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#GirlsCan call out beauty marketers

by Lilinaz Evans

You may remember CoverGirl from our recent Capitol Cuties campaign, but today I wanted to talk about Covergirl’s newest ad campaign #GirlsCan. Here, in the campaign video there is a wealth of strong, high powered women–many of whom are self- proclaimed feminists, like Ellen DeGeneres or Janelle Monae, and all of whom are CoverGirl models. They start by repeating all the things that girls are told they can’t do on a daily basis: Girls can’t be strong; girls can’t be funny; girls can’t play sports. The women then give an empowering speech about all the things “girls can” do. They tell their own stories of what girls can do and how they overcame people telling them what girls can’t do. The video ends by reminding the viewers (or Covergirls) that the way to overcome all these rules society sets for girls (like, I don’t know… unattainable beauty norms maybe?) is to be easy, breezy and beautiful, obviously by buying CoverGirl makeup.

On the surface this ad is okay. There are empowering messages for girls that they can do anything (as long as they buy CoverGirl makeup) and be themselves (as long as that self is easy, breezy and beautiful), and they even made a stab at inclusivity by having two African American women and one Latina woman. There is a theme of rebellion and women challenging what they are told they can and cannot do. They tell us we can do whatever we want, and who are we to argue with Ellen DeGeneres?

But that’s just the surface. Let’s have a look at some other campaigns by CoverGirl, shall we?

SPARK recently protested a CoverGirl campaign called Capitol Collection, which was all about getting girls to dress up as dwellers of the violently oppressive “Capitolist” state.  Here CoverGirl, I assume, were banking on the fact that us easy, breezy, beautiful CoverGirls were too distracted by the pretty colours to realise CoverGirl was trying to frame a regime that slaughters children for entertainment, runs on the fruits of slave labour and lets people starve to death as something to aspire to. Pretty colours are great, and who doesn’t love dressing up as your favourite film character? But it speaks volumes of just what CoverGirl thinks of its target market of teenage girls that they think we want to look like vain child murders.

To me, the message CoverGirl is sending is perfectly clear. It is not “#GirlsCan do anything,” but it isn’t “Teen girls want to look like vapid murderers” either. The message is “I want your money and I am prepared to say and sell anything to get it.”

CoverGirl is not unique in the slightest by sending this message. Any company with something to sell wants you to buy it, and the majority are prepared to do anything in the name of marketing. The SPARKteam recently talked about the Aerie ad campaign, whose ‘body positive’ gimmick was to leave their models untouched-up. It created quite a stir, which was of course its aim, but what did it actually do for media’s unattainable standards of beauty? Not much: their untouched models were majority thin, pale and without a single physical blemish; the standards of beauty they promoted were not any less attainable. If it boosts sales, a company will say or do almost anything.

CoverGirl, as a company, is not interested in girl’s empowerment. That doesn’t mean that their campaigns (or the people who run them) don’t have good effects—some of the people behind these campaigns may even be feminists. But CoverGirl is not a person with thoughts and feelings. CoverGirl as company doesn’t care about girls being plagued by unhealthy eating and body dysmorphia because of unattainable beauty standards; CoverGirl as a company does not care how many girls don’t go into STEM subjects because of the anti-female environment; CoverGirl as a company doesn’t care how many girls end up realising their dreams to be a comedian despite being told “girls can’t be funny.” CoverGirl is a company, not a person—its first and last concern is what impacts their sales.

I bet some of you reading this right now are thinking “they aren’t great but isn’t this better than some of the other, more awful adverts out there?” Well, yes, on the surface they are better than the average beer ad, but CoverGirl is still only telling girls they can be funny, pretty and all the rest on the condition they buy CoverGirl makeup to make them “easy, breezy and beautiful.”

CoverGirl is a company whose only interest is making money so they have used girl’s empowerment as a marketing gimmick. They are using empowerment as a way of getting talked about and getting their brand out there.  It’s unusual for a company that generally profits from girls’ low self-esteem to talk about girls’ empowerment, so when they do, they get talked about–not just in the mainstream media but also in publications like SPARK or Mumsnet. They’re reaching new audiences, which is their ultimate goal. Even this post is raising awareness about the CoverGirl brand! But if this #GirlsCan marketing does nothing for sales, you can bet they are going to drop it pretty sharpish.

