Happy Holidays & Troubling Traditions

This blog was originally posted by MissRepresentation.org on December 10, 2012. 

by Rachel Grate

“The depressing thing about the Christmas season – isn’t it? – is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice… They all – religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy – line up with each other so neatly once a year.” – Eve Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”

Christmas is a powerful force. As soon as Halloween ends, the commercials conquer TV and the songs invade radio. Come December, newscasters begin to frame each story in what Sedgwick calls “the Christmas question”: will the soldiers be home in time for Christmas? State-run schools and businesses get Christmas off – but no vacation time is dedicated to Hanukkah or other religions.

I’m not trying to be the Grinch–I love Christmas. It can be a comforting holiday, a celebration of one’s religion or family, but both religion and family are defined very narrowly in the holiday season. Unfortunately, Christmas songs, advertisements, and traditions are unavoidable and are often entrenched in stereotypical gender roles.

Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe was regarded as a sexual symbol with fertility powers before Christianity, and like the date of Christmas itself, the church adapted preexisting Pagan customs to facilitate conversion.

According to The Holiday Spot, during the eighteenth century “at Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed…If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year.”

Thankfully, women nowadays have the option to refuse unwanted advances, but avoiding mistletoe at holiday parties can still be an exhausting experience.

This is not to say that a moment under mistletoe with one’s significant other can’t be romantic. But it can be important to remind ourselves of the historical creation of these traditions, especially for those in non-traditional relationships that are often marginalized during the Christmas season.

After all, the pressure to find the perfect gift from Santa (or to fit the cheery holiday narrative) can be at least partially alleviated by the knowledge that an American cartoonist designed the modern rosy-cheeked, round-bellied Santa in the 19th century. These traditions may be comforting, but the moment they become stressful, it is key to remember that they were created – and they are optional.

The modern day illustration of Santa was first drawn in 1865 by cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Perhaps the best demonstration of Christmas’s somewhat arbitrary influence is its effect on the traditions of other cultures. Hanukkah is held up as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but this isn’t historically accurate. In Israel, Hanukkah isn’t celebrated as heavily as in the United States, because it is no more important than other Jewish holidays.

A study published in the Economic Journal in 2011 titled “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” reported in its abstract that in America, “Jewish-related expenditures in Hanukkah are higher in countries with lower share of Jews. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that Jews increase religious activity during Hanukkah because of the presence of Christmas … Jewish parents in the U.S. celebrate Hanukkah more intensively so their children do not feel left out.”

This holiday season, don’t be afraid to make your own traditions, or rejuvenate the ones you’re surrounded by. Why not hug under mistletoe, or simply exchange compliments? If expensive holiday gifts are wearing down your budget, suggest a White Elephant gift game with friends.

My favorite part of the holidays are the simplest: Going into the mountains and cutting down my own tree, baking pumpkin pies with my father, going to the empty movie theater on Christmas Eve. These aren’t reliant on a pre-defined idea of family or home, but they are what define the holiday season for me.

Throughout this blog series, I’ll be taking a closer look at the Christmas media that define the holidays from a place of privilege. Now that we’ve covered the historical context, in the next few days I’ll walk you through holiday media: songs and advertisements that reinforce gender roles. And we’ll finish things off on a cheery note, with #MediaWeLike gift guide.

Together, we can make sure this holiday season remains happy.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn.

In Defense of Taylor Swift

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on October 23, 2012.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Taylor Swift recently. Not only is her new CD “Red” out this week, but I also go to a college in a consortium with Harvey Mudd College, who recently won Swift’s “Taylor Swift on Campus” contest. So last Monday night I was in the fourth row of her concert, for free. And it was incredible. In addition to getting a ridiculous amount of free stuff from her sponsors, the concert itself – Taylor Swift’s performance and oft-critiqued live singing – were great.


Taylor Swift at Harvey Mudd College on October 15.

But the sentiment was not so united in my Gender & Women’s Studies class. One girl expressed her desire that the campus-wide Humans vs. Zombies competition hadn’t ended the week earlier so that zombies could rush the stage. I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift since “Tim McGraw” first came out while I was in 8th grade, and I knew the words to every single song she sang at the concert, but feminism is integral to my identity. I needed to understand the hate.

So I did my research. And I wasn’t convinced.

