To Post or Not to Post?: Social Media Literacy

This blog post was originally published on March 23, 2015.

(By: Chris Smith, social-media1_ME Flickr: Creative Commons)
(By: Chris Smith, social-media1_ME Flickr: Creative Commons)

Scrolling down social media timelines has become an everyday ritual for most. From photos on Pinterest to posts from friends on Facebook, using social media has become a common way to share our ideas and viewpoints on various topics of interest. However, along with reading life updates from your long distance buddies online, often comes unintended emotional reactions to posts that you see online. Ever find yourself engaging in making body comparisons to a friend or celebrity’s selfie on Instagram, or become so agitated from a Twitter comment that you engage in a back-and-forth only to find yourself even more upset than you were before you read it? These reactions can come with using social media platforms. People are entitled to their opinions and use their social media pages to express them, often– if unintentionally– offending others. Let’s be honest, when’s the last time you seriously critically considered how people would react to your posts? However, it is important to remember that your posts could affect others negatively or positively without your knowledge or intention.

Before the rise of social media, most of us were primarily consumers of commercial and entertainment media, being constantly bombarded by powerful images in magazines, television, and marketing ads. In these cases, media literacy has been successfully used to address and prevent the negative impact that media can have on body image and general sense of self. Becoming media literate is cultivating an ability to critically analyze media and understand how it affects how we think, feel, and behave.

Now we are no longer mere consumers of media — we are also frequent producers of media through social media platforms. With this in mind, it is important to uphold this same critical eye to our own social media platforms and be mindful of how they could be affecting us and others.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind when critically analyzing how social media posts impact us:

  • What is the underlying message of the post?
  • Do I like/agree with the post?
  • How is it affecting me emotionally?

Here are a few questions to keep in mind when critically analyzing how our personal social media posts impact others:

  •  What point am I trying to get across with this post?
  • Does my post acknowledge my perspective without putting others down?

Critically analyzing social media posts doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to un-friend or un-follow users because you don’t agree with their messages. Media literacy is aimed at developing your critical thinking skills and empowering you to view media outlets on your own terms. Becoming a critical consumer of social media allows you to effectively foster your social wellness while protecting your emotional wellness.

If you’re interested in learning more about media literacy, be sure to check out Student Wellness’s upcoming workshop, Critical Consumption: Media Literacy and Body Image on Wednesday, March 25th from 4-5:30pm, Room 3411, Union.

Condom Media: Effectiveness vs. Popularity?

Previously in the HealthyHeels blog, we’ve written about the misperception that some condom brands perform significantly better than others. It turns out that, in order to be available to US consumers, all FDA-approved condoms must pass rigorous minimum safety and quality trials (having at least 996 of a 1000 condoms pass a “leak” test to ensure they will not break during sex). There have also been studies examining condom break rates between brands which have found that breaking was extremely uncommon, and that breaking was not related to brand type.

Still, the perception that some condom brands are more effective than others is common. In a recent public condom campaign in Washington DC, there was widespread concern among highschool- and college-aged students about the quality of the free condoms available. So much so that local health officials re-thought their choice of condom – despite the comparable efficacy of condom brands.

So if the FDA-approved condoms are all held up to rigorous testing and standards, and all perform similarly to each other in terms of break rates, then what accounts for the common perception that some are more effective than others?

Along with about a dozen million others, I was seriously into the show Mad Men. I think one of the more interesting aspects of the show is how branding, recognition and advertisement all affect how we perceive products. Our perceptions of quality, popularity and trustworthiness of many products are very much tied to product presentation: what the packaging looks like and what the ads communicate. There are tons of commercials and ads out there for safer sex products, the most prominently featured of which are probably personal lubricants and male condoms. When students I meet with felt iffy about condom brands provided by Student Wellness, they also seemed to prefer brands with larger media recognition. This had me wondering: “does the marketing and labeling of condoms affect our perception of the products themselves?”