Not “crazy,” just dedicated

by Julia Bluhm

When girls are young, Cinderella tells them “dreams really do come true.” As we get older, that philosophy changes and we learn that life isn’t actually a fairytale. You have to work hard in order to achieve something great, and even then it doesn’t always happen.  For me, ballet started as a fairytale and transformed into a whole lot of hard work. And I love it.

Like any professional-in-training, I spend about 20 hours per week training for what I dream of doing: becoming a professional ballet dancer. I don’t know if I’ll succeed (because the ballet world is extremely, extremely competitive), but either way I want to be able to say that I worked as hard as I possibly could.

People have said that I “have no life” outside of ballet. A teacher at my school has even said that “ballet is a waste of time” because I’ll probably end up burnt-out and depressed. Well, here’s what I have to say about that: How do you know? Yes, my schedule is very busy, but I would much rather be busy than bored.  I love being busy. I love being able to work hard at something, and feel a sense of accomplishment when I do something right. Yes, I need a break every once in a while (if I have a free Sunday I generally watch several hours of House Hunters International), and I know that life isn’t 100% about ballet (just about… 70%), but I also know that this is what I love to do. Let me do it.

Some people are programmed to find something they like and dedicate all of their time and concentration to it. Other people are not. Here’s the thing: Both types of people are fine. It’s fine if someone would rather study or go to rehearsal/practice than a party on a Friday night. That doesn’t mean they have a “no life” or are total nerds, it just means that they like spending their time in a different way. At the same time, who says you can’t dedicate yourself to something and still be happy and have friends? There seem to be hundreds of books and movies where a girl works really hard at something and is on her way to success, but suddenly decided to quit because she needs to spend more time with her friends/boyfriend/family.

Spoiler alert! The first example that jumps to my mind is the book Bunheads by Sophie Flack. A professional ballet dancer is beginning to gain more momentum in her career, but quits when she falls in love with a boy. I also think of the movie Morning Glory. The main character dreamt of becoming a news anchor on the Today Show for her entire life. When she finally gets the opportunity, she doesn’t take it because Harrison Ford tells her she’ll neglect her family and regret it if she did.


Before I continue, it’s important to note that if someone’s career/passion is seriously stressing him or her out and they decide that they just don’t enjoy it anymore, that’s a very valid reason to quit. People change and dreams change. But if you still really want to be an Olympic athlete and you think you have to choose between that dream and being able to spend time with your family and friends…. STOP. Why do you have to choose? Who decided that you couldn’t be happy and be dedicated at the same time? You won’t be able to do everything, but it’s your decision to figure out what things will take up a bit more of your time, and what things will take up a bit less. Your family and friends should be able to understand that you’re going to be pretty busy, and you should understand to take a day off every now and then.

Lastly, why is it okay for men to be super dedicated to something, but for women it’s seen as “crazy?” We all hear stories about a Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/ The Creator Of a Big Company who didn’t eat for two days and peed in bottles because they were so consumed by their work. Would a woman be celebrated for the same sort of thing, or would they be labeled as “crazy,” “obsessed” or having a “sad life”? We do not need these types of gender roles dictating what we do or how hard we work.

Do whatever makes you happy. If you like being involved in a bunch of things and it doesn’t majorly stress you out, don’t let anybody stop you by saying you are neglecting other parts of your life or are too committed. I’ve been able to juggle my ballet schedule and the activism stuff I do with SPARK, and I haven’t blown up yet. As women, we are often told that there are hundreds of things we can’t do for one reason or another. We also often end up blowing people away with how wrong they all were. If there’s something you are working hard to do, don’t stop because of what people may think or expect of you. Don’t let anybody’s judgments get in the way. You can do it. And I’m sure you will be amazing.

