As we mentioned last week, SPARK activists recently took the stage and the mic at the United Nation’s 58th Commission on the Status of Women. They talked about girls’ activism and why it’s so important for adults to listen to, and work with, girls on the ground. Here, SPARK girls Sam Holmes and Cheyenne Tobias share their UN experiences.
On March 11, 2014, I had the opportunity to team up with the Working Group on Girls, SPARK, and other amazing organizations in order to share my voice at the 58th Commission on the Status of Women. I participated in a roundtable on sexualization. Initially I was nervous about the idea of sharing my experiences with UN employees. Sexualization is still one of those issues that tends to be discussed in a whisper. It’s pervasive, and it impacts girls everywhere. Yet, there is still so much taboo in pointing out such a major societal flaw. Even though sexualization has cast a shadow in my life for years, I initially struggled when I wrote my speech for the day. Censorship and euphemisms were so tempting. But as the white screen of my laptop stared at me, it inspired some newfound honesty. I began with a story:
I went shopping for a six year old cousin, and so many products featured pictures of super made-up women with really extravagant or revealing clothing. She is not even in first grade and she’s being bombarded with images of fairies in fishnets and pin-up princesses. She’s a child but these images are trying to push her into this culture of objectifying women’s bodies. Professor Sarah Murnen of Kenyon College found that America’s top 15 retailers use sexualized images in 30% of their ads for girls clothing.
Hesitancy gave way to passion as memories of anger, confusion, and oppression fought their way to forefront of my consciousness. Scores of offensive advertisements, sexist comments, degrading music lyrics, and countless microaggressions sprang from the mental cage that I had worked hard to force them into. Writing this speech was the closure that I needed. All of the words that I had swallowed for years were going to make their debut in a room full of unfamiliar allies. Knowing this, I continued with my honesty:
If you walk around the city I’m sure you’ll easily ten billboards that feature a highly retouched photo of a black woman in some ridiculous advertisement. Black, Latina and Asian women are sexualized for their “otherness” factor. The media tries to portray these women as exotic and exciting rarities rather than human beings. Women of color are deprived the right of being conventionally beautiful because that standard consists of being thin with blonde hair and blue eyes. We are placed in a separate category.
LGBT women are also victims of sexualization. In television shows, relationships with two women are often used as a plot line for the male protagonist to ogle at. Ads will use pictures of two women together to heightened sex appeal. In doing so, they are making an image that these relationships are sexual and something to gawk at, rather than legitimate, enduring love between two people.
By the end of the third paragraph, I felt a little drained. It’s a downside to activism. Repressed thoughts really take their toll when they’re all released at once. Finally, the speech entered a more optimistic plain as I typed the word SPARK. Reflecting on SPARK’s awesomeness brought both gratitude and sanity as I finished my piece. I had the opportunity to revisit the Seventeen Magazine Campaign, numerous petitions, and even the recent Google Doodles action.
I loved the finished product; I was able to share my personal struggles while shedding light on a serious issue. At the actual roundtable, the UN employees were incredibly responsive. Everyone came prepared with an inquiring mind and plenty of questions. There were young women who came forth to share their own stories as well as parents of young women who wanted to take a stand against sexualization.
In addition to speaking with these adults, I also loved meeting my SPARK sisters throughout the day. This was one of my first times meeting these amazing activists in person. I witnessed them all being passionate about the issues that impacted their lives. Eloquent and empowered, my SPARK sisters definitely left their mark on the CSW.
Going in, I didn’t exactly know what the CSW was, nor what the Millennium Development Goals were. As we got closer and closer to the event, I began to understand more about what the week of events was really about. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I had been in the past about speaking at a panel with the Working Group on Girls, mostly from having done it before, and also from now knowing the girls a little more. I went to several rehearsals and run-throughs and wrote and edited and rewrote and edited my speech over the course of 2-3 weeks leading up to the event.
The first event was the introductory day on Sunday, March 9th. All the girl delegates from all these different organizations piled into the auditorium and listened to and partook in various activities engaging us in the Millennium Development Goals. We first began with some exercises and skits guessing and getting a basic understanding of the MDGs, then we danced and took a break from sitting. We listened to the extraordinary Amina Mohammad and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speak. We broke for pizza and then came back to workshops where we were able to get to know some of the other people there (there were girls and boys there) and I finally got a detailed understanding of each of the MDGs.
I was especially struck by Amina J. Mohammad, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development, who stressed the importance of education in a girl’s life no matter what her circumstances. I found her extremely inspirational, eloquent and wise. She spoke with conviction and passion and was the most powerful force in the room, yet she relinquished the pedestal that often comes with such a presence and it was clear that she was giving it to us, and those around the world who strive for change. One thing she left us with that resonated was this: “Don’t just take what you’re fed, don’t just take your prescription, if you can do better, do better.”
At the MDG panel on Wednesday, March 12. I spoke about MDG #5: Maternal Health. My focus was on teen pregnancy in the United States. I spoke about the messages that I’ve received from my family and school, the importance of sex-education, opening the conversation about sex, and the vitality of prenatal care. It’s a cycle. It begins with the conflicting messages we are fed as children about motherhood and virginity. We internalize them and there grows the stigma behind women and girls and having sex. Because of the stigma we are not given all the information we need about sex because a common belief in America is that the best way to avoid problems is not to have sex at all. That isn’t realistic. Girls have sex and because of this cycle of misinformation may not know how to protect themselves correctly and then may not know how to seek prenatal care because of the shame that society puts of pregnant teens.
I was originally somewhat apprehensive about speaking about this topic because I didn’t realize how much I already knew. I’ve focused on and been so passionate about sexualization of girls and women in the media and about racism. But once I sat down and brainstormed and did a ton of research it was a clear path. I went to several run-throughs and everything went wonderfully. So well, in fact that at various points there were girls who came up to me here and there who had heard me speak before and had seemed inspired by what I had said and that was the best part of it all. The best feeling was to know that what I was saying was being heard. That my passion had come through and touched others and that they felt what I was saying and could relate. One girl came up to me after the MDG panel and expressed that she could completely level with what I said about sex-education and the stigma behind teens having sex. Honestly, it took a bit of restraint not to pick her up her and spin her, because all I could’ve hoped for was that there were girls who left learning and feeling like someone was speaking up for them and that they could speak up too!
I’m so happy to have had this experience, and hope to continue to be engaged with the Working Group on Girls.