The challenges girls face today are unlike the challenges many of us faced growing up. I’m 32, and I remember not caring about my Oscar the Grouch eyebrows, who designed my clothes, or how sexy I looked in them. Girls growing up today don’t have such freedom — they’re sexualized everywhere they look.
The SPARK Summit, held Oct. 21 at Hunter College in New York City, was an alarm, waking us up to the role we can play in bucking the status quo and giving us the tools to take on this fight. SPARK stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge.
The day started with opening remarks from Hunter College President Jennifer Raaband and MTV’s Amber Madison, summit host and author of “Hooking Up: A Girl’s All-Out Guide to Sex And Sexuality,” a book aimed at young women about sexual health, sexuality and relationships.
Feminist media critic Jean Kilbourne, creator of the groundbreaking “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” film series, also spoke, followed by a keynote address from the actor Geena Davis. Perhaps best known for her role in the film “Thelma and Louise, ” Davis has long advocated for increasing and diversifying the presence of female characters in media aimed at children. Her presence was a welcomed reminder that not everyone in Hollywood accepts business as usual.
The SPARK Summit encouraged young women to find their voices. There were a number of workshops specifically geared toward self-expression, such as Street Theater, FlipCam Journalism, and Blogs Rock. Throughout the day, it was clear that girls are very cognizant about being sold images of who they should be, but they lack resources to actively combat those images.
Media literacy is the first step. Melissa Campbell who works on media literacy in San Francisco and founded the Manfattan Project (“real fashion, large bodies”), led the Hard-Core Media Literacy workshop. In other workshops, girls created radio spots, photography and art, and shared personal stories. They discussed topics such as street harassment and legislation that would fund media literacy and youth empowerment programs (H.R. 4925).
My favorite part of the day was the Numbers Don’t Lie panel, during which researchers presented findings on how media images and messages influence girls. Among them:
• Even in video games where women are strong, central characters, their sexualized appearance negates the effect of the character’s power — “Video Game Vixens: The Sexualization of Women and Girls in Video Games,” Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz (University of Missouri-Columbia)
• Black women are the most sexualized group in music videos. — “Sexualization in Popular Female Artists’ Music Videos: An Analysis of Race and Genre,” Jennifer Stevens Aubrey (University of Missouri-Columbia)
• Black youth consume more media than their white peers, but they are less affected by the body image ideals perpetuated — “A Woman’s Worth: How Media Use Shapes Black and White Teens’ Views of the Feminine Ideal,” L. Monique Ward (University of Michigan)
• When the media sexualizes female athletes, it negatively affects girls’ perceptions of themselves and of female athletes — “‘You Can Score With Me’: What Girls Think of Sexed-Up Media Images of Female Athletes,” Elizabeth Daniels (University of Oregon)
• Low grades can spur girls to participate more in their own sexualization — “High Heels, Low Grades? The Costs Associated With Sexualization,” Rebecca Bigler & Sarah McKenney (University of Texas, Austin)
• The attire of women and girls in G-rated movies is no different than portrayals in higher-rated movies — “General Audience or G-Porn? A Look at the Prevalence and Sexualization of Females in Film and Children’s Television programming,” Stacy Smith (University of Southern California)
I also learned that Barbie is still evil. One study — “‘I can be … Anything?’: Playing with Barbie Reduces Girls’ Career Aspirations,” by Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen (Oregon State University and University of California, Santa Cruz) — found that playing with Barbie lessened girls’ perceptions of attainable occupations. It didn’t matter if girls played with Doctor Barbie — they still thought they could not achieve as much as when they played with Mrs. Potato Head.
The panel made me realize the extent to which girls are encouraged to see themselves as sexual objects — even girls as young as 3 can still be the toddler in a tiara.
We are told that if we just buy enough products, go on enough diets, and work hard to emulate airbrushed and Photoshopped images of girls and women, we might achieve perfection — and there’s something inherently wrong with us if we don’t dedicate ourselves to this quest. It’s time to take our sexy back.
There is nothing wrong with sexy as long as it is not forced on girls and as long as women get to define it on their own terms, not through the lens of a voyeuristic, paternalistic society.
My favorite quotes from the conference were “I am whole, not a ho!” “I am a quirky black girl and proud of it!” and, finally, “Freedom is never really won, you have to earn it in every generation.” We are trying to earn freedom for the well-being of today’s girls.
Years ago, I learned to disconnect from the constant onslaught of negative media images by consuming less. When I stopped watching music videos, especially the ones on BET, and stopped buying women’s magazines, I was much happier. There were less false images for me to compare myself with.
Those images were replaced by the women I saw on the train and on the street, who were in my life as three-dimensional people, with non-airbrushed photos and presences, with blemishes on their faces and extra fat rolls on their sides; real women, beautiful as the reality of an honest life.
The SPARK Summit was the reminder I needed that we can be who we are, with no apologies. We can replace the constant drumbeat of fake “perfection” with action, resistance and knowledge. And, most importantly, we need to have this dialogue on a continuing basis.
From the moment we put girls in front of a television, turn on the radio, drive past a billboard, or let them look at a magazine, we need to reinforce what it means to be beautiful, media literate, and critical of the world around us. I have a few young ladies I need to call.