Duane Reade protection
Photo: “Duane Reade Protection” by J Pride. Flickr Creative Commons.

There is no real answer to this, but while doing research on the media campaigns of various condom brands, I did come across some pretty interesting stuff.

One interesting thing is the amount of money dedicated to condom media and advertising by each of the condom brands. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, “Carter-Wallace spent a high of just $2.2 million in a year on advertising for Trojan condoms on cable TV, and less than $500,000 on broadcast; in 2000, its cable buy fell to $1.7 million. Its competitor Ansell registered less than $40,000 in annual TV spending for LifeStyles condoms during the 1997-2000 period.”

Another interesting thing is the regulations on condom ads through the years. Fun fact: condom commercials only started airing on national networks in 1991. There are also lots of regulations on condom ads. According to the Kaiser report: “Some of the networks and stations that accept condom commercials impose certain limits on them, such as restricting the time of day they can be run, or requiring their messages to be focused on disease prevention [such as sexually transmitted infections] rather than birth control.” The Kaiser report also spells out the restrictions on condom ads by national network.

Again, there’s no definitive answer to why some brands are perceived as better than others, and it is largely influenced by a number of factors. Still, the role of the media in promoting (or not promoting) condoms is very interesting. So, I open up the question to you our readers: what do you think? Do you think condom branding has affected our ideas surrounding condom use?

Media Literacy Series Part I: Wait, Media…what?

WELCOME (BACK) TO CAROLINA!! You’re about to encounter the best (and most challenging) years of your life, and we here at Student Wellness want to make sure that you’re finding time for yourself amidst all of that homework, professional opportunities, socializing, student orgs, and all things COLLEGE.

Seven (Wow, it’s been seven years??) years ago, I was a first-year at Carolina. I had NO idea what the next 4 years of my life would hold. Looking back, I can say that I learned A LOT. And not all of that learning happened in the classroom. One of the most important skills that I’ve learned over the past few years is media literacy (especially while I worked for Student Wellness’s Interactive Theatre Carolina peer group).

Students playing a theatre game called

That’s cool. But what is media literacy?

According to the Media Literacy Project, it “is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media… [and] takes into account history, culture, privilege, and power.” This means people with media literacy skills learn to:

  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Understand how media messages shape our culture and society
  • Identify target marketing strategies
  • Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
  • Name the techniques of persuasion used
  • Recognize bias, spin, misinformation, and lies
  • Discover the parts of the story that are not being told
  • Evaluate media messages based on our own experiences, skills, beliefs, and values
  • Create and distribute our own media messages
  • Advocate for a changed media system

What is NOT media literacy?

I watch TV for reasons like everyone else — because it’s entertaining! Media literacy does not mean you cannot enjoy what you’re watching. Neither is it a reason to judge people for watching what they do. I want to emphasize this point. You can still watch your “bad TV’ or guilty pleasure shows and feel great about it! I certainly do…

Photo that reads

But I also think about who’s being portrayed, whose stories are told, if the plot line mirrors larger societal patterns, or what stereotypes are employed for humor. I challenge myself to think about what I’m watching, and relate these ideas back to my experience as a straight, able-bodied, Woman of Color at UNC.

Now, here’s what I want to know from YOU:

  1. Think about shows or movies you watch or books you read. How do they relate to your Carolina experience and/or your identity?

Comment below or on Facebook. Good luck with the semester Tar Heels, and stay tuned for the next post in this Media Literacy blog series! (Next time, we’ll start practicing some of these skills with one of my favorite shows – Orange Is the new Black.)

-J

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: 10 Day Challenge – It’s Time to UNPLUG!

This blog post was originally published on November 22, 2013 and was written by Jani Radhakrishnan.

