It’s always a privilege to do research with young people, and I’m often blown away by the candidness and honesty of girls who are willing to sit down and talk to you about their online lives. This last round of eGirls research has also broken my heart. We interviewed around 60 girls, most of whom are facing an incredible amount of judgment and pressure online about their bodies – girls are too fat, too made up, not made up enough, expose too much cleavage (read slut), don’t expose enough cleavage, have too many friends (read desperate), don’t have enough friends (read loser). I found the oppressive need for attention to detail, to present that “just right” image, absolutely exhausting. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with that burden every day of a high school career. But most of the time, I felt like I was in a time warp, talking to my mother and grandmother about “that kind of girl”.
My grandmother and mother had very firm lines between “good” girls and “bad” girls. (I never managed to pull off “good” girl, being way too mouthy for my time). They would certainly recognize the lines drawn on Vancouver student Rosea Lake’s viral photo (above). But what struck me when I first saw the photo is that, although the meanings encoded on girls’ and women’s bodies haven’t changed much in the 35 years since I was young, what has changed is the pressure on girls to raise the skirt line to slut. Our participants were quite clear that the girl who can pull it off – sexualize her body and expose it on online media – is “successful”. In fact, for many the sexualized image was a sign of confidence. But when we probed further, that confidence depended on how others (boys, yes, but mostly girls in their social circle) responded to it. If people “liked” the photo, then the girls would feel good about themselves and “be confident”; if people didn’t “like” it, many of them quickly pulled it down and assumed they were wrong about it being a “good” picture. Most of the girls we talked to showed a high degree of anxiety about the pictures of themselves they post on social media, and too many of them identified themselves as too “fat” or “ugly” to be accepted by others. Over and over again, I felt compelled to say, “But you’re beautiful”. The funny thing is, I meant it.
I can’t help but wonder how 35 years of gains for women in access to employment and political influence have translated into this, very conflicted, notion of equality. I suspect that the answer lies in a combination of the visuality of social media, the pervasiveness of media images of highly stereotyped girls, and a commercial agenda that (often literally) carves pieces of girls’ bodies out and sells them back to them in a photoshopped version of choice and empowerment. Girl power, what a crock we’ve sold them.
I’d like to thank Rosea for painting the experiences of so many of the girls we talked to on her model’s body, and reminding us that equality is a goal that requires a rewriting of the female form in a language that acknowledges that authentic meaning comes from within and not without.