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.
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.
Flooding the Internet
NEDA supports the building of positive online communities, using the same tools that often spread harmful ideals to drown out the negative messages. The Proud2BMe initiative that Mysko oversees aims to do just that.
However, Wilder said such messages are far more effective when coming directly from teens themselves.
"We trust each other," Wilder said. "I don't want to see another PowerPoint from someone who's 50 about how to use Twitter, but I have seen that PowerPoint a thousand times."
It's also more effective at reaching retailers. One of the reasons why Abercrombie and Fitch reacted so swiftly to the rising "cool kids" controversy, Wilder said, was because the teens themselves — the clothing retailer's customers — had begun rejecting the brand.
It was the Internet that made that fast, brutal rejection by teens possible, she added.
"You can cut through the bureaucracy online," Wilder said. "You don't have to go find an organization and work your way up. I was able to make a video and put it online the next day."
Streech, who is aging out of the teenage demographic, said she too believes this sort of online activism is the wave of the future — in fact, when she gains the technical expertise to do so, she plans on designing an app to complement her website. Until then, if you send her an email, she'll gladly reply with a positive message.
"We're the kind of society that always tells you you're not good enough," Streech said. "But your weight doesn’t tell you what kind of person you are, what kind of person you will be.”
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