Archive for the ‘Body Image’ Category

December 6, 2013

The Ideal Labia is Your Own: Online Sites Push Back Against “Model” Genitalia

labia library
Cosmetic genital surgery on the labia has been of both increasing interest and concern in recent years. Many attribute this to the fact that the most readily available images of vulvas, which happen to be in pornography, don’t tend to show much variation in shape, color, hair, or other characteristics.

A few resources exist to help promote the idea that there is a much wider range of what is normal than we often see in media. The Labia Library, run by Women’s Health Victoria, is a small photo gallery of labia, primarily of white-appearing women. The site also addresses body image concerns in the section Are My Labia Normal?.

Writing in the Daily Life, an Australian publication, Melissa Brock does a terrific job contextualizing the concerns women have about their bodies (and a ridiculous Catch-22 when it comes to censorship guidelines):

In Australia over the past 10 years, medical rebates for labiaplasty (surgical reduction of the inner or outer labia) and vulvoplasty (surgical remodelling of the vulva) have risen from 640 claims in 2000-01 to 1565 in 2010-11, though the real number of procedures is thought to be much more. At the same time, mainstream pornography has become more explicit, showing extreme close-ups of hairless female genitalia. Previously hidden behind a bush of hair, labia are now under close scrutiny. The type typically featured in pornography are known as the “Barbie” or “clamshell” variety, where everything is neatly tucked away. And just to complicate the matter, Australian censorship and print publication guidelines dictate that the inner labia must not protrude beyond the outer labia. Houston, we have a problem. Many women are not designed this way and have started to question whether they are “normal”.

Brock goes on to describe her own experience visiting the online Labia Library:

I was alone in my bedroom on a computer looking at women’s genitals. Surely I was doing something wrong. I would have to clear my browser history. But that thought was short-lived because, devoid of the lingerie, the ambient surroundings and orgasmic groans of pornography, it was fascinating. I never knew what other women actually looked like down there. It was strangely liberating. It turns out I’m not alone – Butera says the site survey has been “overwhelmed by positive comments”. Hannah Cooper, 38, a personal assistant from Sydney, says of the library, “When a friend suggested I check it out, I thought eeek … but it wasn’t gross and it wasn’t sexy. They were all just so different and it makes sense. Everyone has a different face – it follows that people would have different labia.”

On tumblr, the Large Labia Project includes photo submissions from readers who believe their labia are “large” — the point being that all sizes of labia can be “normal” and beautiful. These resources make it easier for us all to see that outside of pornography, everyone is different. Another excellent resource on this topic is Scarleteen’s article “Give ‘em Some Lip: Labia That Clearly Ain’t Minor,” and the accompanying illustrations from Betty Dodson.

In part because of anxieties about the appearance of their genitals and lack of examples of the wide range of genitals, some women have elected to have cosmetic surgery to make their appearance more “normal.” The New View Campaign has a lot of good info on cosmetic genital surgery, including this set of FAQs.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (in the UK) recently released an ethical opinion paper on the subject of genital cosmetic surgeries to guide doctors on this issue. The paper emphasizes the lack of high-quality or long-term evidence about the safety, risks or even patient satisfaction with these surgeries, explaining that doctors “must be aware that they are operating without a clear evidence base.”

There are currently no controlled trials or prospective studies investigating the clinical effectiveness or risks of labiaplasty procedures. There are small case reports and a few larger retrospective studies, all of which offer scant descriptions of methodology or study design. Since the surgical studies are authored by the surgeons who performed the operations, there is little independent evaluation.

RCOG also emphasizes that “so-called norms” presented in media are “digitally modified and should be challenged by those who deal with women requesting labial reduction for ‘aesthetic’ reasons.” To learn more about normal vulvas and issues around cosmetic genital surgery, read previous posts:

And, finally, here’s a video on the difference between porn sex vs. real sex, using food as props. It’s more about function than appearance, but still well worth a look. YouTube Preview Image

October 31, 2013

What Percentage of Older Women Are Satisfied with Their Body Image? Survey Says …

Body image is often thought of as a concern for teen girls and younger women, and the abundance of resources on this topic are skewed toward those age groups.

But a new study published in the Journal of Women and Aging illustrates how few of us are happy with how our bodies look, even as we get older: Only 12 percent of women reported being satisfied with their body size.

While the number is pathetically low, it’s not surprising considering how many of us are self-critical about our appearance. Even if we are not actively dieting, our culture — and sometimes our own families and friends — make it impossible to tune out messages that we should be younger, thinner and prettier.

Researchers from UNC Chapel Hill conducted an internet-based survey of 1,789 U.S. women age 50 and older to find out more about their perspectives. Participants were overwhelmingly white (92.3 percent), and the average age was 59. Close to half (42 percent) had a body mass index (BMI) that put them within “normal” weight ranges for their height.

For the study, participants were shown silhouettes of nine bodies of various sizes and asked which silhouette most resembled their own body, and which body size they preferred. Women who preferred the shape closest to their own were considered to be satisfied with their bodies. Women who preferred a different body shape were categorized as dissatisfied.

In discussing their findings, the authors point out that women who are generally satisfied “appear to exert considerable effort to achieve and maintain this satisfaction, and they are not impervious to experiencing dissatisfaction with other aspects of their appearance, particularly those aspects affected by aging.”

For instance, many of the women who fell into the “satisfied” group were unhappy with specific body parts, including their stomach (56.2 percent), face (53.8 percent), and skin (78.8 percent) — although they reported dissatisfaction at lower rates than the women who were dissatisfied overall with their bodies.