The Taylor Swift criticisms I read all seemed to rely on distinguishing “Taylor Swift the product” from “Taylor Swift the person” (Jezebel). Or, as Salon phrased it, “Taylor Swift, lyricist, vs. Taylor Swift, public figure.” According to them, Swift’s business success is the most compelling pro-Swift argument, but her lyrics hold her back.

The thing is, you can’t separate two halves of a person. Taylor Swift the businesswoman is the same Taylor Swift writing and performing love songs. When young girls hang posters of her in the room, they aren’t distinguishing between the two – so neither should we in figuring out what her impact on them is.

Since Swift’s business savvy is generally accepted as a good model, I’ll delve into the criticism of her lyrics – most of which relies on claiming they reinforce a virgin-whore dichotomy.

First of all, since I don’t think you can separate the person from the artist, I feel the need to point out that Swift is one of the few teen stars recently who resisted the purity ring trend. In fact, as public as Swift is about her relationships, she’s kept her sexuality private and never implied any judgment about sexuality. Even her ex, Joe Jonas, followed the purity ring trend. Admittedly, the song she wrote about that breakup is problematic. “Better than Revenge” claims that his new girlfriend is an actress but “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”

I can’t deny that this song relies on criticizing another woman for her choices, sexual and otherwise. But I also can’t deny that I listened to it on repeat when my boyfriend dumped me for someone else in high school. Was that girl a slut? No. Was she the one I should have been mad at? No. But I was, and so was Swift.

That doesn’t excuse the girl-on-girl rivalry that this song sets up, nor the slut-shaming in it, but just as with all feminist works, it’s important to keep in mind the specific historical context. And the context of being dumped for someone else doesn’t often lead to being level-headed.

I concede the virgin-whore dichotomy in that song, but I haven’t been swayed by any other songs. An oft-criticized song is “Fifteen,” in which Swift’s friend “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried.” A critic on Astrostraddle responds by saying, “I’ll spare you the time of listening to the song and give it to you straight: Abigail had sex with a boy, and later they broke up. That’s right. No marriage. She gave him all she had. That’s right. All Abigail had was her hymen.”

The issue is, without listening to the whole song you’re not getting all the context. The phrase “giving it all up” is common to refer to giving one’s virginity, and while I agree that the diction surrounding a woman’s first time is generally sexist and demeaning (“losing it” implies a loss, rather than a gain), Swift did not create this diction. She’s just using it. Swift doesn’t even specify that “everything she had” is sex – it’s the reader, the critic, imposing our expectations of this sexist diction on the song. Everything she had could have been her heart, or too much of her time.

But, granted that it likely means sex, it must be pointed out that Swift never mentioned marriage. She never said Abigail should have waited til she was older and married, she just said she chose the wrong guy. And Swift doesn’t shun Abigail for her choice, instead they simply cry together and take it as a growing experience. The song is hardly a lecture on abstinence – it’s a story of growing up, which includes mistakes of all sorts.

The other song I’ve seen heavily criticized for a virgin-whore dichotomy is “You Belong with Me,” in which Swift positions herself against a cheerleader who wears “short skirts.” I’m not a fan of the girl-on-girl rivalry created by this song, but as Notes on Pop Culture writes in response to a post by Bitch magazine, “Sady [Doyle] calls the comparison between the two girls ‘girl-on-girl sexism”. What Sady forgets is that this is what people do. That is what girls do, that is what teenage girls do, this is what girls do when another girl has the guy they like. It’s tame, and pretty damn fair.”

There’s also something to be said for the fact that Swift plays herself and her rival in the music video, which provides at least a visual deconstruction of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Notes on Pop Culture concludes that the biggest issue with the Swift criticism is “reading the music from a very adult perspective, completely forgetting that Taylor is singing from a teenage girl’s perspective TO teenage girls.”

As a teenage girl (for one more year, at least!) I agree. Swift’s songs helped give voice to my experiences in love, and otherwise. (Contrary to popular belief, not all of her songs are about romance – check out “The Best Day,” one of my personal favorites, or “Never Grow Up,” “Safe and Sound,” “Ronan,” “Change” and “The Outside.”) It is a privileged experience, to be sure, but that doesn’t call for its dismissal.

This categorization of all of her songs as love songs (which Swift actually made fun of herself for at the concert I saw) is an oversimplification. Astrostraddle wrote that Taylor Swift, “according to her lyrics, has spent her entire life waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets.” While “Love Song” and “Begin Again” and others are about wanting boys, as I’ve pointed out, Swift does write about more. Furthermore, songs of hers like “White Horse” and “Should’ve Said No” aren’t about waiting around for a man, they’re about taking back your life and rejecting the fairy tale ending for your own sake. (In “White Horse”, Swift writes that “I had so many dreams about you and me / Happy endings, now I know / That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale.”)

