Melanie Klein’s Body Collage Work With Teens: Proud to Be Me

Oct. 10, 2013 All this week I’ll be shining the spotlight on “inspiring minds you’ll want to know” in our “All Things Girl” series celebrating the Girl Effect  taking place worldwide this Friday, Oct. 11, at the 2nd annual U.N. International Day of the Girl, and the SureFire Girls Conference the day after, Oct. 12, 2013.

With that in mind, today our profile pick turns to unsung shero Melanie Klein, coordinator and founder of the L.A. chapter of Women, Action & the Media (Jaclyn Friedman co-founded WAM itself) and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies, MA writer/speaker and SureFire Girls Conference Workshop Leader representing Proud2Bme.org Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013.

Melanie and I are both partnered with Sure Fire Girls in L.A. and the Brave Girls Want  “Take Back the Media” campaign in Times Square, NYC to shift the focus toward positive productive pursuits, examining and deconstructing the cultural lens of how girls and women are valued in our society…Alas, we can’t teleport to both places at once for Day of the Girl, so we’ll stay on the west coast and Melanie will take some Windex to the media camera for a healthier, happier body image worldview shared with teens on Saturday at the SureFire Girls Conference in Santa Monica.

Melanie Klein is also aligned with Proud 2B Me (which I wrote about in “Counter-Marketing Thinspiration”) and serves on our Brave Girls Alliance Advisory Board.

Like one of my all-time favorite “art meets activism” health and media literacy organizations, ProjectGirl.org (co-founder Kelly Parks Snider is also a Brave Girls Alliance board member!) Melanie Klein is using hands-on, art-based form and function to lead girls to their ‘aha’ moment in her powerful “Body Collage” media literacy project with teens.

I found that interviewing Melanie was a stinging bracer to remind me the topic of body image is far from a ‘retread’ or a ‘solved scenario,’ as the issue is rising not falling, among BOTH genders, (see new NPR piece on young boys) so despite having written extensively about this aspect of media and marketing’s impact on kids over the last 7 years, (see links list at the end) it’s still very much top of mind.

Without further ado, here’s Melanie Klein with more…

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Haven’t we covered body image issues and PhotoShop issues to death? After Dove’s time-lapsed Evolution, followed by Onslaught, is there a girl out there who doesn’t ‘get it’ that these media manufactured illusions and body image ideals aren’t real? At what point does the topic jump the shark? Or does it ever?

Melanie Klein: Intellectualizing a concept is one thing, experiencing it firsthand is another…

It may seem obvious and rudimentary to those of us involved with media advocacy, but when I do these teen workshops it’s a big difference between 1-D and 3-D engagement with body image imagery in magazines.

The constant, prolific streams of these images are landing on girls as normative and unexceptional and they can SAY they ‘get it’ about digital alterations, but it’s sinking into their psyches from sheer inundation.

In my Body Collage workshop I bring in a professional retoucher as I talk with the teens about cultural beauty ideals, and we begin removing barriers about narrow definitions of beauty that we squeeze ourselves into…

We create a wall of content using poster boards with floor to ceiling images in a massive media montage, and when the girls stand in front of their magazine creations and don’t see themselves represented at all, the juxtaposition begins to get internalized on a different sociological level as we photograph again and again how different real lives are in contrast to what’s presented in ambient messaging that’s inescapable…EVERYwhere.

Student quote: (See more at Proud2Bme.org)

“The wall of all these fake women that have been altered to look ‘perfect’ was an eye opener for me. None of the women in the class that stood in front of the wall looked like none of the women on the wall yet those are the images that are bombarding us to say how we need to look. When I was doing my poster I started to get mad of how I was cutting out all these women from all these different magazines and I couldn’t relate to none of them. I had a Spanish magazine where Latina women were being shown in it and it got me even more p*d because Latinas are known for having curves and not being stick thin yet every single woman I cut out was changed to look skinny and flawless.” -Maribel M  

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Sometimes I wonder, are we making matters worse with all the body image chatter about appearance?

Also, that new study where market researchers are deliberately mining vulnerabilities for profit right down to the time of day makes me think of the public health/eating disorder escalation among BOTH genders and how it’s all landing on kids, when our own body image expert, Dr. Robyn Silverman writes about ‘fear of fat’ in preschoolers. So…How young is too young to talk about it?

Melanie Klein: With younger kids being impacted, we need to convey “health” versus weight and thin beauty ideals even earlier, actively deconstructing with mindfulness in an age appropriate manner. I’m representing Proud 2B Me.org at SureFire Girls, and it’s the teen advocacy community for NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association…which has great guidelines and prevention tips, and I strongly advocate for body image education in K-12. (Amy’s note: see NEDA’s critical thinking/media tips, and guidelines for responsible NEDA journalism coverage!) 

