Guest blogger Jocelyn Sakal Froese is a PhD student in English and Culture Studies at McMaster University.
Despite its questionable title, this article in a March issue of Globe & Mail–an inquiry into the effects of media and advertising on young people–is an important one, not so much for what it does, but how it does it. In addition to reiterating a few well-known facts about teens, media, and body image, the article follows a dialogue on the same topics among six high school students in Ottawa. It is the format of this piece, and the manner in which young people”s voices are represented in a meaningful way, that causes it to stand out. Rather than writing a piece about young people and body image the author makes a point of constructing her piece around the real concerns that young people today are voicing.
I do not mean to suggest that this piece is flawless, or even that the piece is necessarily feminist. Indeed, there are many problems with this article, not least of which is the title alone. (Why are we still asking about “true hotness”?) Rather, in the interest of focusing, if only momentarily, on the positive potential inherent to certain types of media, I want to frame this “type” of article in relation to a compelling statement made by a professor of mine in a recent lecture.
Allow me to clarify what I mean by this “type” of article. This piece did not stick out to me because it is about body image, shaming, and eating disorders. It is not an important piece for depth of focus, though the author is honest about the limited perspective given. Near the opening of the piece Erin Anderssen mentions that the young people represented are middle class and white. In doing this she suggests that there are other stories to be told and other voices to be heard — a step not often taken in articles filed under the “Life” section of public newspapers. Rather, upon first reading of this article, I was shocked at how often the voices of young people are represented. In fact, the piece seems to be built up around the commentary made by this, admittedly limited, group of teens. Rather than simply stating facts about body image among female teens, Anderssen asks young people to speak out on the issue and fills in the spaces. For instance, the first paragraph includes commentary from three of the teens who took part in the dialogue: they all agree that a Levi”s ad proclaiming that “hotness comes in all shapes and sizes” is hypocritical, noting that the models pictured are all under size five. These initial comments give the article its shape by providing a springboard in terms of content as well as setting a particular tone. For example, Shannen Maili-McAleer”s asks, “Where are all the size 8s, the size 12s?.” Not only are these young people dissatisfied with the current state of advertising and its negative effects on young women, but are also enacting a refusal to passively accept such a limited definition of beauty, as well as the hypocrisy that frames it. Maili-McAleer and company have identified this particular slogan, in conjunction with a blatantly oppositional image, as meaningless, and are prepared to offer specific critiques and to demand change.
In a recent lecture for a graduate course I was attending at the time, the professor, Dr. Henry Giroux, made the statement that “social responsibility is no longer part of the social contract.” As a feminist academic interested in girl and teen culture, this online casino comment resonated with me in particular ways, and I see a direct connection between the socially irresponsible social contract and the project of this article. A social contract that allows advertisers to attempt, daily, to shame women and female teens into harming themselves through dieting, or altering themselves through beauty products or surgeries in the interest of generating profit is surely a social contract devoid of any sense of social responsibility, and it is exactly that contract to which the young people represented in this piece respond.
It is in thinking through this lack of social responsibility in conversation with the positive work that I have have witnessed in my work as a TA in English and Culture Studies — wherein I have witnessed young women articulately engage in complex and productive debates — that I am able to see this terribly titled, somewhat simple Globe & Mail piece with a glimmer of fresh hope. The story that the article tells is not new, shocking, or even illuminating. What the article does provide is the opportunity for young people to speak back to their media and to demand, in this small way, more social responsibility from their culture, whether in the form of Shannen Miali-McAleer”s desire to see size 8 and size 12 represented under a headline claiming to sell beauty, or through Karmen Brar”s assertion that “we”re starting to understand that everything is fake… So when they make it more real it drives us to that product.”
As much as this space of potential provides a momentarily feel-good outlook on the world, I focus on it in awareness of the growing need for spaces of representation like it. In the polarised world of media productions that continue to uncritically position high school as the birthplace of raunch culture (think of films like American Pie, Superbad, and, more recently, Project X, a film that most teenagers can”t even watch, based on the rating) and public anxieties about teen sexuality, especially female teen sexuality, most clearly embodied by the massive media coverage of incidents of sexting, as well as by various anti-sexting campaigns, it is refreshing to read the voices of real teens and to find them articulate and self-aware.