That’s what Taylor Swift does. She writes about her dreams in love, but she also writes about moving on and becoming a stronger person for it. A stronger woman. Even Sady Doyle (who wrote the Bitch article “Taylor Swift Wants to Ban Access to Your Lady Bits”) admits, Swift describes “women being suitors, not desired objects.” Women may be set against each other to get the guy, but they’re not passive in the experience – Swift isn’t spending her life “waiting for phone calls and dreaming about horses and sunsets,” as has been argued, but she’s out there making her dreams happen. In her lyrics and in real life.

I’m not arguing that Swift is a feminist. Her songs clearly aren’t written with issues of equality in mind. But calling her “a feminist’s nightmare” seems ridiculous in an age when Lil Wayne posted the picture below on his Facebook with the caption “That dick made them rest in peace, I got a bunch of dead hoes!”

I’m also not saying that this means it’s not worth criticizing Swift’s lyrics. Sexist rap or pop songs haven’t stopped me from taking a closer look at their lyrics in the past, and this look is valuable to raise awareness. But separating Swift into two parts to tear one apart – without having to take responsibility for the fact that in doing so you’re also tearing down a successful woman – isn’t the way to go about constructive criticism.

What is important here is perspective, and reality. I love Swift because as generic as they are, her songs have given voice to my emotions throughout my teenage years. I may not have a guitar, but plenty of tears were shed in high school to “Teardrops on my Guitar.” And, in one aspect, isn’t Swift giving voice to the lived experience of women, a goal of feminism?

I’m not dismissing the criticism that’s been done, or its value. But I do respectfully disagree with the simplification of the emotions and situations Swift describes into a “virgin-whore dichotomy.” I propose in the future we deal with Swift as a complex individual rather than dividing her into parts, which seems to be a disclaimer so that we can criticize another woman without guilt. I for one refuse to believe that a successful woman could ever be “A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare.”

Rachel Grate is an Editorial Intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn or read more of her work on her blog.

Facing the Fiction of the “Freshman Fifteen”

This post was originally published by MissRepresentation.org on August 1, 2012.

By Rachel Grate

We’re only weeks away from a rush of new college freshman struggling to condense their entire room into a dorm-sized pack, taking their first nervous steps on campus without parents and meeting their roommates. As a result, stores are filling up with packing check lists, parents are freaking out and many students are – worrying about impending weight gain?

As out of place as that statement seems, it’s true. I was there just one short year ago, when every teen magazine I bought, like Seventeen, promised to help me “figure out what college is like – before you even get there!”

Unfortunately, instead of making me more confident about the upcoming transition, flipping through the magazine just made me more anxious about the adjustment I’d have to make and about the most damaging of irrelevant worries, my weight. (I wouldn’t have been surprised by this inverse effect if I’d know what the Keep It Real campaign has since brought to my attention – that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.)

The “Freshman Fifteen”. Friends had joked about the weight gain, but I had never seriously worried about the weight gain until being bombarded with articles that referred to it as inevitable, “dreaded”, something you must “fight”, “fear” and “beat”. I mentally mapped out my battle plan, with circles over the gym and the dining hall’s salad bar.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t follow the prescribed diet once arriving at school. Instead, I fell into my old routine: running every other day and enjoying the fresh-baked cookies at dinner. Yet, surprisingly, I finished the year the exact same weight as I started it, as did most of my friends. So I decided to do some research, and found out that this result wasn’t as surprising as I’d thought. The average college freshman gains a healthy 2.5-3.5 pounds for normal body development, the 2011 study “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth?” found.

The “Freshman Fifteen” rhetoric which frames all weight gain negatively has a lasting effect on girls’ self-esteem and perception of health.

Finally, some numbers that made sense – a lot more sense than the theory that I’d magically gain fifteen pounds unless I made the drastic changes magazines suggested. Unfortunately, in my research I stumbled on another statistic that was all too believable: since 2000, the number of college students dieting, vomiting or taking laxatives to lose weight has jumped from about 28 to 38%(American College Health Association). College challenges students with stresses without their old support system, which often triggers eating disorders. So why aren’t these numbers being reported, rather than the mythical “Freshman Fifteen”?

