The InSite: Before seeing the Kate Moss poster on the bus, were you aware of how media images contribute to the negative way girls and women feel about their bodies?
Kathy: I've been aware of the problem for years. Just listening to friends talk about their bodies or things I'd read in Ms. Magazine about little girls self-esteem starting to plummet at age 12. Also the changes in the way women were shown in advertising as they got thinner and thinner! I was waiting in line for "Shakespeare in the Park" one summer in New York. Behind me was a family. They had a young teenage daughter and she had a couple of friends with her. One of the adult women started passing out cookies. "Does anyone want a cookie?" One of the girls said "I'll have a cookie. I can start my diet tomorrow!" They all sort of giggled and took the cookies. I turned around to see these gangly 15 year olds and thought "My God! It's as if they just regurgitate the 'language of womanhood' as it is today." When I was little I remember we'd play tea party and pretend to smoke because our mothers smoked. Now girls growing up pretend to diet or actually diet, because they hear that's what women do.
The InSite: When you were a teen was weight something you were obsessed with?
Kathy: Not for me, personally, because my mom was always really slim. We were all skinny little girls. It didn't even enter in. Only now, as an adult and working in this do I look back and remember that there were some girls who were dieting or weight conscious. I remember a girlfriend of mine did a speech on anorexia when we were in the 8th grade [this was 1976]. It was the first that I had ever heard of it. The next year, when I was in high school, I remember one of the senior girl cheerleaders. Now I know she was anorexic, at the time I just thought "She is so skinny!" But it didn't have nearly the prevalence it has today.
The InSite: So we're talking about changes over the past twenty years. Starting from the mid-'70's when most people didn't even know what an eating disorder was to our current obsession with dieting and using images of women and teenage girls to sell everything from clothing to cars to computers. And the bodies in those images barely even look like women anymore... they are so thin!
Kathy: Right! In that same amount of time advertisers have really capitalized on the growth in glossy magazines and our absolute focus on TV. My generation might have been the first that really sat in front of a TV and certainly the girls coming up now see more TV than we did!. I have two younger sisters. One four years younger and one eight years younger. Both of them have a more negative self-perception than I do. And each one is worse than the other! When the youngest turned 21, I was there to help celebrate. We went to a bar and she was pointing out friends she knew and it was all in terms of "Oh, she's bulimic." or "She used to be anorexic..." I couldn't believe how mainstream it was and how well known! It was just like a rite of passage. And my sister, herself, was anorexic. Although I didn't have the connection in my brain then to see. I was in that family denial. My sense is that her whole generation has gotten it [negative self-image] and the generation behind them is potentially getting it even worse!
TI: I have heard of girls as young as 5 talking about how they need to go on a diet!
Kathy: A woman called me and said that her 6 year old wouldn't put on a bathing suit because she thinks she's too fat! She wouldn't take swimming lessons this summer. I think it's just tragic that a little kid at the beginning of the summer has such a weird perception of what she looks like or what she should look like that she won't even enjoy the water.
TI: It's really sad!
Kathy: All these little things made me wonder why we allow this and what I could do. It's just so unfair that a young girl can't grow up and like her new curves and her new breasts and her new round bottom. Girls are made to feel self-conscious about their bodies and their male peers are not. Although that's an untapped market that advertisers are tapping into now. We'll see what happens. Maybe men will rebel more than we have.
TI: I can't help but think that the advertising images spring from the minds of male ad executives to begin with. Is that true?
Kathy: Sometimes I wonder if there are men sitting around a table and saying.. "What can we do?" Because it does seem, when you look at it from a historical perspective, that the times women had more power, like during the Suffragette Movement when women were trying to get the vote [1915-1922], that that was also an "anti-female" body ideal. You know, real thin, the flattening of the breasts, the hiding of curves. Then times when women went back into the home, like in the 1950's [after World War II] those were the cinched waists and the full skirts and a very "female" [look]. Like we could use our power [and show the true shape of our bodies] because we were in the home.
TI: So what happened the moment before you got this idea to start About-Face?
