She's staring at me like I've just insinuated she embodies the anti-Christ. "A feminist? No, I'm not a feminist. Oh my God."
Despite the fact that this classmate of mine just spent ten minutes ranting about how a woman has the right to choose and thinks anybody who disagrees is archaic, she is equally appalled at the thought of labeling herself as a feminist. Am I frustrated? Yes. But as a teenage feminist, I'm used to it.
Teenage feminists are a mighty minority. You may find us in the malls, mingling amongst girls who carry bags plastered with the image of a naked torso and the word "Abercrombie." We're even at football games, willingly crushed between excited pubescent bodies. Maybe we're the girls in the hoodies rolling our eyes as the cheerleaders jump around, but we are there. The fact is: we're not always the hairy-legged girls with makeup-less faces scowling through the daily grind of the high school experience, clutching a battered copy of The Second Sex. Sometimes we are. But we're not always that easy to spot.
Why? That image is a stereotype most feminists, let alone teenagers, don't fit. We can be the girl at the game, the girl shaking her ass at homecoming, or even the "girl next door." So, why can't you recognize us? Most teenage feminists don't even know that they are teenage feminists. How could you?
How are we supposed to identify as feminists when most of us don't even know what a feminist looks like? Role models are important. They help us figure out who we are as we sit in a cafeteria full of people who are defined by a single word. Prep. Jock. My favorite: Slut. Role models help us figure out what we want to be rather than what everybody else has labeled us.
But who are our role models? Most teenage girls don't know who Gloria Steinem is, or they believe that Hillary Clinton is a whiny bitch (like this winner), because that's how the media portrays her. It's sad but true. If these women are even on our radar at all, they've probably already been made unpopular by the media. And nobody wants to be unpopular at sixteen. We fear the hatred of others like our parents fear taxes.
But who is on our radar? Even in the best case scenario, celebrities who act feminist end up avoiding the word at all costs. Yes, I'm looking at you Lady Gaga. Or should I say Lady I-Recognize-The-Blatant-Sexism-In-The-Music-Industry-But-I-Love-Men-So-I'm-Not-A-Feminist-Gaga? Even more frustrating are the women who might be feminists, who make feminist statements in their music or interviews, but who have never confirmed this.
My solution is to be my own role model. Of course I draw from the masters: Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan, Jessica Valenti, Courtney Martin. But it's come to the point where the only reliable person I can depend on is myself, which is a feminist idea in and of itself. Of course this is easier said than done. The essential problem is that most girls need role models because they can't come up with all the answers on their own. Plus, girls my age are trained so thoroughly to hate themselves that sadly, it's probably harder for them to be their own role models than to find one in the vast, global populace.
It ends here. Our society's obsession with fame is more than creepy or sad. It's detrimental. We are looking up to people whose greatest accomplishments include grinding on stage in glorified lingerie and flashing the paparazzi. It may be their choice to do those things, but it's my choice to reject them. I want to look up to somebody who is real and who has accomplished real things.
Real role models aren't always famous. There are women who make a difference in thousands of people's lives, but you're never going to see their faces when you turn on the TV or open a magazine. Zainab Salbi started Women for Women International, an organization that helps refugees of war gain their lives back. While she's been recognized, she's definitely not a household name. We can't always expect our role models to be right in front of our faces. But then again, sometimes they are. My own mother amazes me every single day. I have teachers and coaches in my life who do great things. Even my own peers, my friends, inspire me.
It's up to us to be critical, to put in a little effort. And this is something my generation is completely capable of. So many of us see that our current role models are pathetic, but until society changes, until we start valuing women for what they do over the way they look, the right role models will never be in front of our faces.
My hope is that one day I will turn on the T.V. and see someone who is truly inspirational, dauntlessly representing feminist values. Until then, don't lose faith in the next generation of teenage feminists. Look at the football games. Look at the dances. Even look at the mall, if you dare.
We'll be there.
Julie Zeilinger is the founder and editor of The FBomb, a feminist blog for teenagers who care about their rights and want to be heard. The FBomb posts the articles of teenage feminists from all over the world about issues such as pop culture and self-image, while also promoting open dialogue about more serious issues like politics and social justice. Julie is a 17-year-old from Pepper Pike, Ohio.
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