And while the majority (88 percent) of women who were satisfied were considered “normal” weight, 40.6 percent said they would be moderately or extremely upset if they gained just 5 pounds.

Satisfaction with one’s body shape/size also does not grant immunity to negative thinking:

- A third (34.1 percent) reported thinking about their weight “daily” or “always.”
- Half (50.7 percent) expressed envy of younger women’s appearance.
- More than three-quarters (77.1 percent) reported that their shape played a primary role in their self-evaluation — about the same percentage of women who were unsatisfied with their appearance.

The women were also asked about their weight, height, ethnicity, symptoms of eating disorders, diet, and weight-control behaviors (like dieting and frequent weighing), concerns about their weight and shape, and quality of life. There was no difference between the satisfied and unsatisfied groups when it came to skipping meals or extreme/disordered weight control measures.

Satisfied women reported somewhat more exercise (average of 5.1 hours vs. 3.8 hours), and the authors note that “exercise may directly (and indirectly) enhance body esteem in women.”

Women who were unsatisfied with their bodies were significantly more likely to report that a physical or medical condition affected their weight or appetite (30.3 percent vs. 9.2 percent). The were also more likely to do frequent body checking, attempt weight loss, spend more than half their time dieting, and report having tried low-calorie diets or diet plans.

The authors were not able to determine whether these activities led to dissatisfaction, or whether body dissatisfaction more often led to these activities. The study also doesn’t address the effect that negative messages and stigma may have on satisfaction rates.

The authors recommend that health-care providers discuss weight, shape, and aging-related concerns with all mature women, and “maintain sensitivity when talking about weight management.”

For a more personal take on these survey results, read Rachel Zimmerman’s post at WBUR’s Common Health. Zimmerman reflects on how she spends an “inordinate, and frankly embarrassing amount of time thinking about food, planning meals and strategizing about how to control [her] weight.”

And for more information, check out Our Bodies Ourselves resources on body image. For help related to eating disorders, see the National Eating Disorders Association.

April 10, 2013

Eating Disorders in Adolescence Can Have a Long Term Effect on Women’s Health

Despite the prevalence of eating disorders in adolescent girls, it’s difficult to find information about longer term health consequences in adults, as little follow-up has been done. A new article in the journal Maturitas on the long-term health consequences of the female athlete triad, a syndrome that may include eating disorders, is an important contribution to the research.

First defined in the early 1990s, female athlete triad used to be defined as the combination of an eating disorder, amenorrhea (lack of a menstrual period), and osteoporosis.

The definition was adjusted in 2007 to focus more on a spectrum of health and now includes low energy (with or without an eating disorder), menstrual function, and bone mineral density. These are interrelated; it is thought that the lack of energy due to excessive exercise or disordered eating leads to changes in menstrual cycles and loss of bone mineral density.

While it’s not original research, the new review by Jill Thein-Nissenbaum of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s physical therapy program points out some important health issues for women beyond the teen years.

Of major concern, based on a review of the literature, are the long-term effects of decreased bone mineral density associated with the triad. Women who restricted their energy intake may have missed crucial bone mass building time, and this bone density may not be made up even with eating disorder recovery.

Thus, as women age, they are losing additional bone mass from an already depleted system. Thein-Nissenbaum notes that women with the triad may also be at greater risk of musculoskeletal injury, and these injuries may have negative effects throughout life.

Thein-Nissenbaum suggests that women who currently have or have recovered from female athlete triad discuss with their healthcare provider their history of eating behaviors and menstrual history, dating back to adolescence, and review details from previous bone scans.

She also cites the need for bone mineral density assessment in women who have had a history of disordered eating behaviors, menstrual irregularity, or more than one stress fracture.

The National Eating Disorders Association provides a toolkit for coaches and athletic trainers that includes a section on the female athlete triad, including causes, treatment, and behaviors to look out for. The guide also has information on other types of eating disorders and the role of coaches and trainers in prevention and early intervention.

Plus: Eating disorders are most commonly associated with adolescents, but adults are also susceptible to anorexiabulimia, binge eating and other disorders, and they face a unique set of challenges, says Cynthia M. Bulik, author of the new book ”Midlife Eating Disorders.” Women’s eNews recently published an excerpt.

“If we look at the numbers,” writes Bulik, “the most common profile of someone with an eating disorder is a woman in her 30s or 40s who struggles with weight control and suffers from binge eating disorder. But countless women and men in midlife and beyond — from all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds — wake up each morning to an ongoing battle with eating and body image, with many suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, purging disorder, binge eating disorder and night eating syndrome.”

February 4, 2013

Getting Personal: What It’s Really Like Living With a Sexually Transmitted Infection

Jenelle Marie, STD advocateby Jenelle Marie

When you hear the term STD (sexually transmitted disease) or STI (sexually transmitted infection), what do you think of first?

Grotesque pictures of maimed genitalia displayed on a projector during yesteryear’s sex-ed class geared toward frightening you into abstinence? That scene from ” The Hangover” where Sid says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … except for herpes. That shit will come back with you”?

Whatever first comes to your mind is not likely to include your neighbor, professor, or best friend living with an STI, having an incredible sex life, and otherwise prospering. That is, of course, unless you’re also living with an STI and you know better.

I am your neighbor, a professor at a community college, and am enjoying a wonderfully healthy sex life with a man who thinks the world of me and nothing of my STI. I’ve been living with genital herpes for over 14 years now; I’ve also contracted HPV, scabies, and vaginitis throughout the years. And yet not once did an STI hinder my relationships or happiness once I stopped allowing it to dictate my self worth.

