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Teen activists combat body image negativity with online tools

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

The communities that spring up to promote extreme weight loss can also have positive effects on users, Mysko said.

"People with eating disorders feel very isolated," she said. "People are really looking for connections. People struggling with this feel misunderstood."

However, when negativity abounds, these online communities keep people trapped in "a glorification of thinness, the message that thinness is the key to happiness and success," Mysko said.

Fighting fire with fire

Alice Wilder, a 17-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., has a different message she hopes to share with teens.

"I want teen girls to know — if you can not hate yourself day today, it's an incredible accomplishment," Wilder said. "It's OK to like yourself. That's actually really brave, if you're a teen girl."

Wilder said she got her start as an activist in the fifth grade, when she wrote a persuasive essay blasting teen fashion for an assignment. These days, she blogs and works closely with SPARK, a coalition dedicated to empowering teen girls to become their own advocates. This April, she and a friend decided to spend a month living according to the advice of teen-oriented fashion magazines and proceeded to blog about their experiences.

The experiment had her leaving the house with concerns about the excessive amounts of gel in her hair, and trying to find a way to incorporate a 24-7 exercise regiment into her daily life by working out her legs while talking on the phone. At the end of the day, the lifestyle touted by such magazines was unattainable, Wilder said.

Her blog has circulated online, gaining international attention.

"I get emails from girls from Argentina and all over the world," Wilder said.

The Internet has made it possible for Wilder to join forces with like-minded girls across the country, such as Emma Stydahar, a 17-year-old New Yorker who led a petition asking Teen Vogue to bring more real girls to the pages of its magazine. Wilder, Stydahar and several others who worked on the petition hoped to see results similar to the "Body Peace Treaty" that came out of a 14-year-old SPARK activist's petition to Seventeen magazine. However, after offering to meet with the girls, Teen Vogue editors sent them away with instructions to "do their homework."

Stydahar, who developed an eating disorder in her early teens, said she could distinctly remember flipping though the pages of a Teen Vogue and “wishing I looked like those girls, but never really seeing myself in the magazine.” She no longer subscribes to the magazine, but remains active with SPARK and recently wrote and produced a play about body image issues women face.

"I feel like activism can take so many shapes, so many creative shapes," she said.

Lauren Myers, an independent, 18-year-old activist from Council Bluffs, Iowa, has experimented with a variety of those potential shapes over the last six months. She used a Web page to organize and spread the word about her "Project Beautiful," which she initiated after learning one of her friends had developed an eating disorder, but the majority of her project took place in the real world. Myers has spoken at local schools, operated clothing drives while reminding donors to be "comfortable in their own genes," distributed awareness ribbons and hung up posters.

Ultimately, teens are just looking for connections, and the Internet can easily facilitate that, Myers said.

“If you’re more of a shy kind of person, it’s more helpful to have someone far away help you," she said. "But at the same time, you crave someone close.”

Myers said girls her age sometimes post self-deprecating comments and photos online seeking reassuring praise from others. However, that degree of negative self-talk is difficult to counter, and “if someone criticizes, it solidifies those thoughts," she said.

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