Black Women Create: Issa Rae

by Sam Holmes

On my first day of kindergarten, I encountered the consequence of poor representation in media. I remember how terrified I was as I entered the classroom. All my friends from pre-k had gone to other schools, so I didn’t know a single person in my class. When I finally found the courage to sit at a table with a group of girls, I was met with a series of glares. Some even pushed their chairs away from the table. The girls remained skeptical of me until I offered to share my crayons with them and the spell was broken.

Later, I asked one of my tablemates why they had acted so oddly. She hesitated and explained, “Well, people like you are the mean ones.” I was confused. I had never met any of them before, so they had no reason to believe that I would be mean. In retrospect, I realize that everyone at that table had most likely only been exposed to black people in television shows or movies. Throughout the years, I have witnessed the media depict girls like me as “the mean ones,” or the super sexualized ones, or as the shallow ones.

I’m tired of an entire group being viewed as a one dimensional stereotype.  African American women are so much more any of the clichéd personas that the entertainment industry loves to use. At the moment, it seems that many media giants are choosing to ignore this fact. But there are artists who are working hard to promote representation for women of color. Issa Rae, creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, is one of these awesome visionaries.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl is fairly self-explanatory. The web series follows the life of a black girl named Jay who shares her daily experiences with embarrassing situations. The other characters that Jay interacts with span the personality spectrum–with a broad representation of African American women. Along with Jay, Nina, Patty, and Dolores offer opinions, flaws, and idiosyncrasies that differ from the media’s stereotypes of black women. Nina fulfills the role of the antagonist, but instead of having her as an unnecessarily sassy and malicious character, ABG highlights Nina’s other traits such as her career aspirations. Patty, the perpetually sick colleague, adds humor to the show. With Dolores, also known as Sister Mary, Issa puts a spin on the stereotype of the uber pious judgmental black woman. Sister Mary has a past history of questionable relationships, but she also won’t hesitate to recite Bible verses in uncomfortable situations. Issa references the stereotypes that movies and television have forced upon African American women and uses comedy to prove their absurdity.

Because Issa created the show, she is able to influence every aspect of Awkward Black Girl with her creative and personal views. The show’s female characters are not excessively glamorous. The show’s dialogue isn’t centered on fashion and aesthetic. Although there are many conflicts about men in the show, friendship, workplace woes, and hobbies are explored in numerous episodes as well. At the same time, the show does an excellent job at depicting micro-aggressions. Jay’s boss, known as Boss Lady, is a fan of cultural appropriation as she puts her hair into cornrows to force a connection with black culture. Boss Lady attempts to use stereotypical black slang and tries to feel Jay’s afro. The interactions between both women are never short of cringe worthy. Boss Lady represents ignorance, and she illustrates how it can lead to extreme discomfort.

Because of Issa’s brilliance, networks have been scrambling to have ABG become a sitcom. Originally, networks tried to fit ABG into the mold for a stereotypical borderline Blaxploitation show. Jay would be replaced by a girl with lighter skin, a fancier wardrobe, and a lot of that classic sass that Hollywood loves to add. Issa refused, and I am so grateful for that. As I learned in kindergarten: representation is vital. The media need to stop putting out problematic stereotypes for women of color. It creates false images that lead to prejudice and bigotry.

After the Oscars, where do we go?

by Angela Batuure

I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of Hollywood awards ceremonies like the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, People’s Choice Awards, or the Academy Awards. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve sat down to watch these shows (unless Beyoncé is performing, in which case the likelihood I will watch increases to 100%). This year however, with phenomenal (and racially diverse!)  films such as 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Fruitvale Station being eligible for nominations, I decided to be one of the 20 something million people who tune in to watch these events. I thought (perhaps naively) that  maybe, just maybe, the 2014 awards shows would allow incremental improvements in the honestly outrageous lack of minority award winners.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o has proven to be a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, winning both a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Critics Choice Award and the prestigious Academy Award for best supporting Actress. Lupita’s Oscar win adds her name to a list of only five other African American actresses who have won in that same category. Lupita’s awards were well deserved, but even with her wins, and the wins for 12 Years a Slave, the 2014 awards season followed the trend set by its predecessors: time after time, the number of people of color nominated for and winning awards is is astronomically low.