Embracing Stigma

At 16, when our family doctor peered at me with a lazy eye, through thick glasses, and accompanied by a partially missing ear to tell me my genital herpes outbreak was the worst case he’d ever seen, I was devastated. Embarrassment coursed through me as he handed me a prescription and sent my mother and me on our way – sans brochures, additional information, and references to resources, support groups or even a mention of the vast number of people living with an STI everywhere. I was a pariah – a leper – even the doctor was disgusted by my condition.

For years, I accepted my fate and considered myself as being punished for having been sexually active before marriage. As a high-schooler, I was called a slut or a whore and “friends” of mine forewarned men who took interest in me that I would merely infect them, hurt them, and they should steer clear entirely. I actually maintained some of those friendships for a period of time, not knowing otherwise about STIs and those who contract them, thinking myself deserving of such treatment.

A Long Overdue Paradigm Shift

It wasn’t until a few years ago I began to see myself for who I truly was: a beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, and valuable individual who just happened to contract a long-term infection. In fact, my infection had not stopped me from obtaining two honors degrees, getting married, conquering my fear of heights by going skydiving – not once, but three times – or pursuing my dreams by auditioning for “American Idol.”

While I’m not the next American Idol, I learned an invaluable lesson throughout that period of self-discovery: I am not deserving of poor treatment, cruel friendships, or snide remarks; the stigma placed upon those living with an STI is inaccurate, ignorant, and illogical. And I have the power to change that. We all do.

In order to change the status quo, though, one has to first understand where the misunderstandings and wrongful judgments originate. Rather than be angry at my doctor for leaving me with nothing more than a crass diagnosis or at my childhood friends for mistreating our relationship, I am choosing to delve into why those perceptions persist.

Part of the problem came from within. I didn’t challenge what little I knew about STIs, and I embraced the negative opinions for years before I was able to distinguish between the laymen’s view of STIs and the reality behind the array of people who contract them. STIs do not define one’s character; they’re merely a reflection of an experience – an experience that is as individually unique as are the people who contract the STIs themselves.

Consequently, I’m not angry or frustrated by the amount of time it took for me to finally find solace in my infection. Rather, I have a holistic appreciation for the process one undergoes when being diagnosed with any type of taboo condition (infection or otherwise). Not only have I taken great pains to find myself in a place of self-love and self-respect, I want very much for others to have an opportunity to feel the same fortitude after their diagnosis as I do now and over a far shorter time table.

Becoming an Advocate

Hence, I have become an advocate.

Due to the immense stigma behind contracting an STI, most people don’t speak openly about their experiences. However, as people, we learn best through community. Naturally, we are pack animals – we nurture our young for years beyond most other mammals and we develop complex (and hopefully, healthy) relationships with others outside of our family nucleus. It makes sense then we need others to help overcome obstacles and boundaries – in this case, contracting an STI and/or living with an STI.

So, I’m willing to tell you how horrible my experience has been at times, and how I’ve found incredible happiness, love, success, and rewarding relationships despite living with an STD all in hopes you can move through the process with much more clarity, community, and understanding than I once endured.

Join me, and I welcome you.

Jenelle Marie is the founder and administrator of The STD Project, a website geared toward eradicating the sigma associated with having a sexually transmitted infection. This entry was originally posted at BlogHer and is reposted with permission.

September 5, 2012

Cosmetic Genital Surgery: The Physical and Monetary Cost of “Designer Vaginas”

En Español

Writing in The Atlantic, Melanie Berliet shares her experience as a patient seeking a consult at a vaginal surgery clinic that offers genital cosmetic surgeries.

Berliet’s consult, which included a physical exam, was focused on the supposed sex-enhancing and cosmetic applications of these surgeries — not on medically indicated procedures that address pain and discomfort.

I scheduled this complimentary consultation under the guise of wanting “to understand my options.” Secretly, I want to explore why a growing number of women are modifying a body part so few can see by undergoing the elective surgeries in which [Dr. Ronald] Blatt specializes: vaginoplasty (removal of excess lining and tightening of surrounding tissue and muscles) and labiaplasty (reshaping of the labia minora, and sometimes the labia majora and/or clitoral hood).

In an examination of the “tightness” of her vagina, the doctor offered a vague assessment, noting she was “not real loose, but there’s room for tightening,” leading Beliet to ask, “Could you get it down so just two fingers fit comfortably?”

Sure it’s possible, for $5,900 — or $9,900 for the dual vaginoplasty and labiaplasty surgery, called “vaginal rejuvenation.”

According to Berliet, a female employee told her (OK, prepare to shudder): “This is a life changing surgery. You’re saying boyfriend now? After this he’s going to marry you.”


In addition to sharing details of the exam, Berliet explores the idea that these surgeries may be taking off in part because women have no idea that a wide range of normal exists. They don’t know what they “should” look like (or if there even is a “should”). Most of the vulvas they see are the limited view provided through porn. She writes:

What is most striking, however, in the dialogue on this topic is the obvious confusion among women about what they should or should not look like. The pronouncements of self-loathing and embarrassment over genital appearance are widespread, reinforcing my growing sense that we’re failing to educate. If we feel more vulnerable to our insecurities after viewing pornography, it’s probably because no one has filled our vaginal diversity knowledge gap.

As an aside on that knowledge gap, the story conflates “vagina” with “vulva” several times. It’s a minor criticism, but one that reflects a common lack of knowledge or distinction between the vagina and other anatomical parts such as the labia and clitoris.

A related story at ABC News takes a closer look at the health risks of these surgeries. The biggest risks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, include “infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia (painful contractions of the vagina), adhesions and scarring.”