A 2013 Mobile Consumer Habit survey reported that 72% of U.S. adults that own smartphones keep it within five feet of them the majority of the time. [Mine is currently about 8 inches away from my computer!] That same study reported that out of 1102 respondents, 55% USED their smartphone while driving, 33% while on a date, 12% in the shower, and 20% of adults ages 18-34….during sex. O2 released a study that indicated that the ‘phone’ function on a smartphone is the fifth most frequently used function. In fact, the study reports that smartphones now replace alarm clocks, cameras, televisions, and physical books.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn.physorg.com/newman/gfx/news/hires/thenumberofm.jpg
Image from cdn.physorg.com

Have you seen this creative video representing our addiction to phones?

Or read this news article about a San Francisco train shooting where “passengers were too distracted by phones to notice the shooter’s gun in plain sight”? With all this new ‘connectivity,’ we are not actually connecting to the world and the people around us. In fact, surveys indicate that 13% of cell phone owners pretend to use their phone to avoid interacting with people around them.

https://i0.wp.com/images.teamsugar.com/files/upl1/0/3362/14_2008/cell.jpg
Image from teamsugar.com

The other day, my phone died while waiting for the bus [It was horrible!]. So, rather than staring mindlessly in to space, I made some small-talk with a guy heading to Carrboro and told him he could take the J and not wait 45 minutes for the CW. It felt good. It got me thinking….

It’s time to UNPLUG! I have come up with a 10 day challenge, and I invite you to try it with me. Since we all have work, school, and social lives, I have fairly realistic expectations. Still, I think we can semi-unplug from the world more often than we think. So, here it is:

Jani’s 10 day Challenge of Unplugging

  • Day 1 Friday: When you’re out with a partner or friend, make a deal to keep your phones in your pockets, bags, etc.
  • Day 2 Saturday: It’s the weekend! Do not check your work or school email accounts. Not even once.
  • Day 3 Sunday: Invest in a watch! Since it is Sunday, maybe you have some time to go find one. This way, you can check your watch for the time instead of your phone.
  • Day 4 Monday: Read the DTH or a hardcopy of some magazine or newspaper to check out any local events happening this week.
  • Day 5 Tuesday: Do not spend all day at a computer. Time yourself so that every hour, you get up and walk around for about 5 minutes. During that time, say hi to a colleague, another student, or a friend. Whatever you do, do not take your phone with you.
  • Day 6 Wednesday: While eating meals, keep your phone in a separate room, on silent.
  • Day 7 Thursday: At work, your room, or the library, open your email only twice per hour. [Coming from someone who permanently keeps the email tab open while on my computer, I know this will be my biggest challenge]
  • Day 8 Friday: When you are watching television, and a commercial comes on, do anything other than pulling out your phone.  Maybe even jumping jacks!
  • Day 9 Saturday: If the weather is nice, enjoy the outdoors! Go for a hike or to the park, and leave your phone at home or in the car. [If you do not feel safe, keep your phone with you but do not look at it!] If it is rainy or cold outside, enjoy a hot beverage of your choice and a movie in the comfort of your own home, and turn your phone completely off during this time.
  • Day 10 Sunday: It is the last day of the challenge and I am hoping that tomorrow we can return to work or school feeling completely rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. What are we going to do to celebrate? Find a moment to answer a text with a phone call or Skype date instead of another text.

[TIPS for Success: Hey iPhone users, did you know there is a function on your phone called “Do Not Disturb” that will save incoming calls, messages, and alerts for later until you unlock your phone?]

My hope is that together, we can all unplug from this world and be in the moment for at least 10 days and continue some of these habits for our minds’ sake. You will be happier, your friends will be happier, and your mental health and boss or professor may be happier, too!

~JR

5 Netflix Movies with Strong Women Characters

by Harper Owens

Living in the age of the internet has given us unprecedented access to popular forms of entertainment – in recent years, expressions like “binge watching” have become an accepted part of our lexicon, indicating how normalized extreme media consumption has become. However, just because we are saturated with media does not mean that we see equal representation of different populations. A quick glance at a list of Netflix recommendations, for instance, will reveal the not-surprising but nevertheless harmful overrepresentation of white men. Though quantity doesn’t determine quality, it is still disconcerting to see that, by and large, the media tells the stories of white males far more than it tells those of any other race or gender.