Suddenly, I realized that was only half the question. What I now wanted to know was, could one of the reasons these numbers are so high be because of the over reporting of the “Freshman Fifteen”?

After reading ten articles about the “Freshman Fifteen” in magazines aimed at teens as part of a self-designed research project, the answer seemed to be yes.

Only four of the ten articles I read acknowledged the fact that the “Freshman Fifteen” weight gain isn’t real. Two of those articles were from CosmoGirl!, a magazine that has since been discontinued and its subscribers transferred to Seventeen. Seventeen, the very magazine that coined the term “Freshman Fifteen” in 1989.

Even the articles (like this one from Cosmopolitan) that did admit that the Freshman Fifteen wasn’t real still dedicated themselves to making readers fear any sign of weight gain. They all adoptedweight-shaming diction, calling the Freshman Fifteen a “pitfall”, “nerve-racking”, “unhealthy”, “scary” and “dreaded”; something to “fear”, “beat”, “avoid” and “fight” because if not, “Eek!” There was not one single word used to describe any sort of weight gain as something natural (much less positive) at this stage in one’s life.

Moreover, despite the framing of the “Freshman Fifteen” as a health issue, only two doctors were consulted across all the articles I read. The other health “experts”? Personal trainers, dieticians, and overwhelmingly, college students sharing anecdotes about weight gain. One student was considered an expert because she had written a book called “The Dorm Room Diet”, and the magazines emphasized her two sources of knowledge for the book: she lost ten pounds her freshman year. People magazine introduced her disturbingly competitive rhetoric, asking “Don’t you just hate her?”

(By the way, if you were wondering what the teen’s advice is that she filled a book with, People gave a lovely sample of a few of her tips, including such jewels as recommending you drink “Perrier – the bubbles will fill you up.” The phrase sounded more like it belonged on a pro-ana website than in an article claiming to focus on health.)

Even magazines dedicated to teen athletics, such as Dance Spirit, printed articles such as “Avoid the Dreaded Freshman Fifteen” with the subtitle “Hoping to keep your rockin’ bod after orientation? Here’s how.” This rhetoric (even more blunt in articles from the more mainstream magazines) forces a false connection between appearance and health and encourages fat shaming. Outward appearance and weight are not indicators of one’s health – even the BMI method is flawed.


The media rhetoric surrounding the “Freshman Fifteen” has even infiltrated medical sources, as illustrated by this image fromteenhealth.org.

In some cases, it is true that students experience unhealthy weight gain in college. But this does not validate the media’s fat-shaming campaign under the guise of warning readers of the Freshman Fifteen. In fact, this weight gain may be a result of the media’s confusion between health and appearance: freshman’s dietary restraint is linked to the development of disordered eating but did not prevent students from gaining weight. (“Weight Gain, Dietary Restraint, and Disordered Eating in the Freshman Year of College” by Eating Behaviors, 2008.)

In other words, all the media hype about the Freshman Fifteen? Great for disordered eating, but it doesn’t do anything to actually combat unhealthy weight gain.

Not so surprisingly, very few of the articles I studied discussed health as a concept distinctive from appearance. The photos accompanying the articles, instead of illustrating the healthy habits they supposedly encourage, featured skinny girls smiling at the gym.(The examples below are from online articles from Seventeen and Teen Vogue.)

Since the magazine industry isn’t taking responsibility for misleading its readers, it’s time we set the record straight. Call out the fat shaming in magazines using MissRepresentation.org’s #KeepItReal campaign. Tell your college-aged friends and family to stop stressing about weight. Spread the facts and call out the fictions in magazines. After all, college is a time for learning, and there’s no better way to start than by educating yourself about your own health.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Rachel read recent print and online articles fromDance SpiritTeen VogueCosmopolitanCosmoGirl!Seventeen, and People for her research project. Read more of her work on her blog or connect with her via LinkedIn for more information about her research.

Selling “Girl Power” Short

Originally published by MissRepresentation.org on July 20, 2012. 

The phrase “Girl Power” appears in my mind bedazzled and engraved on a background of pink glittery flowers. I don’t know why, and I don’t know when it started, but a simple Google image search proves that this isn’t my own exclusive creation.


Yet, “Girl Power” isn’t a phrase I think of often. As a feminist, one would imagine the phrase would resonate with me, but some of the previously mentioned connotations had scared me off the term completely. It wasn’t until recently that I was reminded of its existence, from a most unlikely source: aCrystal Light Energy commercial.

