New Video from “Healthy is the New Skinny”

Healthy is the New Skinny and the Perfectly Unperfected Project have released two new videos. In the first, Katie Halchishick and I talk about the whole issue of authenticity and beauty — a discussion of real v. fake similar to the one I touched on in this Jezebel piece. The second looks at the issue of bullying in schools, and explains how the PUP program can be part of the solution.

Check out Real Beauty and Bullying in Schools.

Anxious custodians of our own images

My Thursday post at Healthy is the New Skinny is up: Pictures Don’t Tell the Story. Excerpt:

Most young people are both fascinated and repelled by their own image. I can remember when I was a teen, decades before digital cameras became popular, studying family snapshots with dismay. My parents and siblings and cousins always looked good, at least to my eye. But I hated how I looked on film; it upset me when someone would say “but you looked great” when all the evidence seemed to be to the contrary. Is that really what I look like, I’d wonder, fearing the answer was “yes.” And on the rare occasions when I found a photo of myself I liked, I clung to it.

It’s both easier and tougher now. On the one hand, phones and cameras give us a chance to assess instantly whether we like a picture – and those we hate can be quickly deleted. On the other hand, these film-free cameras mean young people are photographed much more often than in the past – and thanks to Facebook, those photos are seen far more quickly by far more people than was possible before. That means teens have to work much harder to be good custodians of their own image. And it means that there’s a lot of potential for meanspiritedness as well as fun in sharing embarrassing or unflattering photos of friends.

Healthy is the New Skinny at Modern Mom Magazine

The Healthy is the New Skinny team is now blogging for Modern Mom magazine. I wrote the first post: What’s Scarier Than The Sex Talk? Talking About Food & Weight! It opens:

Would you rather talk to your teen daughter about her sex life or her weight? If you chose the former, you’re not alone: a new study released this month by WebMD showed that nearly 22% of parents are uncomfortable discussing the dangers of being overweight with their kids, compared to only 12% of parents who feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their teenager.

This study jives with my experience. As a college professor who teaches courses and leads workshops focused on issues of both sexuality and body image – and for many years, as a high school church youth leader – it’s astounding to see how differently young people react to these two topics. While talking about sex can certainly be awkward, even in an academic setting, the discomfort often turns quickly to laughter and warm, safe humor. Teens are generally hungry for accurate information about sex and eager for a non-judgmental environment in which to ask questions and share stories.

But that’s not the case with the issues surrounding weight and body image. When that topic is on the agenda, there’s far less giggling, far less fun.

Click for more. We’re excited about the new collaboration with Modern Mom!

Perfectly Pink

My post on Friday at Healthy is the New Skinny looked at the controversy over pink. Excerpt:

It’s only been in the last fifty or sixty years that the strong association between pink and femininity has taken root. Pink has become the commercialized way of signifying something associated with women: think pink ribbons for breast cancer, or the marketing term for selling something to women that was once sold mainly to men: “pink it and shrink it.”

As a result of all that marketing, many girls grow to dislike pink intensely, often because it’s been foisted onto them from the time they were very young. Others hate it because they associate it with a set of limitations that they’re trying to escape. “”I call it the pink prison”, my student Kailee says; “I feel like everytime I put on pink I’m being put in a box that forces me to behave a certain way. Like when I wear pink, my voice gets softer and I don’t get to express myself.”

But as many young women can attest, pink is more complicated than that…

I also wrote about pink back in February 2009.

A More Inclusive Spectrum of Beauty: Thinking about Plus-Size Modeling and the American Apparel Contest

Note: This is my personal post on the American Apparel controversy. For the “official editorial” I penned for Healthy is the New Skinny on the story, go here.

American Apparel’s “XL Model Contest” has concluded, and we await the company’s announcement of a winner. As of the close of voting last week, the leading contestant for the spot as AA’s first plus-size model was Nancy Upton, whose photo entries seemed cleverly designed to satirize the sexualized, over-exposed aesthetic for which the Los Angeles-based clothing company is notorious. (The CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney, has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.)

While we wait to find out if Upton will be declared the winner, the media coverage of the contest (and the guerrilla campaign to undermine its intent) has been intense. Lost in the discussion, however, are the voices of professional plus-size models — all of whom had long been openly spurned by American Apparel – at least until the sudden contest offer. (It’s not much of an offer, of course: just a trip to L.A. and a photoshoot. No guarantee of an actual contract.)

(As co-founder of the Perfectly Unperfected Project and a director of the Healthy is the New Skinny program I work closely with the plus-size modeling community. I serve as an adviser to Natural Models LA, a new agency that not only represents straight-size and plus-size models but also pushes for more opportunities for “talent” in the industry’s “no woman’s land” — too small for plus, too “big” for straight-size. Natural just put out a new promo video featuring several of our L.A. based team members.)