Fortunately, because the amount of material to be found online is so broad, it is getting easier and easier to find films that are more woman-centric, provided that you look long enough and in the right places. What follows is a list of a few excellent films with strong female leads, currently streaming on Netflix.

“251/365 – 09/07/11 – Netflix” by Shardayy. Flickr Creative Commons.

However, I’d like to make two disclaimers. The first concerns what has become known as the Bechdel Test. The idea is that if a film passes the Bechdel Test – that is, if it features a dialogue scene in which two women talk about something besides a man – then the film presents a fairer representation of femininity. The test originated in a 1985 comic written by Alison Bechdel, and has risen dramatically in popularity in recent years, so much so that Swedish cinemas now incorporate the test into their movie ratings.

While the Bechdel Test can be a fun tool to use on your favorite movies (it’s almost guaranteed that few of them will pass), the fact that some use it as the standard by which to hold movies is worrisome. The test has serious limitations. It is fairly useful when it comes to determining female representation in a given film, but it indicates nothing about how women are characterized in said film – a film which passes the test could still have a substantial amount of misogynist content (this complaint was levelled against Guardians of the Galaxy last year). Also, it is conceivable for a female character to be strong and complex without talking to another woman.

Some of the selected films pass the Bechdel Test, others don’t. I promise that they were each chosen with good reason.

My second disclaimer: though the selected films all feature wonderfully vibrant and complex female characters, the directors of these films are all male. The dearth of respected woman directors is a persistent problem in the film industry. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t find female voices out there – Sofia Coppola, Miranda July, and Lisa Cholodenko are three that immediately come to mind, and they each have work available on Netflix. But while Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides has something interesting to say about male perceptions of femininity, I didn’t feel that it fit this list. The same goes for Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right, which I frankly found to be juvenile in its portrayal of same-sex relationships (it validates, whether unintentionally or not, the myth that all lesbians secretly want men). And I regret to say that I have not yet seen July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Frances Ha

A simply-told, well-observed portrait of twentysomething Frances as she navigates her way through young adulthood. Though coming-of-age stories are common enough, this film still carries the feeling of a story seldom told. Writer-director Noah Baumbach, with his observational camera style and slice-of-life dialogue, places attention on everyday scenes that we don’t typically get in mainstream films, and Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film) gives an excellent performance.

Short Term 12

Another tale of growing up, this time focusing on Grace, a young counselor for at-risk children. The film handles serious subject matter with tact, and there is never a false or heavy-handed moment. A superb effort by newcomer Destin Daniel Crettin, the film pulls off the rare feat of being gripping and tender at the same time.

20 Feet from Stardom

A pleasant and compelling documentary, telling the story of several backup singers in the recording industry, who have each lent their talents to some of the most celebrated music of the last century. These singers, most of them African American women, have lived in relative anonymity despite their massive contributions to pop music, and this film finally gives them some well-deserved time in the spotlight.

The Silence of the Lambs

There are several factors which make this a compelling movie, but one of the most interesting points of conflict is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)’s status as one of the few females in her FBI training program. Director Johnathan Demme, using long, fluid point-of-view shots, does an excellent job of conveying the discomfort and sense of injustice inherent to being a woman in a male-dominated environment.

Jackie Brown

This was the first time Quentin Tarantino attempted to write a powerful female lead (his Kill Bill movies are also currently streaming), and his attempt is, by and large, a success. Jackie is, without a doubt, the most competent player in this caper where competency is crucial. The story, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, is labyrinthine – it’s one of those crime thrillers where, whether we think we’re following everything or not, we know the protagonist must be one step ahead of us.

