Last weekend I learned that the only thing worse than shopping for a bathing suit is doing so with two small children who would rather be anywhere else. Like most American women, I have issues with my body. I wish I were taller and thinner—my theory, by the way, has always been that if I were taller I would be naturally thinner because on a not-quite-5’3” frame there’s just nowhere to hide an extra five pounds. I’ve never had a flat stomach (except for a brief moment in high school after a bad bout of mononucleosis) and have always looked for bathing suits that would hold in my midsection. I’ve always had large breasts that need built in support so as not to look droopy or worse spill out all over the place when I dive in. Post-children and nearing 40, I have also added cellulite on my legs and what I believe people refer to as a “muffin top” to the list of things my bathing suits must camouflage
As always I approached bathing suit shopping with a sense of despair and at least a little self-loathing (why had I let my weight loss efforts stall last month, I’d been on such a roll). But I’d promised my older daughter a trip to the freshly opened pool and I needed something to wear. I attempted to keep my body image issues to myself as I rejected suit after suit but given my level of disappointment, I doubt I succeeded. Three stores, two cranky kids, and an hour or so later I found a suit that worked just fine. It didn’t make me feel like a super model but it was cute enough.
So we moved on to finding a bathing suit for my older daughter and I was struck by what a totally different experience it was for her. We simply walked into Old Navy, found a few in shapes and patterns that looked cute, presented our 20 percent off coupon at the desk, and walked out. Okay, there was a briefly heated discussion about why at six, she could not get the bikini with the triangle top (that seemed to be screaming, look here’s where my breast should be even though I’m at least five years from puberty) but there was no trip to the fitting room, no self-esteem squashing images in the three-way mirror, and no discussion about what she wished were different about her shape or size.
The pessimist in me wondered when this would change because we all know that when it comes to body image and self esteem, the odds are stacked against all of our daughters.
My older daughter may be spared for at least a few more years because put simply she has the exact body shape for which designers seem to make clothes. Granted she’s a head shorter than most of her friends but her pre-puberty body is tiny, thin, toned, and perfectly proportioned. My younger daughter is shaped more like I was as a kid– all sway-back and belly. She is both taller and heavier than 98 percent of the kids her age but she is not yet two and may change shape entirely within the next year or so. I admit I worry that if she does not her bathing suit shopping experiences may resemble mine more than her sister’s.
I remember being in the dressing room at the Children’s Place when I was about six or seven trying on a one piece bathing suit. It had a great metallic sheen, pastel pink and green stripes that ran diagonally across my body, crisscrossed straps in the back, and an Izod crocodile on the left side. As I twirled around thinking I looked grea,t the saleswoman turned to my mom and said: “Well, she does have a tummy doesn’t she.” Though she quickly added how cute it was, I knew this was not a compliment and never quite felt the same about that bathing suit or my tummy.
Turns out that I am not the only kid to have body images issues while still in elementary school. According to statistics culled by the Keep It Real Campaign, 42 percent of first through third graders want to be thinner and 81 percent of ten-year-olds want to lose weight. The stats just get worse as girls grow up; 53 percent of 13-year-olds are unhappy with their bodies and by 17 that number has grown to 78 percent.
One obvious source of this discontent is popular culture including movies, television, and magazines that present an unattainable idea of what young women “should” look like. Today’s models do not look like the rest of us. While twenty years ago the average fashioned model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman, today she weighs 23 percent less. If that weren’t bad enough, once they get into print, today’s models don’t even look like themselves. Most pictures we see in magazine are digitally retouched to make the model look even thinner or lengthen her torso or smooth out her knees and armpits. This could explain why 48 percent of teenage girls wish they were as skinny as models and three out of four teenage girls feel depressed, guilty, and shameful after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.
The Keep It Real Campaign wants to change this by making one seemingly simple ask of fashion magazine editors: print at least one picture of a model that is not retouched in photoshop in each issue.
The idea for this stemmed from a May petition on Change.org created by 14-year-old Julia Bluhm. Bluhm is a member of SPARK (Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge), a group of young (ages 13 to 22) feminists started by college professors in 2010. The group undertakes two actions per month such as demonstrations or petitions designed “to reject the commodified, sexualized images of girls in media and support the development of girls’ healthy sexuality and self-esteem.” Recent actions have included petitioning against Lego’s new line for girls (which had them build hair salons and cupcake stores instead of robots and spaceships) and a Halloween costume called Anna Rexia.
Bluhm’s petition explained that: “To girls today, the word ‘pretty’ means skinny and blemish-free.” It went on to say: “Here’s what lots of girls don’t know. Those ‘pretty women’ that we see in magazines are fake.” It asked the editors of Seventeen for untouched photographs. Over 83,000 people have signed the petition as of now and it led to a meeting with the editors. Though the SPARK activists believed the meeting went well, the magazine’s staff made no promises and nothing has changed.
Hence the three-day Keep It Real Campaign which is targeting the editors of numerous magazines read by young girls including Cosmopolitan, Lucky, Teen Vogue, and Marie Claire. The social media campaign first asks people to join a Facebook Event page that says:
“I’m taking the Keep It Real Challenge. It’s time for the media to drop Photoshop and show real beauty.”
On the first day of the campaign (today, June 27th), participants are asked to reach out to magazine editors via tweets with messages like:
“Hey @seventeenmag will you pledge to #KeepItReal and print one unphotoshopped pic of a model per issue?”
“Hey @Vogue, we’d love you to #KeepItReal by celebrating women’s natural beauty – including pores and freckles!”
Day two of the campaign is all about blogging (sorry if I’m jumping the gun with this article but I wanted to get the word out) and participants are asked to write about how photoshopped beauty has impacted them or someone they loved. The organizers explain: “Use your voice and write down why you want the industry to “keep it real” in magazines.” Participants can post their stories to their own blog or the Facebook Event wall and are urged to tweet their stories out to magazine editors as well.
The final day of the challenge is dedicated to documenting real beauty. Participants are asked to take photos that:
“Capture the essence of what beauty means to each of us. This can be a self-portrait, a portrait of your friends or whatever else you’re inspired to share.”
They can then share these on Instagram, Facebook, or twitter. The event organizers are partnering with Endangered Bodies to display the best photos of the day on a billboard in New York City. (The Instagram hash tag for these pictures is #KeepItRealChallenge.)
The challenge is being sponsored by Spark, Miss Representation, LoveSocial, I Am That Girl, and Endangered Bodies, and the organizers have created a great online toolkit that provides you with everything you need to participate.
Maybe, if we get magazines to stop relying so heavily on photoshop and presenting such truly unattainable images of women, my daughters have a fighting chance of growing up without a list of flaws that their future bathing suits must cover. Maybe the only obstacle they will face when they shop for summer suits will be their mother’s objections to bikinis.