Talking Back: Exhibit A

Ashley Judd recently responded to the criticism that she was facing in the media/celebrity blog sites/tabloids/magazines/everywhere. It was criticism not on her acting, choice of projects, humanitarian aid strategies, pursuit of a Masters degree, or various other actual activities. People were criticizing the ‘object’ that is Ashley Judd, the public face, and they were determining all the things that could be wrong, or surgically modified, or too fat. Judd has had enough. She writes:

“The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted…. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others—and in my case, to the actual public…”

Please read her response to the body policing and objectification here.

I know (and Ashley Judd knows) that celebrities are public faces and will thus face some criticism, but what is the source of that critique? What is the basis for ripping down famous women? Bodies. Faces. The flesh and bones that keep these women walking around. I am no supporter of celebrity worship or hype, but if we’re going to do it, I so wish it revolved around what they did, not what they looked like. Judd would seem to agree. When celebrities speak out, they talk back to a culture that has done so much speaking for and about them. Using their fame to bring attention to the media’s cruelty is so important.

Kate Winslet is also well known for calling the media on their unrealistic demands on women’s bodies. When she was photoshopped outrageously, she said so and complained that, “I don’t look like that and I don’t desire to look like that.” This kind of message is critical, because celebrities are so often trapped in the position where their bodies are policed harshly by the public as well as their employers, making their careers reliant on conforming to the beauty standard. Their conventional beauty is often what gets them fame and fortune to begin with. But if the winners of the beauty game are pointing out that it is rigged, that it is unfair, maybe it will be harder to deny. Maybe the rules will change. As people who both benefit and suffer under the current body standards, celebrities are uniquely placed to speak up. Now, if only we would all listen.

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Awesome Episode of “Arthur” Gives Girls a Starring Role

Check out this episode of popular and long-running cartoon, Arthur. It’s a great story where several girls on the show get sick of seeing terrible portrayals of women in movies and decide to do something about it. THIS is the stuff that kids need to be watching, and emulating.

Magic Trick #1: Disappearing Acts

Inspired by the title of The Illusionists, a documentary in the works that is going to be a must-see, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts called Magic Tricks. It’s about deconstructing the illusions of beauty and media, so that we can see through the “magic” of beauty standards, advertising and celebrity culture. Once you know how a trick works, it’s not so magical anymore.

Disappearing Acts

In my opinion, one of the most threatening things about how we currently imagine beauty for/as women is that there is no size that is too small. There’s a definite “too big” in society, but girls and women are encouraged to shrink and shrink and shrink… until they disappear. Check out Beauty Redefined for examples of photoshop making women tinier than they are.

invisible woman

[Sidebar: Sure, when extreme eating disorders become visible on a body in an undeniable way, people may finally admit that someone can be too skinny – but those with anorexia will often receive compliments up until weeks before they’re hospitalized. It’s also true that some people with a naturally very thin frame are in fact harassed by others, who label them with eating disorders that they don’t have. However, losing weight is giving an immediate positive connotation in most of Western society. ]

As a woman who wants to take up space, I find the urge to disappear disturbing. I mean, we have a size 00 – size less then nothing. It strikes me as incredibly bizarre. As we try to increase the number of women in professional sports, laboratories, board rooms and legislative assemblies,  it seems that Western women are spending even more time trying to decrease the number on their scale and their dress size. We need women to take up space, be present and unapologetic about their bodies, but instead we are constantly told that we are too much.

To be feminine and beautiful, we are told to be “less,” less fat, less masculine, less angry, less emotional, less demanding. Of course, there’s a list of “more” as well, but I want to focus here on the ways that we try to make women small. The “ideal woman” almost always achieves the adjective “petite.” Her feet are small, her hands are small, her waist is small, her nose is small, her mouth is small, her thighs are small, her ears are small, her height is small, and her stomach is non-existent. It’s ridiculous and I think it actually has real consequences for women as they try to take up social space and join fields frequently requiring a person to be big – in personality and in physicality.

