A friend of mine recently sent me an article titled "Get Bikini Confident By Summer" from the April/May issue of Girl's Life magazine. She summed the article up in four words: "This is not okay."
For those of you who aren't familiar with Girl's Life, it is a magazine aimed at 10-15 year old girls, and aims to give it's readers "real, honest advice. Parents can trust GL to guide their girls through the growing-up years-without making them grow up too fast." Which is why this particular article is so painful; I'm not a fan of dumping all over publications that aim to help young women navigate the horrible waters of adolescence, by any means, but there are just too many red flags here to ignore.
First of all, the concept of the article itself is troubling: the "get a bikini body—fast!" diet bullshit is straight out of the Cosmo playbook; the emphasis is not on adapting healthy habits for the sake of overall health, but instead to "tone up fast and feel fabulous about yourself in weeks." This is a classic setup for failure, obsessive dieting, skewed body image views, and warped ideas about healthy choices. Why are we providing 10-15 year old girls with a dieting playbook? Why are we insisting that they fit into the bikini-body mold?
Shouldn't the emphasis here be on having fun at the beach? Protecting your skin from the sun? Finding a suit that makes you feel comfortable and happy? What message does it send to young girls if we give them "tried and true tips" to get that "fabulous" body but the "plan" doesn't magically turn them into supermodels overnight? We're basically saying: "Here are the directions. If you don't have a bikini body at the end of this...well, that's probably your fault." Why does anyone have to diet and exercise to have a "bikini" body? Why don't we teach girls to embrace their bodies and celebrate them instead of constantly trying to fit a hopelessly unrealistic ideal?
The article then goes on to give dieting and exercising "tips" to the readers, including one infuriating paragraph that begins, "You can't always control what your 'rents (side note: "rents!?" they are still using that? They used that in YM when I was a teen and we didn't even say it then, in 1993!) but on the dinner table. But you do decide what gets gobbled." The emphasis here is on sidestepping the meals your parents provide by stocking up on lower-calorie side dishes, as opposed to say, having an honest conversation with your parents about your goals and your desire to eat healthier. The nasty undertones of secrecy and a way to find control when the circumstances appear beyond your control ring a little too familiar to myself, as someone who struggled with anorexia for seven years. The lack of openness here is horrifying.
A trainer also pipes in to let the readers know that "Pilates is a great way to build self-esteem." Know what else is great way to build self-esteem? NOT TELLING GIRLS THAT THEY NEED TO HAVE A BIKINI BODY FOR SUMMER.
Between this article and the Cosmo-esque cover story that promises to teach girls how to flirt to get boys to notice them (UGH) I'm calling major Shenanigans here. If this magazine is really about building the self-esteem of young girls, then why is this basically a 5th grade version of a Cosmo article? Why are we telling girls that feel fabulous=losing weight? Why, for the love of god, are we giving girls tips on how to flirt (read: DO NOT BE YOURSELF, USE THIS BS PLAYBOOK INSTEAD) in order to get boys to like them? Why are we filling their heads with this crap? Seriously? Is the goal to ensure that they'll pick up a Cosmo subscription in 5 years and continue to feel physically, mentally, and emotionally inadequate? Because that's not what I'd think a magazine that supposedly aims to build the self-esteem of young girls should be aiming for.
If I sound angry, it's because I am: every article like this that gets printed just solidifies the notion that women have to look a certain way to feel confident and be considered beautiful. And the fact that this message is being delivered in a magazine aimed at young girls only makes it more troubling: if this is the reality one comes to believe about body image, health, and confidence when one is very young, it's just that much harder to change those skewed attitudes, especially in an environment when the pressure to stay young, fit, and beautiful just gets worse and worse with each passing year.
This, as my friend said, is not okay. At all.