Many professional plus-size models did make the decision to enter the contest, despite the fat-shaming language AA chose to use in their promotions (like invitations to send in photos of “you and your junk”). As of the close of the contest, two good friends of the Healthy is the New Skinny campaign, Erin Tinsley and Hillary Officer, were trailing just behind Upton. Unlike the apparent winner, Tinsley and Officer took the contest seriously, overcoming real misgivings about American Apparel’s deserved reputation in order to enter.

Why would professional plus-size models enter a contest in which there’s little chance of a payout? For publicity, sure, but also because the plus-size modeling community is eager to expose the American (and global) public to a more inclusive spectrum of what is beautiful. In an industry where so many models are unhealthily thin (though to be fair, not every size two model is unhealthy), plus-size models want to offer a vision that is both more attainable and more realistic while still retaining glamor.

But this attempt to broaden the spectrum of beauty regularly meets with ridicule, anger, and pushback. The ridicule comes from some of the more reactionary wings of the industry, including the organizers of last year’s New York Fashion Week who told plus-size denim designer Jessica Svoboda that they “didn’t want to see a bunch of elephants stomping on our runway.” The anger comes, with no small degree of justification, from many women who are horrified that plus-size models are still so, well, small. Working with Healthy is the New Skinny, I often hear comments like this: “This makes me feel so bad. I’m a size 18 and if even the larger plus-size models are smaller than me, what does that make me? A whale?” Or: “I expect plus-size models to represent real women and girls. We all know that high fashion models are much thinner than normal, and that they have unattainable bodies for most of us. But plus-size models should look more like the average. If size 8 or even 10 is plus-size, that’s just wrong.”

And the pushback comes from those who are critical of the notion that the modeling industry can be redeemed. For many of my feminist allies, for example, broadening the beauty standard is putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. Meghan Murphy writes this week:

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it)…

In other words, the fashion and modeling industries are so fundamentally at odds with women’s real liberation and happiness that any attempt to try to transform these businesses will either meet with failure or be slickly co-opted. Best not to try.

I’ve never liked American Apparel’s clothing, and honestly, find Dov Charney to be the creep de résistance of the rag trade. I don’t like the way the XL campaign was promoted, and I admit to admiring the clever and creative way in which Nancy Upton satirized the whole process. Despite that, I also stand in strong support of the individual professionals like Erin and Hillary who entered the contest seriously. Modeling is, after all, a profession like any other; it requires skill as well as beauty. (AA would have done best to reach out directly to an agency that books plus-size models.)

I also remain passionately committed to the principle of incremental transformation. Organizational or personal change happens through a combination of external pressure and internal reflection. The campaigns I’m involved in work both within and without the modeling and fashion industries, pushing relentlessly, creatively, and to some, frustratingly gradually for a more inclusive, healthier, more sustainable (and attainable) vision of beauty. To the extent that the conversation around the AA campaign moves us closer to achieving that vision by broadening opportunities for women to model outside of the traditional size-range, this is real progress.

Beauty and Health Happen on a Wider Spectrum than We Think: Thoughts on Codie Young

My Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at the Codie Young controversy, and the latest blow-up over size-zero models: Codie’s Not the Problem. Excerpt:

The modeling world this week was abuzz this week with the story of Codie Young, the Australian teen model who was pulled from the British “Topshop” advertising campaign after complaints that she was too skinny. Newspapers and magazines and pundits debated: was Codie anorexic? Some commenters complained that she was a grossly unhealthy size zero, while Topshop insisted that she was a healthy size eight. (All of this got extra confusing because of the difference between European and American sizes.)…

…The issue isn’t skinny models, or size zero models, or whether Codie Young is healthy or not. The issue is that we don’t see enough body size diversity in advertising, on the runways, and on television. There really are some healthy size zero models (Codie may be one). There are also healthy and beautiful models sizes 12, 14, or 18 models out there – -but we see them so much more rarely.

Our frustration shouldn’t be directed at Codie. It should be directed at an industry that says that girls with bodies like hers are the girls who deserve the most work, the most covers, the acclamation as the most beautiful of all. Beauty and fitness can be found across a wide spectrum of size. And we need to see models representing every point on that continuum.

Read the whole thing.

Fashion isn’t frivolous: the importance of engaging our girls about everything

My Thursday column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny this morning. Let’s Talk to Girls about Beauty, Too was written as a response to this generally excellent Lisa Bloom essay at the Huffington Post. An excerpt from my piece today:

…we also need to remember that fashion isn’t the enemy. Cruel and narrow standards and impossible ideals are. Ignoring subjects like clothes and hair does nothing to equip our daughters and little sisters (and, let’s face it, ourselves) to deal with the pressure to look good. All it does is leave many girls feeling shallow for still caring about beauty.