Listen & Learn: Relationships in Music

by Hali Archambault

Have you ever started singing along to a song and then quickly realized that what you were singing was actually something derogatory or offensive? The use of catchy lyrics and rhythms can entrance a listener and it is difficult to distinguish how toxic the words really are. Music is such a large part of our culture and it can influence our thoughts and views, whether conscious or unconscious. These lyrics can skew individual views of what is “okay” and provide demonstrations for unhealthy relationships.

But how can one distinguish a healthy adfrelationship from an unhealthy one? One way is to view each characteristic of a relationship as a pillar that holds it together: a relationship cannot work if one of the pillars begins to crumble. So what are these pillars? We can categorize the traits of a healthy relationship into 7 pillars.

  1. Respect
  2. Trust and Support
  3. Honesty and Accountability
  4. Shared Responsibility
  5. Economic Partnership
  6. Negotiation and Fairness
  7. Non-Threatening Behavior

Music often doesn’t destruct all of the pillars– media in general is never 100% bad or 100% good– but we can look at several lyrics to identify any possible unhealthy factors exhibited in a song and how these factors can result in an overall unhealthy relationship. This is not to say that one artist’s music is all bad and you should never listen to their music, but it is important to recognize the lyrics we listen to and their influence on relationships.

  • Nick Jonas, Jealous
    • Pop music has normalized or romanticized the attitude of victim blaming. The title, Jealous, reveals a lack of trust. While there may be debate for a “healthy amount of jealousy” in a relationship, there are several lyrics that point to aggressive behaviors such as “I’m puffing my chest” and “It’s my right to be hellish.” Additionally, the song reveals victim blaming (“’Cause you’re too sexy, beautiful”) such that the pursued is too pretty and should contain that.
  • Sam Smith, Stay with Me
    • This song has a beautiful melody, but contains some concerning messages. Many unhealthy relationships go through a cycle: honeymoon stage, tension builds, and an incident. The unhealthy relationship does not necessarily go through each stage every time, but the honeymoon stage (the calm) makes it feel like everything is fine. It isn’t until an incident happens that people usually seek help. Therefore, the lyrics of Stay With Me, “this ain’t love, it’s clear to see but darling, stay with me” represents a plea the pursued may hear to stay in a relationship, despite it being unhealthy. Check out the lyrics to see how gender plays a large role in unhealthy relationships:

But there are also plenty of songs that display more healthy relationships! These songs focus on trust, equality, respect, and honesty. Here, we will look at two pop songs that convey positive messages about relationships.

  • Fifth Harmony, Miss Movin’ On
    • While this song does not portray a healthy relationship, it places emphasis on the strength it takes to get out of an unhealthy relationship, empowering those to “start from scratch.” It creates assurance that there is a way out and a way to “move on.” The inspiring lyrics can be found at:
  • Ed Sheeran, Thinking Out Loud
    • The premise of this song is a love that is long lasting, based on open communication, “I just wanna tell you I am,” and simple acts of comfort, such as “just the touch of a hand.” The healthy relationship is based on the support, trust, communication, respect and safety.

Check out this playlist that emphasizes healthy relationships on Spotify by LoveisRepsect.org.

So what now? It is important to note that listening to media with messages you don’t love doesn’t make you a bad person — it’s okay to enjoy these songs! It would be impossible to consume any media if we said never to listen to/watch anything that conveyed negative behaviors. However, it’s important to recognize that the media you consume could be affecting your attitudes. Ask yourself: What is the message of this song? And do I like that message?

What can you do right now? Talk to your friends about these songs, or other songs you have realized are either empowering or promote unhealthy relationships.

My One ACT will be talking to my friends about the way media affects our ideas about relationships. What’s your One ACT?