Since the Oscars started in 1929, fewer than 4% of the awards have been given to African Americans. Only three Oscars have ever been awarded to Latinos for acting roles (Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn and Benico del Toro).  The majority of voters for Awards ceremonies like the Oscars are even less diverse than the winners list. In the highly secretive roster of 5,765 voting members of the Academy, 94% are Caucasian and 77% are male. Only 2% of the voters are black and less than 2 % are Hispanic. The median age of voters is 62 and only 14% of voters are younger than 50. Many of the white male voters don’t really see a problem with the lack of diversity on the voting panel. In an article in the LA Times, the former president of the Academy Awards, Frank Pierson commented that:

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

Unfortunately, Pierson fails to realize that as arguably the most prestigious and sought after award for a person in the film industry, the Academy Awards sets the canon for film. The Oscars tell viewers what the most respected films, actors, actresses, screenwriters and directors in the industry are–and more often than not, these people are white. This sends a message to viewers that minorities are less talented than their white counterparts and it fails to give a comprehensive representation of the American demographic. For almost all actors, receiving a nomination for an Academy Award is a huge career push. Many stars such as Jennifer Lawrence became household names simply because of Oscar nominations. Non-white actors who may be talented but fail to receive these crucial nominations are not privy to the career boost that their white counterparts receive.

It seems almost unfair that the board with the power to determine cinematic excellence in our culture comes from a group of people who are not wholly representative of our culture. What then makes a film with a racially diverse cast “excellent” in the eyes of the Academy?

Beyond the Oscars, the four movies with non-white male leads–12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Fruitvale Station–are all based on true stories. 12 Years tells the tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was captured and enslaved and wrote an autobiography by the same name; Mandela is self-explanatory; Fruitvale Station (which was snubbed at the major awards shows despite an avalanche of praise) centers on the 2009 death of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, handcuffed black man who was shot dead by a police officer in Oakland; The Butler draws its meat from the life of Eugene Allen, a black butler who worked for the White House for over three decades.

All four of these movies require having black lead actors and actresses. While all four movies are excellent and the stories of the people they are about are necessary and important, to move forward, Hollywood needs to start writing and casting characters of color differently. In effect, all the black actors and actresses must compete against other black actors and actresses for roles that are often explicitly about race. In Hollywood where roles for people of color are scarce, actors and actresses of color are in competition for work with one another more often than they are with their white counterparts. Hollywood fosters a community where black actors and actresses can legitimately argue that there is only so much room at the top. An influx of black actors and actresses trying to break into the film industry limits the roles available for current actors and actresses. Until writers and casting directors create more diverse roles, the competition for minority actors and actresses is, in actuality, a zero sum game.

While big roles for minorities in Hollywood are hard to come by, quality roles are even harder to find. More often than not, the roles available for minorities are roles that fail to challenge the actor or actress but also perpetuate stereotypes.  Black characters are more often than not play the roles of maids, butlers, prison inmates and drug dealers. Hardly ever do we see a black person playing the role of a politician, astronaut or a Wall Street banker. Hollywood writers must understand that minority actors and actresses are more than just the butlers, slaves, and criminals that they are forced to portray on television–and maybe, just maybe, in the next awards ceremony we will see minorities in roles written for talented actors and actresses, not just pigeonholed into playing a character based more so on their race than their talent.

Research Blog: SPARKing a Riot

by Marisa Ragonese

I’m pretty excited to be one of the research bloggers for SPARK, because in my universe SPARK and research are both amazing, and the combination is the amazingest. I’m also extra excited to contribute to SPARK in some small way because doing revolutionary work with girls and women is what keeps me going and has for a long time.  Because when I was younger, I was a riot grrrl.

And SPARK really reminds me of Riot Grrrl.