ACOG also underscores the need for women to be informed that there’s a real lack of data on potential complications. Numerous reports of “botched” surgeries are turning up on online forums, according to ABC News.

For further discussion of this issue, see these previous posts.

End of English post.

Cirugía Estética Genital: El Costo Físico y Monetario de las Vagina Diseñadoras

Escribiendo en The Atlantic, Melanie Berliet comparte su experiencia como paciente buscando consulta en una clínica de cirugía vaginal que ofrece cirugía estética vaginal.

La consulta de Berliet incluyo un examen físico, y se enfocó en las supuestas aplicaciones de estas cirugías– de mejorar las relaciones sexuales y la apariencia cosmética de los genitales — y no en procedimientos indicados para aliviar el dolor o la incomodidad.

Yo hice esta consulta gratis bajo la apariencia de querer “comprender mis opciones”. Secretamente, quería explorar porque más y más mujeres están modificando una parte de su cuerpo tan poco vista por someterse a las cirugías electivas en que se especializa el Dr. Ronald Blatt: vaginoplastia (extirpación de revestimiento excesivo y tensar los tejidos y músculos circundantes) y la labioplastia (remodelar los labios menores y/o la capucha del clítoris).

En un examen del “ajusto” de su vagina, el doctor ofreció una evaluación vaga, notando que “ no estaba muy suelta, pero hay espacio para tensarla,” provocando Berliet a preguntar, “ Puedes tensarla hasta que caben solo dos dedos cómodamente?”

Seguro que es posible, para $5900– o $9,900 para la combinación de vaginoplastia y labioplastia, llamada el “rejuvenecimiento vaginal”.

Según Berliet, una empleada de la clínica le dijo (preparase al estremecimiento!): “Esta es una cirugía para cambiarte la vida. Dices “novio” ahorita? Después de esto se va casar contigo.”

Que asco.

Además de compartir los detalles del examen, Berliet explora la idea que estas cirugías pueden resultar más populares porque muchas mujeres no saben que existe una amplia gama de normal.  No saben como “deben” ser sus genitales, o si hay un “deber”. Muchas de las vulvas que ven vienen de la vista limitada de la pornografía. Escribe Berliet:

Sin embargo, lo que es más sorprendente en el diálogo sobre este tema es la confusión obvia entre las mujeres de como se deben o no deben ver. Las declaraciones   de autodesprecio y abochorno sobre la apariencia genital son muy comunes, y esto reforzó mi sensación que estamos fallando en la educación. Si nos sentimos más vulnerables a nuestras inseguridades después de mirar la pornografía, probablemente es porque nadie nos ha educado sobre la diversidad vaginal.

Hablando de esa educación, el articulo confunde la palabra “vagina” con “vulva” varias veces. Es una critica pequeña, pero una que demuestra la falta común de conocimiento o distinción entre la vagina y las otras partes anatómicas como la vagina y el clítoris.

Un reportaje relacionado en ABC News toma una mirada más detallada a los riesgos de salud que llevan estas cirugías. Según el Colegio de Obstetras y Ginecólogos Americanos (ACOG), los riesgos más grandes incluyen “infección, sensación alterada, dispareunia (contracciones dolorosas de la vagina), adhesiones, y cicatrización.”

ACOG nota la necesidad de informar las mujeres que hay una falta de información sobre las complicaciones potenciales. Según ABC News, están saliendo varios reportajes de cirugías “estropeadas” en foros de la red.

February 29, 2012

Gabby Sidibe on What’s Missing From Movies, Plus Organizations Making a Difference

During the Oscars on Sunday night, a video montage featured a number of famous actors speaking about the power of movies. Gabourey Sidibe, a break-out star who was nominated in 2010 for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Precious,” shared something quite personal:

The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself and I don’t — I kind of don’t get to like myself enough.

But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.

Gabby Sidibe at Academy Awards in 2010In that short statement, Sidibe (left, at the Academy Awards in 2010) revealed a great deal about representation and identity in Hollywood, which rarely includes women who don’t match a young, thin and white ideal. When young (and old) women don’t see themselves in popular culture — the lingua franca of our times — they receive the message that their lives are not as important or worthy of inclusion.

A number of organizations have been working to counter this message by focusing on girls’ inner beauty, smarts and talent. New Moon Girls Media, which publishes New Moon magazine and runs a moderated online community for girls, has launched Yes, I’m Beautiful!, a YouTube project that asks, “Why are you beautiful? What is true beauty? What would you say to someone who isn’t sure about her/his beauty?”

No matter what your age you can send your “Yes, I’m Beautiful” video to: beautynewmoon AT It’s a nice counterpoint to stories about young girls turning to YouTube to ask for public comment on whether they’re ugly.

Hardy Girls, Healthy Women is offering a free webinar in March and April to introduce its girl-driven media activism site, Powered By Girl (PBG), and will offer tips on using social media for youth activism.

As Rachel pointed out yesterday, the National Eating Disorders Association has launched Proud2BMe, which includes the Stamp Out Bodysnarking project to reduce bullying based on one’s appearance.

Later today, Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, will officially launch the Born This Way Foundation at a celebrity-filled event at Harvard University. The foundation will support programs and initiatives that empower youth — focusing on issues of self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring and career development.

Hollywood embraces diversity at a glacial pace. Fortunately these groups are ahead of the times.

February 27, 2012

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, designed to bring attention to the seriousness of eating disorders, to raise awareness about biological and environmental triggers, and to fight the attitudes and expectations that contribute to these disorders.

