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Teen activists combat body image negativity with online tools

Published: Thursday, July 4 2013 11:10 p.m. MDT

As the decades-long fight against the objectification of women continues, a new generation of activists has arrived on the scene, ready to spread positivity and self-acceptance with online tools.

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LITTLETON, Colo. — Mary Streech was in the seventh grade when she developed an eating disorder. She entered treatment four years later and found herself one of the oldest patients at the center.

Streech soon learned a number of the other patients had fostered their disorders while viewing online content that encouraged the harmful behaviors. As the oldest, she resolved to become a positive role model.

When she left treatment, Streech founded a nonprofit website promoting positive body image, to counter the negative and unhealthy body images and actions her friends had discovered online. She's far from alone.

As the decades-long fight against the objectification of women continues, a new generation of activists has arrived on the scene, ready to spread positivity and self-acceptance with online tools.

Teens are using the same tools that enabled the spread of dangerous messages that promote extreme weight loss to try to change the way women view themselves, with or without the support of national teen advocacy groups. Though the "girl power" movement started in the ’90s, social media have birthed a level of activity not possible five years ago, said Dana Edell, a researcher at New York University.

More recently, teen delegates met with delegates from Abercrombie & Fitch. This and several high-visibility actions against popular teen magazines such as Teen Vogue and Seventeen have added momentum to teen activism across the nation.

Pressure to be perfect

Teens seeking advice for continuing and concealing extreme weight-loss regimens once had to search out that content online. Today, all they need to do is log on to Twitter, where users alternately preach and worship unrealisitic ideals intended to inspire weight loss. Some, however, take the dieting too far.

Streech, who continues to run her website while studying at the University of Southern California, said one of the primary problems with social media is an issue of scale. Someone might post about hating her thighs, thinking only select friends will hear her, but there's no telling who might be listening.

"I went through treatment with a 6-year-old boy," Streech said. "I don't think the people who post these things realize they are killing people."

It's not that all social media are inherently bad, Streech said, but that in and of itself presents yet another problem — where to draw the line. Proper diet and exercise are important to health, and everyone struggles with self-doubt at some point. But few will post a weight-loss rant that goes viral.

The post's intention, and perhaps more importantly, the speaker, are key factors in any trend's potential, Streech said. For example, when a celebrity deliberately creates a new hashtag dedicated to extreme weight loss, Streech finds "more fault with that than with a 12-year-old child venting online."

But Claire Mysko, an activist and author who runs online teen outreach programs for the National Eating Disorders Association, believes those same 12-year-olds may in fact be part of the problem. An estimated 20-30 percent of young girls modify their own images before posting online, where they and their friends then evaluate whether they measure up, she said.

"It's not that the impulse to compare is a new thing," Mysko said, "but now that it's online, the exposure is that much greater."

The National Eating Disorders Association has worked closely with multiple social sites, including Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr, and many sites have been receptive to NEDA's suggestions, Mysko said. Even with site administrators' cooperation, harmful content has proven impossible to eradicate. Trends change, users find inventive ways around site rules, and administrators rely on other users to report abuse.

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