As for too much talk or rehashing the topic, I don’t see it that way, because the cycle of conversation changes by generation…The six and seven year olds you’ve written about are now adolescents, and those that are that age now weren’t even born yet then, so each generation needs to hear this. It’s important. I also know adult women who are just now starting to experience full awareness on body image as a health issue, so no, I don’t think that dialogue is ‘done’ at all…We’re just too close to it to see that some are just beginning to have their ‘aha’ moments.

As YOU well know, Jean Kilbourne’s been covering the impact of women and advertising on body image for decades, though it DOES feel like the predominance of PhotoShop has made it even worse with magnified levels of body distortion even since I started my observations as a media scholar in the field.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What brought you into this line of work with disordered eating and body image?

Melanie Klein: I didn’t have a clinical/debilitating eating disorder, (though my sister did) but I’d say I had ‘disordered eating’ like many teens, with that hyper-critical, meticulous self-evaluation and judgment feeling I didn’t fit the ‘body ideal.’

We live in a culture of public commentary without context, which can be destructive even when it’s a positive compliment, because it can miss the mark entirely. Think of the “Hey, you look great, have you lost weight?” comment only to find the person’s been in chemo…It can quickly become a “thinspiration” narrative where people soak up positive attention even at a negative health cost. It’s dangerous at any age, but impressionable, formative teen years are particularly vulnerable which is why I think we need to stay on top of this and reframe the way we communicate altogether. It takes a lot of mindfulness to be our best healthy, creative, inspiring selves…

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What would you say to those who feel body image is a ‘first world problem’ on this International Day of the Girl? Where does it fit in the spectrum of the global education of girls?

Melanie Klein: As long as girls are living in boxes, spiritually, emotionally or psych-socially limited by the “we are not enough” script, it siphons off valuable resources which could be applied elsewhere. As a culture we lose out when girls are not developing other skill sets, expanding opportunities to be self-actualized global citizens. Aside from obvious inequities in developing nations, it also takes a conscious reprogramming of our default settings in what girls’ worth means as ‘more than a body’ worldwide.

Western culture’s exportation of body image ideals hasn’t helped either; just look back at the famous Dr. Anne Becker Fiji study about body dissatisfaction among islanders three years after TV exposure to Eurocentric norms. It happens with media and marketing messages across the board from food systems to what people wear. In sociological terms we call it ‘cultural leveling’ when diversity is obliterated in pursuit of maximized profit…

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: I have a teen athlete and have spent a lot of time carefully deconstructing and reframing some of the ‘health + wellness’ messages that can get skewed in the competitive coaching world. Any tips for teens and their parents?

Melanie Klein: Oooh. Tough one…to be honest, sports are not always helpful, with competitive messages to push boundaries and lighten up, they can be dangerous places to be for girls, complete with exorexia, weigh-ins, Fitspo (fitness inspiration) and public shaming. I’d look at the NEDA Coach and Instructor/Educator Guides and keep a close eye on the language being used.

I wish every coach would reframe the way they talk to girls and step out of certain paradigms because I find even when we’ve given them all the body image basics and deconstructed the media messages, it’s kind of like a ‘gang mentality’ where they go back to the coaching environment and get re-immersed in the same sphere of influence. There’s a propensity toward over-conditioning, and kids are consumed by body image accolades on performance, so there’s lots to watch out for, from exercise supplements to word choice. (Amy’s note: See related interview with on Talking Points to Get it Right with Fit vs Fiction founder on Olympians/training)

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: You talk a lot about mindfulness within the body image sphere…Tell me about your new anthology, “Yoga + Body Image”…How can yoga be used as a physical and mental education tool for girls?

Melanie Klein: The whole practice of yoga is a tool of awareness, connecting to our physical bodies and signals (thirst, overeating, undereating, etc) so it’s really a perfect holistic approach to determine what your own body uniquely needs.

Yoga really changed the way I viewed my body and as I wrote here, it altered my relationship to my mind/body connection as well. Competition has no part in yoga. Not only should we not compare ourselves to others, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to ourselves given that we change day-to-day given our emotional state, how much sleep we’ve had, the time of day, the time of year, Plus, we age. How can we compare ourselves to a version of ourselves from 5 years ago? Yoga is about self-exploration, discovery and union between the mind-body. It’s about discovering what’s uniquely best for you, what feels good to you… reconnecting with our authentic self.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Thank you, Melanie! Good luck with the teens’ body image workshop at SureFire Girls Saturday…So much girls’ education packed into one day of events! 

Body Image Collage Photos by Sarit Photography

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