This year’s theme is “Everybody Knows Somebody.” From the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):

This year the National Eating Disorders Association is stressing that we all need to be educated about the contributing factors, signs and symptoms of eating disorders in order to ensure early detection and intervention. We live in a culture saturated with unrealistic body-image messages and almost all of us know somebody struggling with an eating disorder. Because this is true, we urge you to do just one thing during NEDAwareness Week to 1) raise awareness that eating disorders are serious illnesses, not lifestyle choices; 2) provide accurate information to medical, educational and/or business communities, and 3) direct people to information and resources about eating disorders.

I think in part because eating disorders are often associated with girls, negative stereotypes lead people to think that eating disorders are just another bad thing girls are choosing to do, letting larger social forces off the hook for their contributions, and glossing over the need for real treatment. As NEDA explains:

Eating disorders are complex conditions that arise from a combination of long-standing behavioral, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, biological and social factors. As our natural body size and shape is largely determined by genetics, fighting our natural size and shape can lead to unhealthy dieting practices, poor body image and decreased self-esteem. While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food and weight, they are about much more than food. Recent research has shown that genetic factors create vulnerabilities that place individuals at risk for acting on cultural pressures and messages and triggering behaviors such as dieting or obsessive exercise.

Events are being held in various cities to educate the public and promote solutions. The NEDA website also has extensive information and resources on eating disorders. NEDA’s latest project is Proud2Bme, a website geared toward teens that features great content on developing a positive body image and healthy relationships. Check it out!

December 29, 2011

Good Journalism: The Story of a Transgender Youth and Her Family

Earlier this month, The Boston Globe published a story that deserves special mention before resuming our holiday break.

The story starts by comparing identical twins, two boys who grew up with distinctly different personalities and interests. As Bella English writes:

Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.

Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.

You see where this is going. What makes it a must-share read is the family’s forthrightness in discussing the difficult decisions they made to ensure Wyatt, now 14 and named Nicole, is able to grow up in a world in which she feels loved, safe and welcomed.

Having read so many superficial or gee-whiz stories on transgender children and adults, this one will be remembered for its honesty and emotion, especially coming from Nicole’s father, Wayne, 53. Here’s just one example:

Last winter, Maine state representative Kenneth Fredette, a Republican from Penobscot County, sponsored a bill that would have repealed protections for transgender people in public restrooms, instead allowing schools and businesses to adopt their own policies. The bill was a response to the Maines’ 2009 lawsuit against the Orono School District.

Last spring Wayne and Nicole roamed the halls of the State House, button-holing legislators and testifying against the bill. “I’d be in more danger if I went into the boys bathroom,’’ Nicole told the lawmakers, who ultimately rejected the bill.

“She knows how to work a room,’’ her father says proudly. “She even convinced a cosponsor to vote the other way.’’

In October, the family was honored for its activism in helping defeat the transgender bathroom bill. The Maineses received the Roger Baldwin Award, named for a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, from the Maine chapter of the ACLU.

Surrounded by Kelly and the kids, Wayne told the audience that he and his wife have had top-notch guides as they confronted the unknown.

“As a conventional dad, hunter, and former Republican, it took me longer to understand that I never had two sons,’’ he told them. “My children taught me who Nicole is and who she needed to be.’’

Go read the whole thing. And also see “What If Your Child Says, I’m In The Wrong Body?” — an NPR interview with endocrinologist Norman Spack, co-founder of the Children’s Hospital Gender Management Services Clinic at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. Spack has worked with 30 transgender youth (including Nicole) and their families on the emotional and medical issues, particularly in adolescence.

Gunner Scott and Craig Norberg-BohmPlus: In related news this year, the Massachusetts Legislature passed and the governor signed into law the Transgender Equal Rights Bill, extending civil rights and hate crimes protections to transgender residents of that state. At left is a photo of Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, an advocate of the bill, and Craig Norberg-Bohm, coordinator for the Men’s Initiative for Jane Doe.

Both men contributed to the new edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves“; Scott’s piece, an adaptation of his remarks at the Jane Doe organization’s White Ribbon Day rally in 2010, explains how violence against transgender people is related to violence against women.

Finally, we’re looking forward to hearing more in 2012 about the forthcoming book “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a resource guide for the transgender population, covering health and legal issues, along with cultural and social questions, history and theory. Check out the list of contributors and topics.

December 21, 2011

The Health Cost of Black Women’s Hair Products

by Kat Friedrich

There is a striking lack of mainstream news coverage of the health hazards posed by beauty products, such as hair relaxers and skin lighteners, that are commonly used by black women. African-American women spend more on beauty products than white women do, but far too little research has looked at how women use these products.

So when the New York City-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice set out to survey African, African-American, and Latina women this year to find out how they use beauty products and what they know about them, it was an important step toward increasing awareness of a long-standing women’s health issue.

“We noticed that groups conducting surveys around this have focused on middle-class white women,” Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, campaign director for WE ACT in Harlem, told The Uptowner. “But there is a whole area of hair products that you wouldn’t know about unless you live in certain urban areas.”

Rochelle RitchieStraight hair has often — and unfairly — been an occupational requirement for black women. TV journalism is one of the most problematic fields (see the Maynard Institute’s historical view of “good hair” on the TV news). Reporter Rochelle Ritchie’s 2010 story (right) about going natural with her hair — and doing so publicly — made headlines and is included in the Body Image chapter in the new “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Keonte Coleman, an assistant journalism professor at Bennett College, has more on Ritchie’s backstory and decision to cut her hair on TV, and the standards to which black women in professional media positions are often held.

“Maybe there aren’t any guidelines preventing natural hairstyles, but there is a culture in place that fosters the need for black women to look like their white counterparts,” writes Coleman.

