Girls Want the Media to Shape Up

Karen Stabiner is the author of "My Girl: Adventures With a Teen in Training" (Little Brown and Co., 2005).

The television series "Fat Actress" is like a yo-yo diet. Kirstie Alley looks blissful in the credits, boogieing with an abandon that covers entire ZIP Codes -- but what about those Jenny Craig ads that reassure us about how much weight she's losing? A fat actress isn't really happy, it seems, unless she's headed for thin.

Everywhere we look, we see the contradictions of a culture obsessed with women and weight: Big is beautiful, as long as it's not too big; you can't be too rich or too thin, but please, honey, don't be anorexic. Emphatically skinny is still in, but fat has achieved a certain political correctness; it's been redefined as a healthy rejection of the undernourished look. Kirstie Alley boogieing on the one hand, and Mary-Kate Olsen, a scrawny waif whose thrift store chic is now being hailed as the new hip style, on the other. Talk about the great divide.

When it comes to our daughters, the extremes beget a lot of hysterical hand-wringing -- you'd think that teen girls, as a group, were always eating too much or too little. And yet the truth is that only about 3% of teen girls have diagnosable eating disorders, although 15% have a "disordered" attitude about food. Statistics say between 15% and 30% of adolescent girls are overweight, depending on the study -- but that's part of a national trend from womb to tomb, not something that distinguishes our daughters from the rest of the population.

In fact, girls' biggest physical problem may be whiplash from the polarized messages they get about how, exactly, they are supposed to look. While we've been feeding them a diet of big mommas and Stepford girls, a growing segment of the target audience has decided it's fed up.

"Don't make all the girls blond and skinny because some of us don't picture that type of person as the ideal," one 10-year-old said in a recent panel discussion about girls in movies. They're just as irate about "makeover" stories, not just the literal nip-and-tuck shows, but the endless number of ugly duckling transformation plots that hinge on a girl having to achieve Hollywood-style beauty to be happy. "Give us ... less of the absolutely gorgeous-looking people," a 13-year-old said.

And girls aren't just starting to complain, they're starting to organize. In 2000, the editorial board (ages 8 to 14) of a girls' publication, New Moon, decided to counter People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue. That turned into a campaign called Turn Beauty Inside Out, which this week comes to L.A. in the form of a girls' leadership conference aimed at the entertainment industry.

The conferees want to make it clear that they understand the shorthand at work here; exaggerations are so obvious that they elicit the desired response without breaking a sweat. Kirstie Alley gets a laugh these days just for walking down a hallway, and a breathtaking teen beauty in a size 2 dress gets our attention just for being breathtaking. Real girls are harder to portray because they don't telegraph the easy emotions, so real girls disappear from the collective consciousness. But they're getting tired of being left out of the entertainment industry's vocabulary.

What do they want? Complexity. A variety of images that more accurately reflect the real world, where most girls are neither too fat nor too thin, but somewhere in the general in-between, where no one is paying enough attention.

They hope to change what we see onscreen using a tool familiar to entertainment executives: profit. As the conference literature says, "Girls love movies, and the movie industry loves girls' buying power." The implication? If girls don't see a more realistic portrayal of themselves on big screens and small, they might look for other ways to occupy their time. They'll grow up to be adults who still reject the way movies and television portray women and girls, and they'll encourage their daughters and sons to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. They could launch a media revolution based on nothing more radical than a request for proper representation.

The girls who will assemble in L.A. this week weren't alive when Peter Finch's television anchorman in the movie "Network" announced his intention to kill himself on camera as a protest against the creeping banality of the nightly news, but he seems to have been born again in them. They have revived his primal scream: They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore. Listen up, box office gurus and network savants, lest they abandon you, your size 2 starlets and your size 22 stars for something that makes a bit more sense.

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