If you haven’t seen it, the ad (above) features two women talking when one of them pulls out a drink which she describes as “new Crystal Light Energyfor women.”

My negative response to that statement matched her friends critical “Yeah right, ‘cuz we can’t have a guy’s energy drink.” I appreciated the (likely intentional) poke at Dr. Pepper’s attempt to advertise theirDr. Pepper “10″ drink as “not for women.” However, two wrongs don’t make a right, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this ad fell securely in the “wrong” category.

My intuition was accurate, as her doubtful friend is soon proved wrong in her criticism of the “girly” drink when her purse is stolen and her friend saves the day. The Crystal Light drinker chases the two thieves on their motorcycle through the city and into a desert, where she grabs back the purse and a narrator proudly explains that the drink is “Girl power to go.”

At this statement, the two men run away terrified, and I realized my problem with the ad. Girl power is shown as the worst fear of these idiotic men, placing feminism in a dichotomy against male integrity. But feminism – and true girl power – isn’t about putting men down, it’s about pulling women up until we’re all on the same level.

Beyond the polarizing gender divisions the commercial promotes, lies another problem: the commercial, under all its pretense of girl power, is for a diet drink. Part of the estimated $61 billion dollar industry designed to make both genders (though more often women) feel inferior – not empowered.

In the past few weeks, MissRepresentation.org has focused on the magazine industry’s creation of unhealthy body ideals for women in our #KeepItReal campaign. What we didn’t explore as closely, however, is that this Photoshop “industry standard” exists because of close ties between magazines and the advertisement industry.

One example of this link (that Naomi Wolf discusses in The Beauty Myth) is a prominent women magazine that lost one of their biggest advertisers, Clairol hair color company, after they featured gray-haired models in a fashion spread. The magazine never again positively portrayed gray-haired women. The same scenario plays out on an even larger scale with the diet industry.

So it struck me as a bit suspicious when I realized that the only other place I had heard the phrase “Girl Power” recently was in – you guessed it – magazines. Magazines filled with instructions on how to do our hair or “tighten our abs” or “get a guy”, because sexual power seems to be the only kind of girl power that matters. Or at least that’s the message I’ve been getting.

For instance, look at the portrayal of female Olympic athletes in major magazines. As Jezebeldiscussed, the Vogue spread “Wonder Women: Team USA’s Female Olympic Athletes” rarely portrayed the women athletically. Instead, the athletes were sexualized, mostly dressed in suggestive clothing unrelated to their sport. Soccer player Sydney Leroux (below) didn’t even have her face shown in her shot.

Despite their obvious physical power, the only “Girl Power” these women are portrayed as possessing is sexual. In contrast, the male athletes were shown doing their sports, often with female models as props.

The lack of consideration for other types of female empowerment reminded me of the recent Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercials, in which she declared that “Before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.” Despite all of her achievements – American Idol, winning an Academy Award – without the sexual power of the “perfect” body, she had achieved nothing. (At least, that’s the disturbing undertone that critics protested, causing a new release of the ad that changed the line to “When it came to losing weight before Weight Watchers, my world was can’t.”)

This distorted view of girl power starts young. A line of power girl action figures from Mattel features provocatively dressed women with large breasts. The female superhero’s physical strength is implied, but they still can’t fight fully dressed.


From the toys kids play with to the bodies women strive for, “Girl Power” has become a packaged good, sexualized and sold to us from birth under the guise of feminism. The phrase has been so diluted (and bedazzled) that the only “power” it leaves girls with is the “power” to diet, or the “power” to conform to the degrading images society sells us. The problem is, girl power – or empowerment of any sort – isn’t something that can be bought. Empowerment is something that must be lived, and we can all start living by #NotBuyingIt and calling out these advertiser’s lies.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

That Time Of The Month: An Excuse For Sexism All The Time

Originally posted on July 13, 2012 on MissRepresentation.org.

by Rachel Grate

“What’s the difference between a Woman with PMS and a Pit Bull?
Lipstick.” – Jokes4Us.com

This is for every woman who, whether assertively stating an opinion or adamantly disagreeing with someone or showing the least bit of emotion or…well, really doing anything at all, has been dismissed with a simple, “Looks like someone’s on her period!”