Updated February 2016

To Post or Not to Post?: Social Media Literacy

(By: Chris Smith, social-media1_ME Flickr: Creative Commons)
(By: Chris Smith, social-media1_ME Flickr: Creative Commons)

Scrolling down social media timelines has become an everyday ritual for most. From photos on Pinterest to posts from friends on Facebook, using social media has become a common way to share our ideas and viewpoints on various topics of interest. However, along with reading life updates from your long distance buddies online, often comes unintended emotional reactions to posts that you see online. Ever find yourself engaging in making body comparisons to a friend or celebrity’s selfie on Instagram, or become so agitated from a Twitter comment that you engage in a back-and-forth only to find yourself even more upset than you were before you read it? These reactions can come with using social media platforms. People are entitled to their opinions and use their social media pages to express them, often– if unintentionally– offending others. Let’s be honest, when’s the last time you seriously critically considered how people would react to your posts? However, it is important to remember that your posts could affect others negatively or positively without your knowledge or intention.

Before the rise of social media, most of us were primarily consumers of commercial and entertainment media, being constantly bombarded by powerful images in magazines, television, and marketing ads. In these cases, media literacy has been successfully used to address and prevent the negative impact that media can have on body image and general sense of self. Becoming media literate is cultivating an ability to critically analyze media and understand how it affects how we think, feel, and behave.

Now we are no longer mere consumers of media — we are also frequent producers of media through social media platforms. With this in mind, it is important to uphold this same critical eye to our own social media platforms and be mindful of how they could be affecting us and others.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind when critically analyzing how social media posts impact us:

  • What is the underlying message of the post?
  • Do I like/agree with the post?
  • How is it affecting me emotionally?

Here are a few questions to keep in mind when critically analyzing how our personal social media posts impact others:

  •  What point am I trying to get across with this post?
  • Does my post acknowledge my perspective without putting others down?

Critically analyzing social media posts doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to un-friend or un-follow users because you don’t agree with their messages. Media literacy is aimed at developing your critical thinking skills and empowering you to view media outlets on your own terms. Becoming a critical consumer of social media allows you to effectively foster your social wellness while protecting your emotional wellness.

If you’re interested in learning more about media literacy, be sure to check out Student Wellness’s upcoming workshop, Critical Consumption: Media Literacy and Body Image on Wednesday, March 25th from 4-5:30pm, Room 3411, Union.

‘Weigh’ed Down by Discrimination: The Truth about Weight Bias

This week is weight stigma awareness week. Last week, I attended UNC’s Smash TALK, an open discussion with leading eating disorder experts, and I was shocked to learn that weight stigma is much more than the brief sting of hearing the words “you’re fat.”

Imagine that you were sitting at Lenoir or Starbucks with some friends, looking at the photo below in a magazine or online. What are people saying?

Thin woman wearing black shirt and jeans
“Models photo shoot” by David Yu, Flickr Creative Commons

 

Now, imagine ya’ll are looking at this photo. What are people saying?

Large woman wearing floral dress and coat
“It’s been awhile” by Amber Karnes, Flickr Creative Commons

 

We did a similar exercise at the Smash TALK event, and it really illustrated the assumptions we make around body size. The thin-framed woman drew words like hot, confident, disciplined, healthy, social, popular, and vain. The large-framed woman was described as both happy and unhappy, weak-willed, lazy, lonely, not-as-popular.

Wow. That’s a lot of assumptions based on one photo and NO interaction.

 

Where do these assumptions come from?

These assumptions are clear examples of weight bias. The Binge Eating Disorder Association defines weight bias as “negative judgment based on weight, shape, and/or size.” It can be both explicit and implicit, and it leads to weight stigma, or internalized shame resulting from weight bias.

Weight bias stems from a culture that inaccurately equates thinness with health, happiness, and success. Add to that the growing “war on obesity” which has become a war on obese people, and it is clear that weight bias is increasingly pervasive.

Unfortunately, it also starts young and often in the home: in one study, 47% of overweight girls and 34% of overweight boys were teased about their weight by family members. Many parents who struggle with their body image subconsciously pass this on to their kids, while others try intentionally not to.

 

What about weight stigma for the skinny folks?

