the things that many of us have wished for at various times at our life.  Some people spend hundreds of dollars on products to help transform the way that they look.

As I read The Collector, I was worried at times about the message the book was sending about physical appearance.  But in the end, there is a really positive spin on the message.  I can’t tell you what it is, but you’ll have to trust me. Better yet, read it for yourself and see if you agree with me. Of course this is only book 1 in the series, so we’ll have to see where it ends up going.  My wish? That in the end Charlie would choose to truly be herself.  I think that would send the most amazing message to readers.  I’ll keep reading to find out what happens, but also because it is a fun read.

Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick is another example of book that appears to be sending one message, but is in fact sending a completely different one.  In Gorgeous, Becky makes a deal with a world renowned fashion designer: he will make her 3 dresses and she will be turned into the most beautiful woman in the world.  Becky is soon transformed into Rebecca and is thrown into a life greater than you could ever imagine.  But she also knows that in many ways, she is betraying herself and there is kind of a shallowness to her life that she begins to recognize.  Gorgeous is an absurd twisted fairy tale; funny, but in the end, a fairy tale with a really good message.  In fact, with a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly proclaimed: “With writing that’s hilarious, profane, and profound (often within a single sentence), Rudnick casts a knowing eye on our obsession with fame, brand names, and royalty to create a feel-good story about getting what you want without letting beauty blind you to what’s real.” (May 2013)

Both of these books start out seeming like one thing, but when you read them all the way to the end, they end up saying something completely different about appearances.  A look at the covers would make you think they are something different than what they are, something we do with people every day.  Once you get past the shiny, glitzy covers, there is a fun reminder that what you see is not always what you get, and that we shouldn’t judge books – or people – by their appearance.

What other books do you feel send a positive message to teens about self acceptance and body image? Help us build a list by leaving your favorites in the comments. Thank you.