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My Grandmother is my feminist inspiration

by Julia Bluhm

The suggestion for this blog came from Michael Dobson, also one of Virginia Bluhm’s grandchildren.

On August 26, 1971, New York City’s fifth avenue was flooded with over 50,000 woman participants in a nationwide strike for equality in politics, employment, and education. It was organized by Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, and consisted of many separate strikes in different parts of the country. While New York City’s event was certainly the biggest, including two 40-foot banners that were hung from the Statue of Liberty to advertise, the national event as a whole was “the largest protest for gender equality in U.S. History.” Somewhere in the massive crowd on fifth avenue was my grandmother, Virginia Bluhm, and her friend Arlene marching toward Bryant Park to hear speeches from Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzung.

My grandmother grew up in New York City, graduated from high school, got married and had two children without ever having gone to college, as was common for women during the 1950s and 60s. As my dad and aunt grew older, she enrolled in Hunter college and got a degree in sociology. She was in graduate school during the time of the 1971 protest, and earned her PhD in sociology soon after. This was an extremely impressive feat, since in 1970 only 11 percent of students who received doctorates were women. Women were discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees, because it was assumed that many would drop out to have children and start families. Ginny, my grandmother, completed hers while married and raising my dad and my aunt. Is she a superhero? Maybe. But mostly she is a smart, dedicated, hardworking woman who proved that you do not have to chose between being a mother or being educated and having a successful job, as many people thought at the time.

Not only did my grandmother graduate under such rare conditions, she had one of the coolest dissertations ever. She wrote several hundred pages on the role of women in minorities and television news broadcasting. There were very few female news anchors at the time, but she managed to interview a few of them for her paper. She had to keep their names anonymous in case it put their jobs in danger, and she still won’t tell anyone if she ever interviewed Barbara Walters.

After earning her degree and PhD, she worked as an adjunct professor of sociology in the Manhattan area. Later, she taught herself how to use computers and worked for the American Cancer society. The more I learn about my grandmother, the more I am amazed and, honestly, surprised. I always knew she was a great person, but I didn’t realize until recently how much she has done that relates to feminism.

As August 26th (Women’s Equality Day) approaches, let’s celebrate all the wonderful people, like my grandmother, who overcame odds and carried the feminist movement to where it is today. I love you, Grandma Ginny, for your warm hugs and thoughtful gifts, but also for the inspiration you have given me by being the dedicated, successful woman that you are.

 


We love Mindy Kaling, but not because of her body

by Ajaita Saini

Mindy Kaling is an Emmy nominated actress, comedian, producer, and writer. She’s most famous for her work as Kelly Kapoor on The

Mindy Kaling in Vogue

Office and Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project. However, she is also known for looking a lot different than most comedians and actors out there.

In an appearance on Jimmey Kimmel Live, she discussed the remarks she received after an interview with Vogue, where she said she’s “always trying to lose fifteen pounds. But I never need to be skinny. I don’t want to be skinny. I’m constantly in a state of self-improvement.” People cheered her on afterward with bizarre compliments, calling her courageous for not subscribing to the ideals of beauty.

Out of all things to call her a hero for–taking the role of a feminist protagonist on her show, best-selling books, being a role model to teenage girls everywhere, not to mention her work with Google’s Made with Code–she’s considered a hero for wearing a dress with her midriff showing. But honestly, revealing an inch of midriff doesn’t make Mindy Kaling a hero, it just makes her a normal woman who enjoys clothes like the rest of us. Why don’t other celebrities receive the same “praise”?

“It’s interesting to me that it’s considered revolutionary to not be a model and to be in love on a TV show” – Mindy Kaling

I personally adore Mindy Kaling. Not just because of the flood of relief I feel to see a South Indian actress on American television, but because of the fact that she’s accepting of who she is as a person and doesn’t hide the “imperfections” that make her a human.

I’m quite a chubby person myself. Cheeks that could belong to chipmunks, an obvious belly, and thighs that jiggle. Many times when I call myself chubby, my friends feel obliged to say “You’re perfectly thin! Stop undermining yourself!” Hold on–since when was I undermining myself? And since when was calling myself chubby equate to me being ugly?

It’s interesting to see how size has always set the standards for beauty. For the longest time, having a fuller, heavier body was preferred (because it was a sign of wealth), and not until recently have thinner, slim bodies been favored and encouraged. How did the social norm go from one notion to the complete opposite? I think that in the 21st century, the media has instilled the message that- hey if you’re a size 0, only then are you worthy to look good in that dress. Meanwhile, us sizes 10 and up should only be left with baggy, lackluster clothing until we’ve applied countless diets and pills to achieve some self- worth.

