May is here! And while it may not look like it here in lovely old Minnesota, I have definitely noticed the change in my own little slice of the tumblrverse. The two young women behind 17teenvoguechallenge.tumblr.com have just finished their month-long challenge to live the way the authors of Seventeen and Teen Vogue tell them they should, and the journey was pretty remarkable.
Alice and YingYing are teen activists working with the organization SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge), a grassroots movement that works to end the sexualization of young women and girls in the media. SPARK was created in response to the report published by the American Psychological Association’s Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls, which called for more research into the effects of sexualization on girls and boys, as well as for increased education and advocacy about these effects. And if you haven’t heard of the organization itself, there is a good chance that you have heard of the work that they’ve done: SPARK activists were behind the protest that pulled the costume “Anna Rexia” from shelves (beware, the link contains images of the costume itself, which carries a trigger warning for eating disorders and mental illness), have sent petitions urging Seventeen and other magazines to stop photoshopping their models, and have met with representatives from LEGO to discuss the problems with their new line of toys marketed toward girls, the LEGO Friends series.
For the challenge, Alice and YingYing focused on a different aspect of their respective magazine’s content in each week: beauty in the first, health and fitness in the second, fashion in the third, and life in the fourth and final week. Alice lived by the advice of Seventeen, while YingYing followed Teen Vogue.
What was fascinating for me was watching many of the historical and sociocultural themes we have discussed over these past five weeks in class appear in the pages of these magazines. Especially the idea of the internal gaze, ever present in the styling and advice in the articles.
Within the framework of what Kathy Davis called “acceptable femininity,” what is it that creates and controls this femininity? If we assume that what is acceptable has been defined by the white, cissexual, heterosexual and able-bodied men, what is it that enforces these norms? Susan Bordo writes that power works from below, through self correction and a self correction, internalized and invisible in our selves. Projects like 17teenvoguechallenge make this internalized gaze explicit. A feeling of dread before you face the mirror, the loneliness of going to Prom alone, the despairing feeling you get in the fluorescent lit dressing room – all of these are embodiments of that internal gaze, critiquing and policing us in our everyday lives. Alice and YingYing’s deeply personal journey was a way for all of us to examine the way that magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue reinforce that internal gaze.
“I gave my body to Seventeen magazine and it feels awful. I’m not hungry or sore. I feel as if they’re looking me in the eye saying, ‘you have no excuse not to have a perfect body! If you don’t have flat abs it’s because you lay on the couch and relaxed while watching your favorite show. You could have been doing jumping jacks during the commercial breaks!’
…Seventeen magazine feels toxic in my hands. Last week it felt a ridiculous… Now I feel its power to destroy.” – Alice
SPARK’s mission is to combat the harm done on young women and girls by the sexualization of their bodies in the media – to turn and face full on the gaze that always seems to be watching. I appreciate that. And I only wish that a message like the one extolled by the 17teenvoguechallenge – that everything the media told me to be, that vision of teen perfection – is unattainable.