The ingredients of hair relaxers, which many black women use to straighten their curls, are anything but relaxing. Almost all of the samples of currently available hair relaxers tested by Environmental Working Group (EWG) were ranked highly toxic, although limited information was available. Allergic reactions, hormone disruption, immune system toxicity and organ toxicity were four of the main risks.

In contrast, hair straighteners, which are more commonly used by white women, have generally been considered to be relatively safer. EWG’s website shows most of these products are medium-risk with the highest concerns being allergic reactions, immune toxicity and hormone disruption. These risks are similar to those of the hair polishers which are used by women of color.

That was the thinking, at least, until 2010, when concern about formaldehyde in Brazilian keratin hair straighteners made headlines after salon workers in Oregon and internationally complained of breathing problems and eye irritation. Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical that can cause a host of health problems, including an increased risk of cancer.

In response, the FDA this year sent a warning letter to the makers of the hair straightening product Brazilian Blowout, which was found to contain formaldehyde even though it was labeled “formaldehyde free.” (The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides a timeline and status update since complaints were first lodged.)

It’s interesting that the formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout drew criticism from the FDA, while the many ingredients in hair relaxers African-American women use have remained under the radar. These relaxers, as well as costly hair extensions, have been on the market for a long time.

Yumna Mohamed, reporting for The Uptowner, summarized some of the research on black women’s hair products:

While hair dyes, bleaches and relaxers have already been linked to skin problems (including rashes, burns, itching and hair loss), a number of national studies are being conducted to determine whether women of color face higher risks of breast and lung cancer from beauty product exposure.

Dr. Mary Beth Terry, a Columbia University epidemiologist, published a study in May in the Journal of Immigration and Minority Health showing that African-American and African-Caribbean women were more likely to be exposed to hormonally-active chemicals in hair products than white women, and used them more often.

“These products are often used daily and over the course of many years,” Terry says. “A number of these commonly-used products contain endocrine disruptors and placenta, and exposure to these could cause women to be more susceptible to hormone-sensitive diseases such as aggressive breast cancer.”

WE ACT expects to release its survey findings in January. It will use the information to lobby the cosmetics industry and advise women about the dangers in hair products.

Kat Friedrich is an environmental journalist whose work focuses on urban communities. She lives in Boston, uses Twitter, and blogs at Science Is Everyone’s Story.

December 15, 2011

Participate in a Study of Body Image and Well-Being

A Doctor of Psychology candidate at Deakin University in Australia who is working on her thesis about the connection between a woman’s body image and her sense of well-being contacted us with a request to share a link to the online questionnaire where women 18 and older can participate in her research.

The questionnaire will ask you about how you feel about your body, behaviors related to your body, and how you feel about yourself in general. You can complete it online and they estimate that it should take no more than 20-30 minutes to complete.

The survey includes some questions about sexual orientation, height, and weight, as well as your satisfaction with specific parts and areas of your body and how much you think you resemble your “ideal” body. The researchers do mention that “The completion of this study may result in increased self-awareness regarding your attitudes and feelings about your body, yourself, and your life. For some individuals, this self-awareness may produce…discomfort.” Information about how your responses will be kept private is also provided on the website.

November 23, 2011

Different Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: The Wide Range of Normal Vulvas

As mentioned in yesterday’s post on the new book “What You Really Really Want,” this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine carried an amazing article  – Teaching Good Sex — that uses a Philadelphia private school’s approach to sex ed to illustrate a simple but controversial question: What if we actually taught young people about pleasure, orgasms, healthy relationships, and the wide variety of what is normal in both sexual desire and physical appearance?

I want to highlight one specific issue raised in the article — the lack of awareness among high school students about what women’s genitalia look like. While there has been little fanfare about the elective class so far, its instructor, Al Vernacchio, a well-liked and respected sex scholar who also teaches English at the school, notes that some lessons do draw more attention than others:

The lessons that tend to raise eyebrows outside the school, according to Vernacchio, are a medical research video he shows of a woman ejaculating — students are allowed to excuse themselves if they prefer not to watch — and a couple of dozen up-close photographs of vulvas and penises. The photos, Vernacchio said, are intended to show his charges the broad range of what’s out there. “It’s really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s,” he said. What’s interesting, he added, is that both the boys and girls receive the photographs of the penises rather placidly but often insist that the vulvas don’t look “normal.” “They have no point of reference for what a normal, healthy vulva looks like, even their own,” Vernacchio said.

One female student remarked that when the class covered a biology unit, she was surprised she knew quite a bit about the opposite sex: “I probably would’ve been able to label just as many of the boys’ body parts as the girls’, which is sad. I mean, you should know about the names of your own body.”

Compounding the problem of a lack of education is that many students are relying on the most readily accessible photos of women’s naked bodies — media-distorted images and online pornography — and these images don’t exactly promote a realistic view.

I recall that my own sex education experiences involved uniform line drawings of healthy genitals and graphic photos of STI-affected genitals, but nothing visual, and especially not photographs, to indicate that there really is a wide range of what healthy genitalia look like. At Our Bodies Ourselves, we have a long history of encouraging people to grab a mirror and take a look at their own genitals, advice that shows up from the earliest to the most recent editions. Another good resource about women’s genitals is this article over at Scarleteen, which talks realistically about normal variation in size, shape, and color.