I always get asked, “Where do you get your confidence?” I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, “You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?” – Mindy Kaling

So where does that leave each of us in the eyes of everyone else? On one hand, we find ourselves trying to instill the idea that personality and capability are what matter, and that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge people based on appearance. On the other hand, we can’t help but  cheer when we see an “average” woman on screen. We find ourselves acknowledging the disparity of the situation and appreciative of the fact that we finally get to see a more realistic view of reality in our models and actors.

Rather than focusing entirely on the  difference of  women like Mindy—rather than calling them “body image heroes–we should celebrate the overall growing diversity of young women in the media. We’re in a time when in the media, practically all women look perfect- and were altered to look that way. We rejoice at seeing people on screen who look more “normal” than model-like because we’re tired of seeing people that have been recreated to look like something they’re not. The reason people like Mindy Kaling deserve to be seen as pioneers isn’t because they succeeded despite being “imperfect,” but they continue to increase diversity. She isn’t breaking barriers because she’s chubby, but simply because she doesn’t take anyone’s shit and is amazing at what she does.

Mindy Kaling is NOT a “body image hero,” because the label shouldn’t exist in the first place- all it does is praise a woman for getting out of bed and looking like herself. Mindy is a hero for being a successful actor, comedian, writer nonpareil. Above all, her tenacity, audacious drive, and unique flair makes her a role model to girls and a champion for aspiring women everywhere.

For THAT, Mindy Kaling, we salute you.

SPARK Summer Reading: Umbral gives girls in comics the adventure they need

by Madeleine Nesbitt

Umbral is a comic that very much depicts the hero’s adventure story– that of King Arthur, or perhaps Frodo Baggins. There’s magic, thievery, a kingdom at risk, and secrets galore. Any typical male adventure hero would fit into this environment, but, thanks to creators Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten, this comic isn’t a boy’s fantasy game. No, it belongs to Rascal, a somewhat paranoid teenage girl who specializes in thievery and stars in this series.

Rascal is special, and not just because she has suddenly come into possession of an object (called ‘the Umbral’) with enormous power. She’s an adventure heroine, on her own quest (even if she doesn’t know it’s hers yet), and frankly, that’s not something you see very often. In reading, you can see how her story mirrors countless legends following male protagonists; that of Arthur and Merlin strikes a particular chord. Rascal’s companion, Dalone, is an old wizard– though perhaps more unsavoury than Merlin ever was, it’s the same set-up. As a female adventurer, Rascal is not forced into the role of say, Morgana or Niniane, the vengeful women of the Arthurian legends. She does not have to seek revenge because she is granted the role of protagonist from the start.

Of course Rascal isn’t all good, and this, too, is part of her appeal. She doesn’t just snark at her elders (as every spunky, questing teenage girl must), she is also fleet-footed, clever, and one of the best criminals in the Thieves’ Guild. She’s a well rounded character who the reader can identify with: she might be street smart, but this weird (and highly illegal) magic stuff has got her a little confused.

There’s a lot you can ask for from comic-makers, but a well-rounded female protagonist is a pretty special thing in a world of hyper-sexualized superheroines. Superheroines of Marvel and DC ilk can be complicated and interesting characters, and I don’t mean to write them off, but because of the popularity of those comic publishers, the typical female superhero often caters to the male gaze.

Rascal isn’t like that. Umbral is not a particularly well-known comic, so the author and illustrator don’t have to cater to what is seen as the “typical” audience for comics: men. Rascal isn’t sexualized for the enjoyment of the stereotypical horny male comic reader. She instead kicks some serious butt in her long skirts, and happily shuts down creepy men with one of her suitably snarky comments (e.g. “[Y]ou’re not just barking up the wrong tree, you’re in the wrong bloody forest.”).

My favorite part of Rascal’s character, though, is that she really is designed for her readers, and especially for female readers.  In the third issue of the comic, Antony Johnston asked for more female input to the letters box, and in following issues, female readers pulled through (turns out most of them are just as in love with Rascal as I am). It was wonderful for the author to ask for female input for a comic following a female protagonist, not that there’s much to criticize about Rascal’s character.