Let me explain in case you’re unfamiliar: Riot Grrrl was a movement of young feminists that grew out of their total disillusionment and

from the Riot Grrrl Zine Arcvhice at Fales Library, NYU

disgust with the “radical” punk scenes they were a part of. Despite all of punk’s liberation opportunities for world-weary white boys, these scenes were still places where young women were pushed to “play girl to some boy’s boy,” as the song goes[1]- to support their boyfriends’ bands and steer clear of the mosh pit; where girls were sexually harassed when they got on stage, and told to shut up about feminism and focus on humanism; where the norms of culture sounded like: “You know all of those experiences that a bunch of you girls have of being raped, molested, hating yourselves, being taught to hate other girls?  Pretend like all of that doesn’t matter, isn’t political, isn’t connected to the very unequal power dynamics between boys and girls inside your “progressive” communities. Now smile!” As you can imagine- and you probably don’t need to imagine it, unfortunately— it supersonic sucked, and finally some girls in the scene decided they had enough and weren’t going to follow that drummer’s noise.  They starting writing and trading feminist zines across the US about their experiences (these were homemade cut-and-paste magazines, pre-internet). And bam. (This is similar to how second wave feminism started, by the way- when women organizing in what was called the “political left” realized that they were still expected to serve coffee and shut up while men talked about the real revolution, and they were like Forget This Noise and bailed to organize on behalf of women.[2])

And so, following this cross-country networking through zines, in the early 1990’s some girls had a meeting in Olympia, Washington to discuss sexism in the punk scene in person- check out this article for a detailed account of how it all went down- and soon after that initial meeting Riot Grrrl stormed local punk scenes with a manifesto that called girls to action, a flurry of bands (a few of my favorites: the afore-mentioned Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Tattletale, Team Dresch, the Third Sex), and local activism that thousands of girls were a part of.  In addition to the activism and the music and the DIY media, we even had our own fashion aesthetic that sometimes looked like a creative repurposing of little girl gear like ABC hair clips and lots of pink crap, or a fresh rocking of the 50’s housewife look, or sometimes, to quote one of my old riot grrrl friends, like a prom queen who went through a meat grinder. (I found the fashion part of it so fascinating that I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. It was called, ahem, “Deconstructing the Feminist Aesthetic of Riot Grrrl”.)

But the fashion went beyond a snarky re-scrambling or an assassination of the mainstream. One of the most iconic image of Riot Grrrl is a snapshot of Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, the accidental and reluctant young mother of the movement, posing in a bikini top (no irony there) with “SLUT” written in sharpie across her stomach. She was and is still is the kind of feminist (check out The Julie Ruin) who was always a step ahead of most everyone else, and it wasn’t below her to beat boys to the chase and call herself a whore before they could say it. That’s when she wasn’t kicking all of the guys out of mosh pits at her band’s shows (boys to the back!), and explaining herself in interviews by telling people “I’m not going to sit around and be peace and love with somebody’s boot on my neck.” Dude, me NEITHER.

Riot Grrrl had its limits, like any movement. Some girls of color felt like it was a white girl thing in lots of places and in lots of ways. And I agree. Although all riot grrrls were not white, the face of Riot Grrrl was a white one, often resulting in mostly superficial critiques of and actions against racism from and within the movement. And feminism is a terrible place for any girl to be left out of, to be erased in, to feel oppressed by. Furthermore, some girls felt that Kathleen Hanna was, ironically, the unofficial elected leader of it all because of her conventional beauty and her willingness to sexualize herself.  I respect those takes on it.

Despite its shortcomings, Riot Grrrl helped to usher in third wave feminism in the midst of a backlash against women that was being fueled by the new incarnation of the right wing. And so much of that movement, from fashion to lyrics, had to deal with sexuality and sexualization. How could it not? We were girls. Talking about forced sexualization—talking about the ways and reasons that we experienced and resisted the big acts of sexual violence and all of the little acts of sexual violence, the catcalling and the stereotyping and the sidelining of our concerns and stories, even in the name of radicalism as decreed by radicaler-than-thou punk boys, had to be a huge part of all of it, because that was our reality. It was through all of the music, the actions, and yes, as I can attest to from my younger days, the fashion—that we were all finding a way to be sexual and express sexuality, however overloaded it was with anger, pleasure, sadness and pain- and embracing that contradiction was probably one of the most prominent and enduring pieces of Riot Grrrl.  It wasn’t easy to do this, and riot grrrls felt some heat from older feminists for it.