I have written a few blogs about body image, and I try to veer away from promoting one body type over another, because thin people face assumptions that they are stuck up or vain or that they have an eating disorder. Songs like “All About That Bass” and campaigns like “Real Women Have Curves” send a negative message to thin women, and I’m not okay with that.

But…

When it comes to weight stigma, people with large bodies have it worse. And here’s why:

People with large bodies don’t just face stigma from fat jokes, they also face discrimination. Weight discrimination has increased 66% over the past decade, making it comparable to rates of racial discrimination, especially among women.

 

Here are some of the inequities:

 

Education—compared to nonobese children, obese children are

  • Perceived as less likely to succeed by teachers and principals
  • Less likely to be admitted to college with comparable academic performance
  • Less likely to attend college
  • Subject to teasing and bullying which leads to increased absences and depression

 

Employment—compared to nonobese adults, obese individuals face

  • Lower employment with comparable qualifications and skills
  • Lower wages (1% to 6% less than nonobese employees)
  • Negative bias in performance evaluations

 

 

Health—compared to nonobese patients, obese patients experience

  • Negative stereotypes among health care professionals
  • Less time with their physicians
  • Increased depression, lower self esteem, and negative body image

 

In an earlier blog, I talked about how body shame hurts us all. And it does. However, the shame associated with larger bodies comes with a large dose of discrimination that affects people’s ability to get into college, get a job and get paid fairly, and get the medical attention they need. And that’s the real shame.

 

Help fight weight stigma by

  • Avoiding media that supports weight bias and weight stigma; read positive media like Yoga Body Project or join the Health At Every Size movement
  • Recognizing that body shame negatively affects everyone—large or small—but it results in some serious inequities for people with larger bodies
  • Taking Embody Carolina’s training to learn more about eating disorders and the healthy weight myth
  • Reading more about thin privilege and fat acceptance

Why Strong is Not the New Skinny

baby strongBecause, like many women, my body is not strong. It’s soft. If I work really hard, I can do push-ups and I can run really far. I can work to be strong. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was born into a body that is not naturally strong. At least not in that chiseled-lean-muscle way. Think about how newborn babies can’t hold their heads up or control their body movements–that’s because muscles are something that develop over time when we train them.

But soft is not the new skinny either. Neither is fat. Or thick. Or curvy. Or bootylicious. Or boobalicious. Or tall. Or short. Nope.

None of those things is the new skinny. Why? Because replacing one “ideal” physical characteristic with another does nothing to solve the problem of body dissatisfaction. I understand the appeal of using “strong” instead of “skinny” to create an ideal, an aspiration. Who doesn’t want to be strong?

Actually, our bodies are already strong. As strong, or stronger than a man’s (childbirth–hello!). But most women’s bodies are not strong in the bench-press-a-million-pounds-rock-hard-abs kinda way. (And most men’s bodies aren’t cut like male models in the mag photos either.)

So, we have traded a demure, fragile, thin ideal of women’s bodies for a traditionally masculine-muscle-y ideal. So what? What’s the big deal?

1) It perpetuates the idea that we have to strive towards a pre-determined ideal, rather than self-acceptance.

No singular physical form encompasses beauty. If strong is the new skinny, what about the soft women? If real women have curves, what about the women without them? If a product has to be “strong enough for a man,” what does that say about our definition of masculinity?

Lauding one type of body over all others inevitably leaves people out; it is purposely exclusive rather than inclusive. But it goes deeper than body image. If a “real woman” must have curves or a product has to be specially made to be “strong enough” for a man, that means there is only one way that a woman—or man—should look and act in order to be attractive, accepted, loved. When we measure ourselves against the ideal and find we fall short, the real message becomes: you are not good enough. And that’s just wrong.