Compare this beauty standard to the growing requirement for men to be huge. As women are told to shrink and take up less space, boys and men feel an increasing pressure to work out and measure their masculinity in the amount of weight they can bench press. Men are increasingly expected to have a buff body, but it requires hours at the gym, specific diets, and sometimes even steroid use.

Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner (left) is best known as Jacob Black in the Twilight series of movies. He’s said to have put on 30 lb of muscle after the first movie in order to retain his role for the later films. In the year or so between films, he packed on muscles and he’s been rewarded with a lucrative film deal and millions of fan girls drooling over his abs. This transformation into the “ideal man” was not without effort and sacrifices, and has to be constantly maintained. It’s starting to sound a lot like our ideal woman, except that we demand that men become “more.”

Bigger is constantly equated to better for men, putting pressure on shorter and less muscular men to conform to this new he-man stereotype. The toys marketed to young boys are increasingly muscular, with G.I. Joe and Superheros gaining muscle mass with every coming year, and I find it hard to believe that this isn’t having an impact.

I see the shrinking of women and the bulking up of men as a result of trying to police gender roles through our bodies. As men and women blur traditional gender roles in other areas, our bodies – the most biological ties we have to gender performance – remain a battlefield for gender conformity. For me, this is why women are told they that can be judges and politicians and police officers, but simultaneously told that they must still conform to the “ideal beauty” at the same time. Success only counts if you still “look like a woman” doing it. To retain the supposed separate-ness of masculinity and femininity, society encourages extreme differences in the ideal male and female form.

Of course, “ideal” doesn’t really exist. That’s the trick.

Because I Am A Girl – Documentary!

photo from http://lisaraniray.wordpress.com/this-is-a-new-page/

Image from Lisa Ray's Blog, who's one of Four National Ambassadors for the ‘Because I Am a Girl Child’ Plan Canada Campaign

Plan Canada, a Canadian organization working for the rights and quality of life for children internationally, recently did a documentary focusing on the unequal treatment of girls around the world. I was interviewed this past October by a wonderful crew.

The final, total product is an inspiring and beautifully shot, short documentary talking to girls across Canada about the status of girls and what they are doing to make a difference. I’m the first young, full-length interview and so of course I want you to check it out, but the entire piece is amazing and I am flattered to be included among these other young women who have worked to make a difference.

Please check out the film and cruise around the site. There’s a lot of great content, from how to bring the tour to your school and how to get involved, to inspiring stories and blogs. And, of course, you can buy a t-shirt, seen pictured.

The film can be found here. Please take a moment to check it out!

Relationship Advice as Seen in Magazines

Recently, Cracked.com put together an image that sharply criticizes the messages sent by magazine covers of some of the typical issues we see on shelves or convenience stores. While the messages may be crude, it’s painfully accurate.

As someone who doesn’t really read conventional magazines, I just don’t get the appeal. All of these messages seem meant to sell magazines, not contribute anything to public knowledge or to a reader’s self-esteem. It sells itself by demanding that readers pay attention to their own anxieties. Sex sells these issues, but so does insecurity. This is a great critique and while it leaves me a little depressed that this is what mainstream customers are supposed to want, it makes me even more eager to speak about the importance of media analysis.

The Bechdel Test

On the topic of females in the media, although less to do with body image, there is the Bechdel Test (which you can learn the origins of here). The test was originally intended for movies, but can be applied to any medium. Essentially, for a movie to pass the Bechdel Test, it has to have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Think about main stream movies for a moment and you’ll realize that this is a pretty hard test to pass, but I think it’s important to be aware of the fact that this is such a rare scenario for movies. In Beauty and the Beast I talk about being aware of the messages that the movies that you watch are sending and this is just part of noticing things about the media. Re-watch some of your favourite films and see if they pass the test, and what you think about the test itself. Girls talk to other girls about all sorts of things besides guys, but apparently not in the movies… Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Social Commentary, using basic math

Check out Jessica Hagy’s recent blog post, called, “After a while, everyone starts to look the same.” for a comment about both the worries of aging and waistlines. For those interested in webcomics, she can generally be counted on for entertainment, as long as you understand venn diagrams.

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