Meanwhile, there’s a petition at calling for better tracking of cosmetic genital surgery. The petition also wants surgeons who offer these services to “provide full information on genital diversity” when working with women who have concerns about the appearance of their genitals. “Without this information, women cannot make an informed choice,” the petition reads. It continues:

Most surgeons’ websites are loaded with photographs that misinform the public about female genital diversity. The “before” photos in the before-and-after online photo galleries depict a range of genitals as abnormal, but scientific studies show that many different shapes, sizes, and colors are normal. The photo galleries not only misinform, but they increase women’s and girls’ self-consciousness and add to anxiety. Photos may even be photoshopped or retouched.

This is a topic Heather Corinna also covers in the Scarleteen article, explaining that while some women do have physical discomfort or other medical reasons for wanting genital surgery, “for the most part, for nearly all women, your labia ARE normal, however much they vary. Beauty — as ever — remains in the eye of the beholder.”

That’s a lesson all students could benefit from.

May 2, 2011

“Skin Deep” Database Provides Details on Safety of Skin Care and Cosmetic Products

The Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, a free online database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, provides information on the safety and potential harms of ingredients in make-up, sunscreen, facial cleansers and moisturizers, contact lens solutions, shampoo, nail polish and remover, baby wipes, soaps, and creams, toothpaste, fragrances, and other cosmetic and skin care products.

You can browse by cosmetic category or search for the name of your favorite product to find out about possible hazards in terms of cancer risk, reproductive toxicities, and allergies. Information is also provided on companies’ animal testing policies. The directions and ingredients listed on each product label is listed, and links are provided to other similar product types and products from the same manufacturer. You can also read others comments and leave your own on specific product pages.

Because in some cases there may not be much testing data on particular ingredients, the amount of available data is labeled, such as none, limited, fair, or robust. Information is provided on whether the data come from a single or multiple animal studies (which may be of limited value for humans), or if there is strong evidence of potential harm in humans.

Sources of data used for the assessments and the methods for computing scores are provided at Thus, you can see how the assessments and ratings are derived in a pretty transparent way. For the fellow librarian readers, yes, I sent them a suggestion about the Hazardous Substance Data Bank!

I love the idea of a database like this, because it’s often difficult to know how “safe” any particular product is. I personally don’t have the appropriate background in toxicology to assess how accurately the potential risks of common ingredients are described, so I’d love to hear from readers with that expertise. I’ll also leave it to commenters to talk about why it was necessary for the “men’s” products to be in their own segregated section of the site. ;)

December 13, 2010

Quick Hit: Modern Lady Takes on “Bridalplasty”

I don’t really even want to talk about “Bridalplasty,” the new show in which women compete to win the “ultimate” wedding – complete with plastic surgery – because it’s too easy to ridicule the participating women without examining the larger issues that make anybody think this whole show and its foundational ideas about women and weddings are a good idea. It would take more than a blog post to deconstruct all of the problems here. Instead, I’m going to leave it to Modern Lady’s Erin Gibson (successor to Sarah Haskins), who concludes that everything about the show needs its own makeover:

If you can tolerate more, see the New York Times,, and Fornicating Feminists.

November 17, 2010

Replacing “Perfection” With Action: SPARK Summit Sounds Alarm About Sexualization of Girls

by Nekose Wills | OBOS program assistant

The challenges girls face today are unlike the challenges many of us faced growing up. I’m 32, and I remember not caring about my Oscar the Grouch eyebrows, who designed my clothes, or how sexy I looked in them. Girls growing up today don’t have such freedom — they’re sexualized everywhere they look.

SPARK SummitThe SPARK Summit, held Oct. 21 at Hunter College in New York City, was an alarm, waking us up to the role we can play in bucking the status quo and giving us the tools to take on this fight. SPARK stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge.

The day started with opening remarks from Hunter College President Jennifer Raaband and MTV’s Amber Madison, summit host and author of “Hooking Up: A Girl’s All-Out Guide to Sex And Sexuality,” a book aimed at young women about sexual health, sexuality and relationships.

Feminist media critic Jean Kilbourne, creator of the groundbreaking “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” film series, also spoke, followed by a keynote address from the actor Geena Davis. Perhaps best known for her role in the film “Thelma and Louise, ” Davis has long advocated for increasing and diversifying the presence of female characters in media aimed at children. Her presence was a welcomed reminder that not everyone in Hollywood accepts business as usual.

The SPARK Summit encouraged young women to find their voices. There were a number of workshops specifically geared toward self-expression, such as Street Theater, FlipCam Journalism, and Blogs Rock. Throughout the day, it was clear that girls are very cognizant about being sold images of who they should be, but they lack resources to actively combat those images.

Media literacy is the first step. Melissa Campbell who works on media literacy in San Francisco and founded the Manfattan Project (“real fashion, large bodies”), led the Hard-Core Media Literacy workshop. In other workshops, girls created radio spots, photography and art, and shared personal stories. They discussed topics such as street harassment and legislation that would fund media literacy and youth empowerment programs (H.R. 4925).

My favorite part of the day was the Numbers Don’t Lie panel, during which researchers presented findings on how media images and messages influence girls. Among them:

• Even in video games where women are strong, central characters, their sexualized appearance negates the effect of the character’s power — “Video Game Vixens: The Sexualization of Women and Girls in Video Games,” Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz (University of Missouri-Columbia)

• Black women are the most sexualized group in music videos. — “Sexualization in Popular Female Artists’ Music Videos: An Analysis of Race and Genre,” Jennifer Stevens Aubrey (University of Missouri-Columbia)

• Black youth consume more media than their white peers, but they are less affected by the body image ideals perpetuated — “A Woman’s Worth: How Media Use Shapes Black and White Teens’ Views of the Feminine Ideal,” L. Monique Ward (University of Michigan)