PMS. I’ve been warned of its dangers since childhood, about how each month women turn into dangerous beings whose only capacities are whining, yelling and eating chocolate. (And to be clear, I’m discussing PMS strictly in terms of supposed emotional effects on women, not in terms of the very real physical symptoms of menstruation.)


Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an excuse to eat chocolate – but that excuse isn’t worth the lack of respect my emotions and opinions are given if one even suggests that I’m on my period. (Besides, I like to think that I can eat chocolate at any time of the month, regardless of whether or not I have an “excuse” to enjoy it.)

In reality, claiming women are essentially incapable of rational thought for essentially a quarter of their reproductive lives (assuming one’s period is monthly and lasts a week) is just another underhanded way to rationalize keeping them out of positions of power.
Don’t believe me? Think back to the 2008 elections. (You may remember this quote from Miss Representation the documentary.)When Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly asked guest Marc Rudov what the downside to a woman (Hillary Clinton) in the Oval Office would be, Rudov replied“You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings?”


Rudov later said he was joking (and that “the main problem I have is if a woman has a female agenda”, whatever that means). But PMS jokes aren’t funny when they discount a woman’s potential and intelligence. And I’ve never heard a PMS joke that doesn’t do just that. And boy, are there a lot of PMS jokes: check out the joke page I linked to above and if that doesn’t satisfy you, there are about 4,270,000 more Google results pages you can take a look at.

There’s a term for when one’s perspective is dismissed: Gaslighting. To quote Wikipedia, gaslighting “is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.” So when a woman points out someone’s wrongdoing and they play the PMS card, they’re trying to make the woman doubt that she is able to properly assess whether or not it was wrongdoing. They are making her doubt the validity of her own perception.

There’s another part of that definition of gaslighting that needs to be addressed: “false information.” Whether or not the medical existence of emotional PMS as distinct from physical discomfort or PMDD is in question, but I personally neither have the medical expertise to make that call nor the desire to dismiss anyone’s personally experience by doing so. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that even if women do suffer from some emotional symptoms during her period, we don’t completely transform into a lipstick-wearing pit bull.

A menstruating woman doesn’t lose her rationality, just as a man with an annoying paper cut is still capable of making decisions.# So saying one is slightly grumpy because of PMS? That may be valid, though presumably no one besides the woman herself would know her cycle well enough to make that judgment. But dismissing one’s opinions because they’re ‘unstable’? That’s gaslighting, and startlingly reminiscent of the catchall “hysteria” diagnosis of the 19th century.


Disturbingly, it’s not just overtly sexist jokes or oblivious individuals misusing PMS. The June 2012 issue of Cosmopolitan claims that “PMS triggers all those annoying symptoms: bloating, bitchiness, serious junk-food cravings” and a “Brain Haze” that inhibits your ability to make decisions. Their solution? Sex or shopping. Aren’t women capable of more than that – at all times of the month?

This insistence that PMS restricts women’s intelligence is preventing women from being taken seriously. So next time someone dismisses your or another woman’s opinion with the excuse of PMS, call them out on it. Calmly request that in the future, they try to take other’s input seriously without writing it off in a “joke.” (Not to mention, nothing makes me angrier and more intent on proving my point than someone using a PMS line on me, so it’s really an ineffective method to make me shut up.)


I can’t think of any better way to end any piece of writing ever written than with a quote by Gloria Steinem:

“If women are supposed to be less rational and more emotional at the beginning of our menstrual cycle when the female hormone is at its lowest level, then why isn’t it logical to say that, in those few days, women behave the most like the way men behave all month long?”

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

Keep It Real: Instagram Vs. Photoshop

Originally published on June 28, 2012 on MissRepresentation.org.

For Day Two of the Keep It Real Challenge, Rachel Grate explores whether there’s a difference between people using the filters on Instagram and magazines photoshopping people

 

By Rachel Grate

 

It’s no secret that the rampant use of Photoshop is having adverse effects on the self-confidence of consumers of all ages and genders. Well, it’s no secret unless you work in the magazine and advertising industry – in which case, shh!

It’s up to us to break the silence surrounding the damaging effects of extreme Photoshop, which SELF magazine editor Lucy Danziger defended as an “industry standard.” There is nothing “standard” about the images we’re being bombarded with, and the effects are real.

Even without Photoshop, the average fashion model weights 23% less than the average woman – and 48% of teenage girls wish they were as skinny as models. So it’s no wonder that 3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending just 3 minutes leafing through a fashion magazine, when faced directly with this unachievable beauty standard.