2) The “strong” ideal equates beauty with masculine physical ideals, which only perpetuates the degradation of “feminine” qualities.

strongTrying to get women to look and act more like what we expect of men is not progress. Imagine the flipside: targeting men with messages like: “Soft is the new strong” “Vulnerability is the new power” “Tears are the new sweat”. Why aren’t we peppered with these types of messages? Because we are trapped in a gender binary that categorizes certain qualities as feminine (compassion, vulnerability, sensitivity) and masculine (strength, power, courage), and it’s the masculine qualities that we tend to idolize. But the truth is, these qualities are not inherently masculine or feminine, because no matter our gender or sex at birth, we are all born with sensitivity AND strength, vulnerability AND courage. And forgetting that is a disservice to us all.

Besides, “strong is the new skinny” is a farce. Look at the women in strong is the new skinny pictures–the skinny is still there. With a thin layer of muscle over it.

Breast (Cancer?) Awareness

While we have sadly become accustomed to marketing and advertisements using sex to sell us our clothes, cars, beauty products, alcohol, and the 27 workout DVDs they tell us we need after drinking all that alcohol and to fit into those clothes, using sex to advertise and fundraise for a deadly disease strikes me as more than a bit odd. Facebook “campaigns” using sexual innuendos in statuses, Save the Tatas, the controversial “Save the Boobs” commercial, and I Love Boobies bracelets* beg the question: are they raising awareness of the women who struggle with breast cancer and promoting breast cancer prevention, or are they simply raising awareness of breasts?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love breasts, and I certainly feel a tie between my own personal set and my femininity and sexuality. But I also love and care about the women who face breast cancer with grace and courage. Why isn’t there a breast cancer awareness campaign with the tagline, “I ❤ my mom” or my sister, aunt, friend, wife, girlfriend, partner, daughter, etc.? I am not arguing that breasts or the female body should be censored or not used in awareness campaigns for breast cancer, but is it too much to ask that they be shown attached to a whole female? I for one have never seen a campaign for prostate cancer awareness using a picture of a male where his prostate is the focus and his face is cut out as though he isn’t even a full person. This is the case despite the fact that the prostate is a sexual organ and breast and prostate cancer are diagnosed at about the same rate per year (National Cancer Institute)*. Do we really want breast cancer awareness to look this similar to sexualized merchandise advertising that objectifies women?

To be honest, I think it’s pretty obvious why there aren’t any equivalent “I heart scrotums” bracelets and campaigns. It feels like these “I heart boobies” campaigns are specifically meant to draw heterosexual male-identified folks into the fight against breast cancer. What does it say about these campaigns’ perceptions of men if they think the only effective way to get men’s attention about breast cancer is to sexualize it so much so that the focus is on breasts as a sexual object and not the woman to whom those breasts are a part? These campaigns seem to say, “Hey (het) men! You should care about breast cancer because it could affect your sex life!” I’d like to believe (and do) that men are far more intelligent and human than a puppy whose head quickly turns, drooling, at the mention of sex and who is otherwise generally uninterested.

I hope that this October throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we can find some ways to raise awareness of breast cancer, promote early detection and screening, garner support for both research and for people fighting breast cancer, and get male-identified folks involved in conversations and contributions without resorting to the tired old themes of over-sexualizing and objectifying female bodies in the media.

Here’s a breast self-exam sheet you can print off and hang in your bedroom or bathroom (if it’s laminated)!  The Women’s Health Clinic at UNC’s Campus Health also offers breast examinations as a part of their Well Woman’s Examination.

If you’re interested in learning more about the objectification and over-sexualization of women’s bodies in the media, and how these issues tie in to violence against women, check out the films Killing Us Softly (4) and Miss Representation and the student-facilitated media literacy workshop, “The Naked Truth: How the Media Shapes Us” which will be offered on October 30th from 6:00-7:30 in the Genome Science Building, room G010,  sponsored and hosted by the Carolina Women’s Center as a part of Relationship Violence Awareness Month.

*Taken from http://equalwrites.org/2010/10/19/why-i-hate-i-love-boobies-the-hypersexualization-of-female-bodies-in-the-fight-against-breast-cancer/