And then there’s SPARK.  Unlike Riot Grrrl, which was fueled largely by the experience-based indignation of girls (and stolen photocopies), SPARK is fueled by scientific knowledge about what’s wrong with the world and how best to fix it: evidence-based activism. SPARK girls are diverse–racially, economially, geographically–and understand that race, class, and sex all work together to support sexism. SPARK is intergenerational thing: feminist adults train and support girls who make up the SPARKteam, a group of 30 girls from the US, Canada, the UK, Indonesia and Singapore, and then those girls do activism that’s in line with SPARK’s dedication to ending forced sexualization.   Recently, the director of SPARK, Dana Edell, teamed up with the founders of SPARK, Lynn Brown and Deborah Tolman, to write an article called Embodying sexualisation: When theory meets practice in intergenerational feminist activism[3] so they could let feminist academics know about the activism SPARK does, and discuss the uniqueness of the movement.

And what would that be? Well, first of all, SPARK is a partnership between girls and adult women. By allowing different women and girls to be experts at different times, the adult feminists involved think that SPARK can be a partnership that is well-positioned to be effective and relevant to girls’ lives. But partnerships are often difficult–anyone who’s been in a relationship or an activist group knows that.  One time, a SPARK girl went on TV to talk about sexualization and the work that SPARK was doing to combat it, and she was wearing a short skirt. The adults worried a little that people watching wouldn’t hear what this girl was saying, because they would see this short skirt as proof that a SPARK activist was “sexualizing” herself–or even being sexual. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference.

And that’s another layer of difficulty to the organizing at SPARK.  It can be hard for girls to walk the fine line between owning themselves through their appearances and being/seeming owned, and just as hard for adult women to understand and support young women as they navigate that space. Because sexism, that beast, has found its way to feminism, so that now we’re hearing it in stereo in the form of “girl power!” that has nothing to do with the power of girls at all; we’re being sold a form of sexism that’s been repackaged as feminism, we’re only hearing about feminism from public figures who fulfill the requirements for what girls should look like, sound like, do and not do.  In most public channels, we only get to see women being sexual if they’re doing it in ways that have been pre-approved by the powers-that-be. I’m guessing you know how hard it can be to navigate through all of this and not leave pieces of yourself, including your feminism, behind. And academics–adults in general–often have the luxury of discussing the plights young people face and the choices they make without having to include their “subjects” in the conversation. Many feminists try hard not to do this because it’s just messed up and insulting and often leads them to not getting it right, it happens all the time.  Real people are messy in theory but even messier in reality, and it’s easier to leave them out a lot of the time. And so the adults at SPARK know how important it is–and how difficult it can be–to center the voices of girls in their academic conversations about what it means to be sexual, sexualized, oppressed, empowered.  They demonstrate that it can be done, and how important it is if they’re really going to be adult advocates speaking with girls instead of speaking for them. Because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference there too.

So yes, SPARK reminds me so much of Riot Grrrl because it’s an activist space for girls to connect with each other in deep ways across difference. And that’s so important, because I think it’s through these connections that we can explore the complexities of being sexualized and being sexual. From there, girls and women can address those complexities through activism that speaks to and through the diverse experiences and struggles of everyone involved. Which means that SPARK is the kind of space where girls and women can struggle with the challenges that a girl faces when attempting to express her humanity, including her sexuality, with dignity. Sometimes that means wearing a short skirt because that’s what you like while making a appearance on public TV (or writing SLUT on your stomach at your punk show) and delivering a brilliant feminist analysis using language that girls can understand.  Sometimes addressing these complexities takes a lot of voices saying a lot of different things in a lot of different time signatures. Influenced by and learning from everyone who came before them, I think SPARK is doing a pretty great job of taking girl activism to the next level, creating more and more spaces and opportunities for all kinds of girls to exist as full-fledged humans.