It’s not evidence of superficiality to take an interest in clothes or shoes or make-up. Girls can care about fashion while also caring about books, about sports, about nature, about making a difference in the world. We need to get past the myth that an interest in beauty makes you vain and frivolous. Girls need to be reassured that it’s okay to care about clothes and hair, but they also need reminders that they are valued for so much more than their looks. Let’s lose the false choice that says we either validate little girls for their brains or for their beauty. We need to be fearless about praising both.

This is personal to me. I’m not just a college professor and a writer. I’m also a father to a little girl. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t tell her how beautiful she is. But I also praise her for the other things she does, and as she grows more vocal, I engage her in conversation in a host of other topics. I read to my daughter every night – and I help her pick out her outfit for the following day. My little girl loves clothes as well as books. And I want to encourage her in both passions.

Read the whole thing.

Why must models be so tall?

The Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at a century-old question: Why Do Models Have to Be So Tall? Excerpt:

The modern modeling industry as we know it goes back just about 100 years. One of the first fashion designers to recognize the power of the model was the great French innovator, Paul Poiret, inventor of the “sheath dress.” In 1913, when he was at the height of his fame, Poiret toured America to showcase his designs. He brought with him five models, each of whom was strikingly tall and very slender. Most Americans had never seen anything like these women.

Poiret preferred tall models because they were easier to see from the back of the room at a fashion show. He also preferred them because their longer bodies allowed him to showcase his work more effectively – there was simply more material to display. Poiret liked his models with broad shoulders, narrow hips and small busts for the same reason; he was the first designer to want the “hanger effect” where the buyer’s eye wouldn’t be distracted by the model’s curves.

While many of us complain that the standard model body is unrealistic and nearly impossible to attain, it’s worth remembering that Poiret had another, surprising motivation for his preference for tall models. Late 19th-century European fashion had been very concealing, but it had also emphasized the bust and the hips. For Poiret, that meant focusing on women as mother figures. Poiret wanted his models to symbolize independence and freedom. And what could be more liberating than a body type that seemed almost masculine: tall, a nearly flat chest, broad shoulders, and narrow hips?

Read the whole thing.

I also ought to recommend a really wonderful source on early 20th century fashion and its relationship to feminism and body image, Nancy Troy’s magisterial Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion, now regrettably out of print.

Love Hurts, Beauty Hurts: waxing, pain, and the pursuit of perfection

My Thursday short column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: Bare Down There: Waxing, Beauty, and Pain. It’s a brief look at teens and bikini waxing, and the growing popularity of the Brazilian wax among very young girls (including, as the article notes, among those who have not yet hit puberty and begun to grow pubic hair.)

Lots has been written about pubic hair and what its removal means. Count me among those troubled by what seems the almost pedophilic fetishization of hairless vulvas in pornography. (To put it simply, I find it sexually and aesthetically unappealing as well as politically problematic.)

But the larger point is that waxing, like so many other beauty rituals, hurts. (That’s true whatever’s being waxed, whether it’s the pubis or the lip or the space between the eyebrows.) As older sisters and mothers and the media instruct young women about how they should best pursue beauty, they teach girls that pain is not only a rite of passage into womanhood, but a necessary (and continuous) aspect of maintaining femininity.

Pain happens on a spectrum, from the merely itchy (pantyhose) to the permanently body-altering (major cosmetic surgery.) High heels, piercings, and hair dye all exact both a financial and a physical price. “Beauty hurts”, older women say to younger women. And it’s not just beauty, but love that hurts: think of what we expect girls to go through with first intercourse — or with childbirth.

For much of history — and in many other parts of the world — this pain has been and remains mandatory. Girls have their genitals mutilated against their will in Mali and suffer fistulas from giving birth too soon and too young in Afghanistan. There’s nothing quite comparable in America, where we at least claim to give girls and women a choice to avoid these agonies. We don’t cut off little girls’ clitorises, we generally don’t force 15 year-olds into marriages, and we certainly don’t mandate Brazilian waxes for high schoolers.

But as most women and some men know, the cost of saying “no” to pain is very high. If a teen girl wants to feel confident at the beach in her bikini, making sure she’s bare down there (or damn near) is a price she must pay. Young women are raised to fear ridicule and social exclusion far more than physical pain. Watch what most young women do when they trip and fall: they leap back up, more worried about what others have seen than about any injury they’ve sustained.

The law doesn’t mandate you wax your vulva or straighten your hair or put on hose and heels. The state doesn’t force you to give up carbs and dessert to fit into a bikini. But the fact that certain behaviors aren’t genuinely compulsory doesn’t mean that they can’t feel obligatory. And for so many women, the pain that comes with meeting those obligations is less than the social cost of refusing to pursue beauty.

Any solution to this problem of pain has to meet girls where they are. Parents can refuse to let their daughters get waxed or get their ears pierced, but in most cases that only delays the inevitable. The solution, whatever it is, depends on opening up a conversation with our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our friends and lovers. And in that conversation, we need to look at the ways we consciously and unconsciously valorize physical and emotional pain as the price of beauty and true womanhood.