Kathy: I was on my way to an R.E.M. concert and I was watching these new ads on the San Francisco buses driving by. They had a picture of Kate Moss lying naked. The photo highlighted her sunken eyes and all of her bones. The way she was lit made her look as emaciated as possible. I had been thinking "Why is this [ad] campaign still going on? Why don't people get angry about this?" At the concert I thought, "I could vandalize those ads! I could change them. I could wait for buses and slap a big sticker on them that says 'Emaciation stinks!'" I fantasized about this for awhile. Logistically it would have been very difficult and it also would have been illegal. [laughing] But as I was talking about the idea, one of my guy friends said, "Why don't you make posters?"
TI: What especially appealed to you about the idea?
Kathy: Well, we're so visually oriented. Everything is big and beautiful and glossy and if you can have equally interesting and glossy images out there then you can fight on their same turf. Although it's really difficult because I got the printing for a thousand posters donated and advertisers are spending billions on billboards.
TI: This thing you did created quite an impression, didn't it?
Kathy: Yeah. It got a lot media attention. Probably because there were a lot of 40 year old women in news rooms all over San Francisco going "Yes!" So I was interviewed on all the local stations and the story went out over the AP [Associated Press] wire and wound up in newspapers all over the country. It created this groundswell, and I thought it would. I envisioned teenage girls riding buses and looking out the window and seeing this poster at construction sites [that's where we plastered them] and just saying "That's a familiar image but that's a whole different message."
TI: About 180 degrees different!
Kathy: When I was a girl there was an element of fairness [that we believed in]. Whatever didn't seem "right" or "unjust" seemed worth fighting for. I was hoping to trigger in girls a little reminder that "Hey! You can voice your opinion. You can change things."
TI: Aside from the media response what kind of personal response did you get?
Kathy: I had gotten a post office box because I thought maybe people would want to contact me and it was printed on the poster. Then every day I'd get 6 or 7 or 8 or 10 letters in the mail. Sometimes I'd open them and they'd have checks in them.
TI: What did people think they were doing with this money they were sending?
Kathy: They wanted to support this organization. One day I got a check for $500. The woman included a letter that said she had seen the poster on the news and then she was walking her dog and she saw it on a wall. So she came home and broke up with her boyfriend and she sent the check! She ended up helping out for a while too. People still write, mostly email. The other day our web mistress said, "We've gotten 200 emails in the last week!" It's usually from parents and teachers, two groups that deal closely with young girls.
TI: What's your vision for the future of About-Face?
Kathy: It's been over two years since the first poster and I still work full time [at another job]. Just last week I asked my bosses if I could go part time because the momentum is really building. We've got a web site [www.about-face.org], but we haven't officially announced it. Yet it has been honored on other people's web sites as the Pick of the Day or Week. It's been written about by Wired Magazine, which is the place to be if you have a web site. Ultimately we want the web site to act as a resource center. On the one hand we're educating, showing images from our culture, siting facts and addresses of companies, in case people want to take that route and write to them. Also with references and links to other organizations related to women's health or women in general. Then, at the same time, to provide a component that emphasizes the other, positive aspects of women. How it's not just about how we look and how much we weigh, but all these other really amazing factors that mainstream American culture doesn't acknowledge at all. You take a really sharp woman, like Hillary Clinton and you're inevitably going to hear about the size of her bottom in the press. So girls are always getting this mixed message "Be smart. But not too smart."
TI: Sounds like you've got the cyberspace component down. How about plans for a "real world" About-Face presence?
Kathy: Ultimately we'd like to have an office, a real location, where we can have teen groups, speakers, maybe a counseling service... every aspect of the issue from media literacy to self-esteem building to eating disorder awareness and prevention. We'll see. The response has been amazing and the "luck level" on this has been really high.
TI: I think your timing on this issue is very good. This past summer ['97] when a San Francisco Bay Area ballerina died from anorexia, that was front page news! That story would not have been front page two years ago.