So, I’ve said enough. Your turn. What do you think? What does SPARK mean to you? If you’re not involved, what kind of feminist activism are you doing, or what kind of activism do you want to do, and why?

Share your story here, or with someone (anyone) because your story can be a lifeline, for real. It can be a roadmap for someone who feels completely alone, it can be a call to action that thousands of girls and women hear, and it can be a million points of connection in-between. I know this is true, because here I am, living in my trillion contradictions that I can tell you about some other time, and I wouldn’t be in this conversation if lots of other women and girls of all different stripes had not reached me from worlds away. I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be me if lots of other feminists did not continue to reach to me across differences and space and time, shaping my feminism and allowing me to shape theirs, and pushing me to do a better job. I know it makes me stronger and a lot has changed since my days with Riot Grrrl, but I still believe. After all these years, I still believe that girls and women can and will change the world if we listen to each other and work together, and we’re going to look and we’re going to feel a million kinds of fly doing it. I see it happening right now. So happy women’s history- HERstories- month to you.  Hope to see you in the streets.

[1]From Bikini Kill’s song Sugar: “I won’t play girl to your boy no more”

[2] Echols, A. (1989). Daring to be bad: Radical feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Vol. 3). U of Minnesota Press.

[3] Edell, D., Brown, L. M., & Tolman, D. (2013). Embodying sexualisation: When theory meets practice in intergenerational feminist activism. Feminist Theory, 14(3), 275-284.



As we mentioned last week, SPARK activists recently took the stage and the mic at the United Nation’s 58th Commission on the Status of Women. They talked about girls’ activism and why it’s so important for adults to listen to, and work with, girls on the ground. Here, SPARK girls Sam Holmes and Cheyenne Tobias share their UN experiences.

Sam Holmes:

On March 11, 2014, I had the opportunity to team up with the Working Group on Girls, SPARK, and other amazing organizations in order to share my voice at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women. I participated in a roundtable on sexualization. Initially I was nervous about the idea of sharing my experiences with UN employees. Sexualization is still one of those issues that tends to be discussed in a whisper. It’s pervasive, and it impacts girls everywhere. Yet, there is still so much taboo in pointing out such a major societal flaw. Even though sexualization has cast a shadow in my life for years, I initially struggled when I wrote my speech for the day. Censorship and euphemisms were so tempting. But as the white screen of my laptop stared at me, it inspired some newfound honesty. I began with a story:

I went shopping for a six year old cousin, and so many products featured pictures of super made-up women with really extravagant or revealing clothing. She is not even in first grade and she’s being bombarded with images of fairies in fishnets and pin-up princesses. She’s a child but these images are trying to push her into this culture of objectifying women’s bodies. Professor Sarah Murnen of Kenyon College found that America’s top 15 retailers use sexualized images in 30% of their ads for girls clothing.

Hesitancy gave way to passion as memories of anger, confusion, and oppression fought their way to forefront of my consciousness. Scores of offensive advertisements, sexist comments, degrading music lyrics, and countless microaggressions sprang from the mental cage that I had worked hard to force them into. Writing this speech was the closure that I needed. All of the words that I had swallowed for years were going to make their debut in a room full of unfamiliar allies. Knowing this, I continued with my honesty:

If you walk around the city I’m sure you’ll easily ten billboards that feature a highly retouched photo of a black woman in some ridiculous advertisement. Black, Latina and Asian women are sexualized for their “otherness” factor. The media tries to portray these women as exotic and exciting rarities rather than human beings. Women of color are deprived the right of being conventionally beautiful because that standard consists of being thin with blonde hair and blue eyes. We are placed in a separate category.

LGBT women are also victims of sexualization. In television shows, relationships with two women are often used as a plot line for the male protagonist to ogle at. Ads will use pictures of two women together to heightened sex appeal. In doing so, they are making an image that these relationships are sexual and something to gawk at, rather than legitimate, enduring love between two people.

