Julia Mead: Middle-class feminism needs to move beyond body image

March 28, 2014 

Julia K. Mead, a Lafayette High School graduate and Governor's Scholar, is a sophomore majoring in chemistry at Bowdoin College.

By Julia K. Mead

On a recent Sunday I took part in the nude "Celebrating Women, Celebrating Bodies" photo shoot sponsored by the Women's Resource Center at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where I am a student.

I showed up with nine of my friends. The building is tiny and we were packed in with the members of the women's lacrosse team, who were posing with their sticks and toting them around on their shoulders. I had to duck a few times. We were asked to fill out a survey: what were our initial thoughts and feelings?

I was thinking about the mac and cheese I just ate for dinner. I was thinking about the chaos and the people running around. I was wondering if I remembered to shave my armpits and then wondering if having unshaved armpits would actually be the more popular choice in this crowd.

The 10 of us went into a side room, stripped down to our underwear, stood side-by-side, laughed nervously, sweated under the bright lights, and click click click. We exhaled and put our clothes back on.

I grabbed a Dove chocolate on the way out. It advised me to "Do what feels right."

What would feel right is if my friends and I were worrying less about body image and more about equality.

The feminist conversation at Bowdoin is hyper-focused on body image and emotional and sexual empowerment. We're told by the Women's Resource Center to "explore how we experience being women." I don't mean to trivialize these issues. Many of them are vitally important, especially activism to end sexual violence and the discussion around the intersection of body image, food and eating disorders.

But they are not the sole issues of feminism. We seem to believe that the only feminist issues that concern us are the ones that apply to us (well-educated, privileged women) right now (age 18-22, single, unemployed and childless).

We use navel-gazing, repetitive rhetoric: "Don't use 'fat' language!" "We don't have an obligation to men to shave our leg/armpit/pubic hair!"

This absorbs so much of our attention and energy that it distracts from broader sociopolitical problems that we will face.

The so-called solutions of "self-improvement" and "empowerment" are, in fact, dis-empowering. It is a goal without a concrete end.

When do you say, "OK, now I'm empowered. Let's move on?" You can spin your wheels forever in search of empowerment.

Here's what I'm concerned about: American parental leave policy is a national embarrassment; 12 workweeks, unpaid, is all that is legally required of employers.

There is virtually no systemic support for single mothers. The United States provides the least government aid to single parents of any economically comparable nation, according to a comprehensive recent study conducted by the women's rights group Legal Momentum.

Child care is expensive and often inconvenient. School schedules are incompatible with work schedules. Many professional career trajectories are totally at odds with female fertility.

And let's remember: Women are still not constitutionally equal to men. The Equal Rights Amendment did not pass.

Anne-Marie Slaughter does an elegant and compelling job of identifying these systemic problems and suggesting how they could change in her Atlantic magazine article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All."

None of these things will be fixed if we only look within. We have to engage with our government and take action in the public sphere, not just as individuals, but collectively.

Do we think that we will escape this tension? That the system will change before we get there? We're only five or 10 years away. Do we think we don't have any power? We are adults, registered voters and somebody's constituents.

Additionally, our status as single, unemployed, non-providers gives us tremendous power as advocates. We don't need to worry about losing our jobs. We have free time during the work day. If we, with all our privileges, resources and leisure time, can't take action, who can?

Journalist and author Susan Faludi made the point in a recent talk at Bowdoin that the contemporary American women's movement that is publicized is all about what rich women can do for themselves. The CEO has no empathy for the Wal-Mart cashier. We're even narrower. We don't even have empathy for our future selves. We're stuck looking in the mirror.

Julia K. Mead, a Lafayette High School graduate and Governor's Scholar, is a sophomore majoring in chemistry at Bowdoin College.

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