Rascal is a fantastic comics character– one who is there for the reader, sure, but is liked not because she is sexualized, but because she is interesting and smart and makes you want to jump up and have an adventure involving weird glowing shadow monsters. I hope that she, along with other cool women in comics, will inspire more badass and multifaceted female characters and protagonists.

SPARK Summer Reading: The girl protagonist who inspired me to code

by Annemarie McDaniel

Growing up, I had always been plugged into the computer. I still love the baby photo of me where I’m hunched over my giant desktop screen before age 5, playing some educational CD-ROM game. I loved computers from a very young age, but I didn’t realize how much I creative I could be through them until I read the young adult fiction novel, Click Here: (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade) by Denise Vega.

Click Here is the story of 7th grader Erin Swift, who is learning how to balance friendship, romance, and bullies during her first year in middle school. Instead of writing in a diary to vent her thoughts and emotions about the daily pre-teen drama in her life, Erin codes her own private blog and uploads daily blog posts about her experiences in school. Erin’s mother is a professional web designer, and after teaching her daughter the basics, Erin decides to code for the school’s Intranet Club, building an internal website to launch over Thanksgiving break. Things go astray though when her Interact and private blog CD-ROMS are switched, and suddenly her personal website-journal becomes publicized to the whole school, and Erin learns the hard way how to mend broken friendships and hurt feelings.

When I read Click Here, I was at the same stage of my life as the protagonist: just entering middle school and finding myself lost as an old friend faded and new bullies emerged. It was the first moment I had ever heard of computer coding. I didn’t think of coding as a “boy” or “girl” hobby, because I didn’t know any other coders at the time. I hadn’t learned the gender gap in STEM yet; to me, it just felt like I was being a hipster, taking the geeky track no one else went down. I loved the idea of building my own digital universe. Eventually, I found the first outlet for my website design: Neopets. Neopets (throwback!) is a website where preteens could adopt imaginary pets called “Neopets,” play puzzles or games, make friends in the forums, and even create mini websites or “guilds” as they called them. After reading Click Here and seeing artistic guild layouts online, I set out to learn how to work Adobe Photoshop and code HTML/CSS. I still remember the first time I messaged someone about how to create the graphic they used on their profile; they emailed me back with a copy of their code and link to learning more.

I also started my own blog, in which I wrote down my own thoughts on middle school, just like Erin. I learned a similar hard lesson as her too. I kept mine not private so I could talk to other pre-teen book lovers, and my blog ended up being discovered by two friends. They then created their own account under a fake name, and created this perfect person for me to befriend, who had everything I ever wanted in life. It was my fault it ever happened, I might’ve shown my blog to my friends once, and looking back, I wrote as such a know-it-all, thinking I was better than others. It worked out fine in the end; I didn’t find out until many years later when we could all just laugh at our middle school selves. And honestly, despite that first bad blog, I’m so glad I started it. Once I began writing online, I couldn’t stop, and created a private writing account on Writing.Com, in which I wrote short stories, poems, novel drafts, and yes, blogs, about my middle school experiences.

It’s weird for me to look back now and think about how the book so greatly shaped my life, since two career paths I love, the digital arts and writing, stemmed from a single character. I get paid to do both now, I work at my college as a graphic designer and coder, and I write for non-profit blogs like SPARK. But even looking beyond Erin’s awesome computer skills, she served as a friend for me. We were both struggling through that first year of middle school, going through bullies (Erin gets called “Pinocchio” and students play puppet-themed practical jokes on her) and heartbreaks and lost friends. It’s comforting to read how you’re not alone and know that it has a happy ending. Erin is not necessarily a perfect role model; she makes mistake after mistake throughout the novel. But that’s the great thing about Erin, she feels relatable because of her flaws, and her personal growth almost feels like your personal growth.

Click Here is a throwback, to be sure (published in 2005), but despite the story’s technology being a little out of date, the characters’ successes and struggles are timeless.

SPARK Summer Reading: Who’s your fave female protagonist?

by Georgia Luckhurst

This summer, we wanted to  celebrate the female protagonists who truly stood out for us as the most kickass, daring, courageous, and admirable. In this week’s Summer Reading series, SPARKteam activists will be discussing those heroines who matter so much to them personally – and why they should matter to you, too.  

Although nowadays I read any and every book I can get my hands on, there was a time when I was a more reluctant reader. These were the days before I’d immersed myself in the world of Harry Potter, or devoured everything Noel Streatfeild ever wrote. I could’ve picked a number of heroines I’ve adored and admired, from Molly Weasley of Harry Potter fame, to Phoebe Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye. In the end, though, I had to pick the character who’d catapulted me into my current identity as a bookworm, from the less well-known children’s book, I, Coriander.

