When my daughters were small, I lived in France where commercials portrayed women as sex objects and not much more. In reaction, I got my girls "Free to be You and Me" in the hope that they would realize women do not have to look like the actors on TV. Despite my vigilance, the images must have sunk in, because my elder daughter became anorexic in high school. I wish I had known how better to counteract the onslaught of images that made her decide to starve her body. I must admit, though, I understood how she felt. Living in France made me want to lose weight, too.
The situation seems to be even worse here in the United States. From looking at ads in most magazines, you might think you needed to be thin to succeed in life. We live in a consumer society. Advertisers make us feel insecure about how we look. They promise security if we use their products. Teenagers get taken in. Peer pressure is strong, and they want to be popular.
Now Academy Award-winning filmmaker Margaret Lazarus, producer of "Killing Us Softly" (1979) and "Still Killing Us Softly" (1987), suggests that women and girls have other options. Her new documentary, "Beyond Killing Us Softly: the Strength to Resist," features delightfully strong women and girls who battle the media and the degrading images it produces.
We first meet Professor Carol Gilligan, who launches the debate with the comment that something happens to girls when they enter adolescence. Why do they lose their self-esteem? Lazarus films a group of twelve-year-olds in front of a Britney Spears video. Their feet tap as they mouth the lyrics, imitating the singer without realizing her influence.
In a classroom at Wheelock College, while scantily clad models from Cosmopolitan flash across the big screen, Professor Dr. Gail Dines warns, "Real women don’t look like this. Even models don’t look like this." The provocative professor points out that air-brushed images have been around for years. What’s new is that pornographic poses have slipped into the mix. Women are now shown in positions of vulnerability, susceptible to abuse. Dines tells her class that when violent acts are glamorized, it creates a climate that legitimizes that violence. I feel outrage as I examine the pictures of models tied up, knocked down, or prostrate beside a pool of blood, and realize for the first time what is really going on.
Now that I have seen this video, I have started noticing photos of the fabricated ideal woman, and they are everywhere. It is hard to avoid her. Tall, thin, and beautiful, her image jumps out from storefronts and the sides of buses. You don’t even have to buy the magazines to feel the pull. So what can be done? The wise women in "Beyond Killing Us Softly: the Strength to Resist," offer suggestions. Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, recommends observing and interacting with real women. Cybercolumnist Amy Richards advises her Ask Amy readers at Feminist.com to become athletic and challenge their bodies in some way. Middle-school student Jamila Capitman offers her own experience, explaining how a month at an all-girls camp helped her gain respect for real women.
Lazarus believes that reclaiming our culture is the next major struggle that we’re all going to have to be part of if we want to lead real lives. "When we hear those voices in our heads saying we really ought to be thinner, we need to tell them to shut up,” she says. “We’ve got the choice to buy into this impossible, ridiculous ideal or to get real."
Let’s get real! We can loosen the media’s grip by being strong physically, refusing indoctrination, and not allowing corporations to define how we feel about our bodies. Spreading the word about this video will help do just that.
Click on www.cambridgedocumentaryfilms.org for info on how educators and women’s groups can get this video.
Alexandra Grabbe is a freelance writer who now lives on Cape Cod where she cares for her elderly mother.
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