By the end of the third paragraph, I felt a little drained. It’s a downside to activism. Repressed thoughts really take their toll when they’re all released at once. Finally, the speech entered a more optimistic plain as I typed the word SPARK. Reflecting on SPARK’s awesomeness brought both gratitude and sanity as I finished my piece. I had the opportunity to revisit the Seventeen Magazine Campaign, numerous petitions, and even the recent Google Doodles action.

I loved the finished product; I was able to share my personal struggles while shedding light on a serious issue. At the actual roundtable, the UN employees were incredibly responsive. Everyone came prepared with an inquiring mind and plenty of questions. There were young women who came forth to share their own stories as well as parents of young women who wanted to take a stand against sexualization.

In addition to speaking with these adults, I also loved meeting my SPARK sisters throughout the day. This was one of my first times meeting these amazing activists in person. I witnessed them all being passionate about the issues that impacted their lives. Eloquent and empowered, my SPARK sisters definitely left their mark on the CSW.

Cheyenne Tobias:

Going in, I didn’t exactly know what the CSW was, nor what the Millennium Development Goals were. As we got closer and closer to the event, I began to understand more about what the week of events was really about. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I had been in the past about speaking at a panel with the Working Group on Girls, mostly from having done it before, and also from now knowing the girls a little more. I went to several rehearsals and run-throughs and wrote and edited and rewrote and edited my speech over the course of 2-3 weeks leading up to the event.

The first event was the introductory day on Sunday, March 9th. All the girl delegates from all these different organizations piled into the auditorium and listened to and partook in various activities engaging us in the Millennium Development Goals. We first began with some exercises and skits guessing and getting a basic understanding of the MDGs, then we danced and took a break from sitting. We listened to the extraordinary Amina Mohammad and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speak. We broke for pizza and then came back to workshops where we were able to get to know some of the other people there (there were girls and boys there) and I finally got a detailed understanding of each of the MDGs.

I was especially struck by Amina J. Mohammad, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development, who stressed the importance of education in a girl’s life no matter what her circumstances. I found her extremely inspirational, eloquent and wise. She spoke with conviction and passion and was the most powerful force in the room, yet she relinquished the pedestal that often comes with such a presence and it was clear that she was giving it to us, and those around the world who strive for change. One thing she left us with that resonated was this: “Don’t just take what you’re fed, don’t just take your prescription, if you can do better, do better.”

At the MDG panel on Wednesday, March 12. I spoke about MDG #5: Maternal Health. My focus was on teen pregnancy in the United States. I spoke about the messages that I’ve received from my family and school, the importance of sex-education, opening the conversation about sex, and the vitality of prenatal care. It’s a cycle. It begins with the conflicting messages we are fed as children about motherhood and virginity. We internalize them and there grows the stigma behind women and girls and having sex. Because of the stigma we are not given all the information we need about sex because a common belief in America is that the best way to avoid problems is not to have sex at all. That isn’t realistic. Girls have sex and because of this cycle of misinformation may not know how to protect themselves correctly and then may not know how to seek prenatal care because of the shame that society puts of pregnant teens.

I was originally somewhat apprehensive about speaking about this topic because I didn’t realize how much I already knew. I’ve focused on and been so passionate about sexualization of girls and women in the media and about racism. But once I sat down and brainstormed and did a ton of research it was a clear path. I went to several run-throughs and everything went wonderfully. So well, in fact that at various points there were girls who came up to me here and there who had heard me speak before and had seemed inspired by what I had said and that was the best part of it all. The best feeling was to know that what I was saying was being heard. That my passion had come through and touched others and that they felt what I was saying and could relate. One girl came up to me after the MDG panel and expressed that she could completely level with what I said about sex-education and the stigma behind teens having sex. Honestly, it took a bit of restraint not to pick her up her and spin her, because all I could’ve hoped for was that there were girls who left learning and feeling like someone was speaking up for them and that they could speak up too!

I’m so happy to have had this experience, and hope to continue to be engaged with the Working Group on Girls.