The reason the Keep It Real campaign is so important to me is because I’ve recently started to see a shift. Photoshop is no longer something we consume only in the process of reading magazines and seeing advertisements. With the increasing use of Facebook and other social networks (such as Instagram, which will be utilized during the final day of this campaign), individuals are sharing their own photos with more people than ever. And, disturbingly, they are starting to Photoshop (whether with the actual program, or simple tools like “Retouch” included on iPhoto) their own photos more than ever as well.

 

“Fotoshop by Adobé” uses humor to comment on the widespread use of Photoshop to enhance “beauty” 

My sophomore year of high school, a friend made me give her photos I’d taken of us so that she could retouch them before I posted them online. (She, like the rest of our friends and I, struggled constantly with self-esteem during high school.) After acquiescing, I tried to explain how unnecessary the process was, and she only replied not to worry because she had retouched me as well. She had edited out any blemishes I had – which I admittedly appreciated – but also many of my freckles. And that’s when I got angry.

The thing is, I like my freckles. When I was little and bored I played connect-the-dots across my skin. I tried to count once, and I have over 50 on each arm, and over 100 on each leg, and a healthy smattering on my face. They are a part of me and something I’d never thought to be ashamed of, until someone else assumed I should be.

Just viewing Photoshopped images of others causes us to see nonexistent flaws in ourselves, so what happens when our own bodies are edited? When others delete flaws we didn’t even think we had, or that we may previously have been proud of? In this modern era, even I’ve taken to editing out blemishes before posting pictures on Facebook, so why was I so disturbed by the deletion of a freckle?

I was struggling to find a way to feel less hypocritical about my views on Photoshop when I readBossypants by Tina Fey. I didn’t fully agree with Fey’s perspective on Photoshop (namely her assumption that “people have learned how to spot it” so it’s no longer dangerous (more on this here) but I agree with her conclusion that when used well, Photoshop should “make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.”

Essentially, what Fey is getting at is that she likes Photoshop when it helps her express herself – her inner beauty, in an ideal set of circumstances – with her assumption that people know there’s obviously fake elements of the photo. Similarly, when we use Instagram tomorrow to express our beauty ideals, some may use a variety of obviously fake filters to transform the photo into a more authentic expression of their individual vision of beauty.

The problem is, that’s not how mainstream magazines use Photoshop. Not only do I not believe their edits are obvious, but they often repress the model’s personal expression, rather than enhance it. “You can barely recognize yourself with the amount of digital correction,” Fey writes. “You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pox scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?”

Take Kelly Clarkson’s September 2009 SELF cover, for instance. While the magazine claims to be about her “Total Body Confidence” and Clarkson talks about being comfortable with her weight in the article, Clarkson’s weight was dramatically decreased on the cover. Danziger, the aforementioned editor, said that the photo made Clarkson “look her personal best” as “the picture of confidence.” But how could Clarkson be “the picture of confidence” when her real personal best wasn’t good enough for the magazine? I can’t help but wonder if this repeated rejection of Clarkson’s body was what triggered her recent 30-pound weight loss, which magazines have praised.

Like my concern with the deletion of my freckles, celebrities often don’t appreciate the alterations magazines make. Kate Winslet spoke out against GQ’s Photoshop of her on their January 2003 cover,stating bluntly, “I don’t want to look like that!” Ugly Betty, a series I recently re-discovered on Netflix, tackled the negative effects of Photoshop on celebrities in their second episode; nonetheless, star America Ferrera was given the full treatment when she appeared on Glamour’s September 2007 issue. Sources have even claimed that her head was cut and pasted onto another woman’s body for the shoot.

My point is, even though I have a twisted appreciation for its zit-erasing prowess, Photoshop isn’t good for anyone – perhaps most of all for the people it is used on. Celebrities and the average person alike are just left feeling that their natural body isn’t good enough, with a heightened awareness of their specific “flaws” that would be better deleted. Because, come on – everyone has zits. Unfortunately, I just seem to care about mine more when I can zoom in on it 200x with iPhoto.

Zits are admittedly a mild example of the lack of body-esteem we’ve all experienced. But how can you feel satisfied with any part of your inherently, beautifully flawed self when magazines prop up perfection as if it’s a reachable goal?