Kathy: Two years ago I got a lot of flack about the poster. Even some of my friends were like "It's not that big of an issue! Ignore ads. What's the big deal?" But I knew there was something that was just haywire. And last summer President Clinton said, "We have to stop the heroin junky chick look in advertising." I mean, when the President is talking about it!
TI: This issue ties in to so many of the things we cover on The InSite. Like inequality within abusive teen relationships. It often happens to girls with low self-esteem, believing that they aren't as good as boys. That they can be ordered around and controlled by boys. That comes out of a girl's feelings of who she is, how she looks, where her value lies. It's all interconnected.
Kathy: Exactly!! There are huge societal implications because girls who don't feel good about themselves may put themselves in a position to be mistreated. And their children grow up thinking that it's okay to mistreat women. Or that women aren't as capable in the work place. All these things trickle down and pretty soon there's a huge inequity. We've got rising violence against women. Rising rates of teen pregnancy and HIV among young women. All this stuff is interrelated and there's a lot of good work to do.
TI: You've been working on this for a few years now. You're obviously aware of all aspects of the problem and how each one of us has been negatively influenced by the media's presentation of women in our culture. What do you have to say to the teenage girls of the world to get them to change their attitudes?
Kathy: The most important thing is to trust your own instinct about things. It's really difficult because you're not always sure what your "gut" is. Because you're always weighing things: "Oh I really want to do this. But I really like the guy. But he really treats me badly; but I really like him." Somewhere in there you have to trust your gut and also remember to treat yourself well or you really can't expect anybody else to. We all set the tone for how we get treated. For years I listened to stories from my girlfriends about their stupid boyfriends and the mean things they did and I'd think "Oh, he's so bad!" And at some point I realized, "To some degree she lets that happen!" If she said, "No! That's not how I want to be treated." Then she won't be. Teenagers have a hard time knowing that they really do have power and it's okay to not always be "nice" and "perfect." You don't always have to be the funny, cheerful one and ultimately people will still love you.
TI: And what about all this garbage we swallow about looking perfect according to someone else's standard of beauty?
Kathy: All girls should go out and look for an adult woman in their lives who they think is really neat. Then look at her face and her body. Is she a "perfect" person? Yet there's some really wonderful spark in her. The way she smiles or the streak of gray in her hair. The way her hands look when they're working. Whatever it is, those are the things we need to remember. It's the spark that's coming from within. It's so corny to say "Beauty is only skin deep." But it really is true. The thing that sustains is the way the person feels about herself. Ultimately the way you feel about yourself is going to be more attractive to a guy than anything you can do to your outsides. It seems so tragic to me that girls think "If I only do 100 sit-ups." What becomes "unattractive" is that obsession. He wants to go to the beach with you. He doesn't want to hear you whining about how you can't wear a bathing suit because you think you look too fat.
TI: Yeah, girls need to lose some of their wimpiness.
Kathy: Absolutely! Also to do things they like doing. Be more conscious of how much time they put into worrying about how they look! Focus some of that out into the world... doing things that would gratifying to your soul.
TI: There's nothing cooler than an 8 or a 10 year old girl striding across a playground. Or riding her bike letting her hair blow in the wind. Feeling free. Then you see that same girl at 14 and she's holding her arms across her chest, hiding, looking really sunken, doing weird things with her hair and her eyebrows.
Kathy: Yes! That's what's so sad! Someone stole who that girl was!
TI: And some of us never find our way back again. It's really scary.
Kathy: Maybe girls can make a promise to themselves that they'll always do something for just themselves, every day, no matter what. Just something to nurture their brain or their creative streak, or whatever it is.
TI: And not care what anybody else thinks, for that one occasion.
Kathy: Being a teenager is a hard time but if you nurture and keep watering that little tiny plant in there, then when you're ready to really "tend the garden" it will be strong and resilient.
TI: Girls like that become role models for their peers.
Kathy: Exactly. So maybe if one girl does it, then another girl will do it too. Maybe they can have a club. On that one day they go do something for themselves.
TI: And forget about the boys!
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