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.