• When the media sexualizes female athletes, it negatively affects girls’ perceptions of themselves and of female athletes — “‘You Can Score With Me’: What Girls Think of Sexed-Up Media Images of Female Athletes,” Elizabeth Daniels (University of Oregon)

• Low grades can spur girls to participate more in their own sexualization — “High Heels, Low Grades? The Costs Associated With Sexualization,” Rebecca Bigler & Sarah McKenney (University of Texas, Austin)

• The attire of women and girls in G-rated movies is no different than portrayals in higher-rated movies — “General Audience or G-Porn? A Look at the Prevalence and Sexualization of Females in Film and Children’s Television programming,” Stacy Smith (University of Southern California)

I also learned that Barbie is still evil. One study — “‘I can be … Anything?’: Playing with Barbie Reduces Girls’ Career Aspirations,” by Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen (Oregon State University and University of California, Santa Cruz) — found that playing with Barbie lessened girls’ perceptions of attainable occupations. It didn’t matter if girls played with Doctor Barbie — they still thought they could not achieve as much as when they played with Mrs. Potato Head.

The panel made me realize the extent to which girls are encouraged to see themselves as sexual objects — even girls as young as 3 can still be the toddler in a tiara.

We are told that if we just buy enough products, go on enough diets, and work hard to emulate airbrushed and Photoshopped images of girls and women, we might achieve perfection — and there’s something inherently wrong with us if we don’t dedicate ourselves to this quest. It’s time to take our sexy back.

There is nothing wrong with sexy as long as it is not forced on girls and as long as women get to define it on their own terms, not through the lens of a voyeuristic, paternalistic society.

My favorite quotes from the conference were “I am whole, not a ho!” “I am a quirky black girl and proud of it!” and, finally, “Freedom is never really won, you have to earn it in every generation.” We are trying to earn freedom for the well-being of today’s girls.

Years ago, I learned to disconnect from the constant onslaught of negative media images by consuming less. When I stopped watching music videos, especially the ones on BET, and stopped buying women’s magazines, I was much happier. There were less false images for me to compare myself with.

Those images were replaced by the women I saw on the train and on the street, who were in my life as three-dimensional people, with non-airbrushed photos and presences, with blemishes on their faces and extra fat rolls on their sides; real women, beautiful as the reality of an honest life.

The SPARK Summit was the reminder I needed that we can be who we are, with no apologies. We can replace the constant drumbeat of fake “perfection” with action, resistance and knowledge. And, most importantly, we need to have this dialogue on a continuing basis.

From the moment we put girls in front of a television, turn on the radio, drive past a billboard, or let them look at a magazine, we need to reinforce what it means to be beautiful, media literate, and critical of the world around us. I have a few young ladies I need to call.

October 20, 2010

Seeing Ourselves: (Mis)Representations of Girls and Women on Television

by Culley Schultz | SPARK blog tour

As a teenage girl, I watch television on a regular basis. “Glee” happens to be a favorite of mine. Unlike most shows on television, “Glee” showcases students of every race, religion and size. There are multiple representations, but more importantly, there is accurate representation.

The majority of shows now depict glamorous lifestyles enjoyed only by the rich and skinny. Shows like “America’s Next Top Model” are not only using unrealistically thin women, they are forcing women to compete to be the most beautiful.

The media’s obsession with thinness is having a serious effect on girls and young women. Narrow definitions of the “perfect woman” put a box around women, and it is closing in on our ability to be ourselves.

Studies show that “cultural pressures that glorify ‘thinness’ and place value on obtaining the ‘perfect body’” [pdf] play a major role in causing eating disorders. Over half of teenage girls use unhealthy weight control methods such as skipping meals or taking laxatives.

Most children begin watching television shows at a young age. By age 10, 81 percent of girls [pdf] are afraid of becoming fat. It is because of the portrayal of teens on shows such as “Gossip Girl,” which attracted more than 2 million viewers during the 2009 fall season, that girls believe they must be thin to be “hot” or to have relationships. This message needs to be reversed.

It is not only young girls who are affected by the media’s messaging; 45 percent of U.S. women are on a diet any given day. The sexualization of women on television reaches millions of viewers every day. There is a significant difference in the messaging between the representation of women in the Victoria’s Secret commercials, where only thin models strut in their panties with angel wings on, and the Playtex bra commercials, which showcase women of varying sizes.

The truth is most fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women, but we rarely see ourselves on TV or in movies. The lack of accurate representations of women in the media has created the belief that we’re not good enough unless we look like those models or actresses.

It is time to change that mindset. The media is playing to what they think we “like” to see. It is up to us to change their ideas. I know I would like to see more girls that look like me. On Monday nights, I choose the self-esteem boosting characters of “Glee” over the inaccurate portrayals of teens on “Gossip Girl.” If we have more of these options, a real change will commence. Women have the power to demand this change. And from that change, we will all benefit.

Culley Schultz is a senior at Glen Ridge High School in New Jersey where she is vice-president of the Glen Ridge chapter of Girls Learn International. Culley previously interviewed teen girls on their views of media representations of girls and women. Watch the video at the Women’s Media Center.

Look for another post from the SPARK blog tour tomorrow at Feministe.

SPARK SummitSPARK — which stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge — is both a summit and a movement designed to push back against the increasingly sexualized images of girlhood in the media.

The SPARK Summit, scheduled for Oct. 22 at Hunter College in New York City (and virtually online), is focused on working with girl leaders and activists to jump start an intergenerational movement for girls’ rights to healthy sexuality. The idea is to engage teen girls and young women to be part of the solution rather than to protect them from the problem by providing them with information and tools to become activists, organizers, researchers, policy influencers and media makers.