At first description, I, Coriander, by British author Sally Gardner, doesn’t much sound like a children’s story. Set in the seventeenth century, the book takes the ingredients of a traditional fairytale – elements we’ve all been endlessly regaled with, of stepparents, alternate worlds, and magic – and cooks up something wholly different to what we’d expect. The book stuck with me, and to this day it’s one of my favorites.

Starting sleepily, the story begins by painting the cozy, comfortable reality of Coriander’s life. A young girl living in 1650s London is an existence very different to our own, but Coriander’s life is not wholly unrecognizable: her parents are caring and seemingly dependable, and she leads an apparently idyllic and sheltered life. The only obvious tension comes in the form of beautifully embroidered shoes, silvery and with a peculiar pull Coriander cannot resist. A present from an anonymous benefactor, the shoes cause great concern, and her parents have harried, quiet discussions about Coriander’s right to own them, even locking them away for her own good – a precaution she not only doesn’t understand, but resents.

Her mother, a woman with a vast knowledge of herbal medicine, cares for women in the town not only in terms of health but as someone to whom they can talk and rely on. Her study is filled with concoctions Coriander is careful not to touch, and the house adorned with artifacts she won’t explain: a stuffed crocodile, a huge trunk. Eventually, despite her agonizing fears over them, she allows Coriander the mysterious silver shoes – and shortly thereafter dies.

From that short a description, the book doesn’t sound all that fascinating. The idea of dangerous footwear is pretty ridiculous, and Coriander, as of yet, hasn’t really been established as anyone’s idea of an inspiration – all she’s done so far has been to wheedle her parents into rewarding her with an item causing utterly inexplicable consternation.  But it’s in the next segment of the book that Coriander becomes a true heroine, as her father remarries and she gains not only a stepmother but a stepsister.

Often, children’s books are afraid to confront serious issues, or if they do, they don’t tackle them sensitively or in a way that presents the whole truth of the matter. I, Coriander features an account of horrible mistreatment Coriander is subjected to at the hands of her stepparent, so soon after her mother’s death. Her father, a shadow of his former self, fails to prevent it, and is eventually sent to prison for heresy, a result of his new wife’s religious fanaticism. Again, not an easygoing topic for a children’s book, and compounded by the arrival of an evil preacher who moves in to the house ostensibly to aid Coriander’s stepmother, but soon begins to enact his idea of morality, ordering Coriander’s long hair to be cut off as punishment for her supposed vanity and tearing apart the beautiful bedroom her mother had painted for her in better days. Throughout it all, Coriander’s defiance and strength never wavers, even as she attempts to support the stepsister she has come to love, Esther, who fears nothing more than her abhorrent mother.

The situation’s fragile existence shatters when Coriander’s attempt at rebelling results in her being locked in the long, heavy trunk that remains of her parents’ furniture, and is left there to die.

Yet she survives, for three whole years.

In that trunk, time becomes a fluid thing as Coriander is dropped into the world the trunk knows best, the world of her mother’s past life. Finding herself in a fairy kingdom, wrapped in the throes of a noble wedding, Coriander has to learn that this ethereal universe isn’t as picture-perfect as the grand marital ceremony makes it seem; everyone is petrified by the Queen Rosemore, and people seem to recognize her, and implicitly know of her purpose (even while she’s left in the dark). It’s time for Coriander to learn about her beloved mother’s real identity, the story of her parents’ first meeting, and, finally: where those silver shoes that so enthralled her came from.

I was never one for fantasy novels, but something about this story reeled me in: its main character. To many of the characters, Coriander is not easily likeable, she’s divisive. But she’s one of the most complex female characters I’ve been introduced to, her tenacity switching in a moment to inward reflection, her craving for knowledge and honesty infectious, and her kindness and humanity not gentle but as passionate as ever: she is fiercely defensive of the small group of friends she considers family, and even the boy with whom she falls in love doesn’t seem a cheap plot device – she sacrifices her wish, to be with Tycho, the prince, to do what is just, which is undeniably awesome. Yes, this is a book intended for children, but it is dark, and heavy, and I defy anyone not to just about fall in love with its protagonist.