Keep It Real isn’t asking for much – one unphotoshopped image per issue, and one blog from each of us who realize how important this is. Because, insignificant as one image sounds to us, it’s a start. Maybe magazines will realize how ridiculous their other images look when contrasted with a real, unretouched photo. And maybe girls will stop feeling the need to Photoshop their own images and “edit” their own bodies in real life with unhealthy behavior.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

 

What Makes You Beautiful? Disturbing Messages In Pop Music

Originally published June 6, 2012 on MissRespresentation.org

Intern Rachel Grate looks at the scary messages for girls embedded in seemingly innocent pop songs

By Rachel Grate

In the length of my hour commute to work it’s not unusual to hear One Direction’s hit “What Makes You Beautiful” upwards of three times on the radio. The pop music phenomenon is just the most recent of a series of artists that have topped iTunes charts and captured the hearts of young girls everywhere. But have you ever listened beyond their catchy beats to focus on the lyrics?

“What Makes You Beautiful” begins with the observation that the girl is “insecure” and the band “don’t know what for.” However, despite the entire song essentially being a list of compliments, the band members never encourage the girl to stop being insecure. In fact, the chorus croons, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, Oh oh, That’s what makes you beautiful.”

The band is telling their target audience of teenage girls not to be confident in their appearance (even if they are as beautiful as the girl from the song), but to remain insecure because low self-esteem is literally “what makes you beautiful.” Is that really a healthy message for young girls to be absorbing?

Disturbed by this song that seemed permanently stuck in my head, I delved deeper into seemingly innocent pop music. Turns out Justin Bieber, the icon of the teen pop music scene, isn’t actually that innocent either. His songs seem to subtly imply that women can be bought, are a source of property, and that being showered with cash is all they need to be happy.

In his first hit, “One Time,” Bieber promises to give his girl “everything down to my last dime.” In “Baby,” Bieber tries to stop his girlfriend from breaking up with him by promising to “buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring.” In his newest hit, “Boyfriend,” he flaunts that “I got money in my hands that I’d really like to blow/Swag swag swag on you.” Over and over again, his songs support the idea that women are just after men’s money and – judging by how many pre-teens wish he was their actual boyfriend – the message is sticking.

According to One Direction, what makes a girl beautiful is insecurity 

Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take anything seriously in a song that includes the word “swaggie.” It may seem a bit nit-picky to be analyzing the misogyny in these light-hearted songs when so many other artists (from rap to rock) seem incapable of referring to women as anything other than “bitch”. (Even when Akon, with David Guetta, tries to “find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful,” the best he can do is “sexy bitch.”) So why bother focusing on these pop songs?

Because so many pre-teen girls listen to Justin Bieber that you can actually buy a bed cover with his face on it, or an entire Justin Bieber dental care set. Because these artists’ target audience are at an age where they are most vulnerable and most likely to take these messages as valid life advice. Because the fact that these messages are so subtle compared to those in some rap songs means that it’s actually more difficult to identify and avoid them.

It’s not just male pop singers sending these messages. In Orianthi’s hit “According to You,” she lists all the (disturbingly abusive) insults her boyfriend has hurled at her: stupid, useless, difficult, hard to please, a mess, boring, moody, inattentive and more. But instead of supporting girls to leave an emotionally abusive relationship because of their own self worth, her only defense against this boyfriend is that another boy thinks she’s “beautiful.” The whole song is defining her value according to other people – never once is her target audience given an example of generating healthy self-esteem based on their own thoughts.

I’d love to think that pop songs will change their tune and start encouraging girls’ self-confidence, but given their commercial success, it doesn’t seem likely. Even less likely is that “Beliebers” will suddenly cease to exist. What is possible, crucially so, is to make sure young girls are aware of these hidden messages. The secret is that you don’t have to stop enjoying catchy music to resist the messages it’s
implying.

Raising awareness is as simple as one car ride with my dad. “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Kelly Clarkson came on the radio, and I was singing along to the chorus (which is the title of the song).

“You should never be so emotionally dependent on someone to believe your life would suck without them,” my dad commented. “That’s unhealthy.”

I thought about it, I nodded in agreement, and I went back to belting out the song. Though my action stayed the same, my mindset, if only just a little bit, had changed for the better. And with enough little changes like that, girls will become conscious of these negative messages instead of absorbing them subconsciously.

Rachel Grate is an intern at MissRepresentation.org and a student at Scripps College, where she is studying English and Gender & Women’s Studies. Connect with her via LinkedIn.