Research Blog: How does our approach to exercise affect our relationships with our bodies?

by Stephanie M. Anderson

I am not a runner – or at least I wasn’t. I grew up hating running for all of the obvious reasons: panting, chafing, blisters, short shorts. Frankly, I would have rather spent an hour at the dentist than run 2 miles. So when I completed the New York City Half Marathon this past spring, I was elated and honestly amazed that my body even had the capacity to run that far. I also felt more connected to my body than ever before.

Yet, one of the first comments a friend said to me after the race was, “Wow, you just burnt so many calories – you get to eat whatever you want today!”

Huh? I just pushed my body beyond its limits and she’s impressed with my burnt calorie count? I didn’t sign up for the race so I would lose weight (in fact, a number of people who train for marathons gain weight). I trained because I wanted a challenge, to experience what some have called the runner’s high, and to see if I could finally make peace with my ultimate nemesis, running.

But her comment got me thinking. Why do most women and girls run?

Look at any magazine stand and the fitness goals sold to female runners would tell you its about visible changes to our bodies: “Get Great Legs!” “Slim Down Shortcuts (‘tis the Season to Get Sexy!)”, “Look Hot, Stay Cool.” These taglines more often than not surround a picture of a woman mid-stride with her long hair flowing behind her, chiseled abs glistening, and an ear-to-ear smile. Tyranny of the thigh gap, anyone? Even if I had long hair, I certainly wouldn’t run with it DOWN, let alone wearing underwear-length spandex shorts. And who smiles when they run? I more often look like Shrek fighting his way to rescue Princess Fiona, while trying to ignore Donkey’s never-ending commentary. The point is that the images available to us communicate that running – and exercise more generally – is about changing how our bodies look, not about changing how we feel in them or what they are capable of accomplishing.

If so many of us exercise as a means to change how our bodies look, how does this affect our relationship to our bodies? We’ve discussed in many blogs that women often self-objectify, or come to see their bodies as objects, when they look at themselves from the outside. Research shows that self-objectification is bad for us: women who self-objectify are less satisfied with their bodies, have lower self-esteem, and have more symptoms of disordered eating. If we think about exercise as a project in which we seek to conquer, tear down, and rebuild our bodies, do we end up seeing ourselves as objects? If so, how does thinking this way shape our experiences with exercise more generally?

Researchers Ivanka Prichard and Marika Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know how self-objectification was related not only to the activities we choose to do (i.e., aerobic classes, weight training, yoga), but also to the actual reasons we exercise.  Do women who do aerobic exercise, like cardio training, self-objectify more than women who do more holistic forms of exercise, like yoga? Does it matter why women choose to exercise? For example, if women exercise to lose weight, do they self-objectify more than women who exercise to feel good in their bodies?

To answer their questions, these researchers asked 571 Australian women to complete a questionnaire about their participation at fitness centers. These women answered questions about the types of exercise they do, their reasons for exercising, and also completed a self-objectification scale.

What did they find? Perhaps not surprisingly, Prichard and Tiggemann found that women who spend more time doing cardio-based exercises tend to self-objectify more than women who spend more time in yoga-based exercises. However, they found that these relationships depended on the women’s motivations for exercising. So, women doing cardio self-objectified more only when they exercised to lose weight, get toned, or improve their attractiveness. Women who had more holistic reasons to exercise (i.e., to feel good in their bodies or be healthy), self-objectified less, regardless of their exercise activity.

What does this mean? Well, first it means that some activities may focus our attention more on our appearance than others (i.e., cardio compared to yoga), which can in turn cause us to self-objectify. However, how we think about exercise is really important. Instead of focusing on how many calories we burn or inches we lose from exercising, we should try to focus more on what our bodies are capable of and how we feel in our bodies once they’re in motion. Trying bench press for the first time, mastering that new swim stroke, or playing soccer with friends can make us feel really good. Exercise doesn’t have to be something we feel we should do so that our bodies can look a certain way; it should be something we want to do because it’s fun and enjoyable.

I just did the crazy thing of signing up for a marathon (yep, a full one this time). My goal is to embrace my body along the journey. It is going to hurt and the training will definitely be hard. My muscles may burn and my joints may scream, but deep in my pounding heart I know that for me, running is not about winning a race to a perfect body; it’s not about being “allowed” to eat a bigger lunch. As I stride toward the finish line, I want to really and truly feel my body in action. I want to feel the pride of an athlete who has really tested what her body is capable of – not what her body looks like. Because after all, being connected to my body isn’t a look, it’s a feeling.


[1] Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of sport and exercise9(6), 855-866.