By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times
WASHINGTON, November 3, 2012 – Grocery shopping with my parents on weekend afternoons was a boring chore in intermediate and middle school. However, I went along and helped to carry packages of hotdogs, baked beans, and fish sticks in order to reap my reward in the end: a fashion magazine.
I flipped through the pages and pictures, the articles and quizzes, taking my time to pick the magazine with the most relevant topics to make me cool, to make me popular, to make me Hot!
Once we were home and (most) of the food was unpacked, I sprawled across my bed to study every page. I dog-eared any article, advertisement, or beauty tip promising to make me over. I scooped mayonnaise from the jar and onto my head in order to tame my frizzy hair, and I poured peroxide and baking soda over my toothbrush to whiten my teeth. I ordered painful hair-removal products, wasted money on bronzing lotions that turned my skin orange, and I stole pockets full of products from Rite-Aid, including foundation, nail polish, and facial cleansing oils.
But it wasn’t enough. Nothing made me look like the alluring models in the magazines.
My feet were gross, I thought. My skin was too pale and my arms were too hairy. I wore blue jeans and sneakers even during the hottest South Jersey heat waves in order to cover up my translucent salamander skin.
I thought I was ugly. And as I tried harder to be pretty, I also tried harder to be sexy like the girls in the magazines and music videos.
I curled my hair; I puckered my lips in the mirror. I squeezed into tight jeans and wore half-shirts to show off my belly. By the summer of sixth grade, cars began honking at me along my way to and from the local Rite-Aid.
At first I was surprised, turning to see the long-haired boys waving from inside their Corvettes and Monte Carlos. I started buying Stewart’s root beer and Mistic Mango Mania sodas from Wawa because they looked like beer and wine cooler bottles. On the way back home, I would dramatically swig from one of the bottles each time a car passed by. I thought it made me look older.
These values that I learned from the media, to seek beauty, popularity, maturity, and material things, led to low self-esteem and the misfortunate conclusion that sex appeal equaled self-value. These ideas colored the landscape of my intermediate and middle school experiences and ultimately led to depression, exploitation, and the lack of understanding personal boundaries and other basic rights.
The result? A perfectly seasoned victim for a sex trafficker.
Sex traffickers understand the messages the media and popular culture are sending our youth. They look for those teens who are most influenced and most vulnerable. What I didn’t know at age 11, 12, and 13 was exactly what leveraged my trafficker’s ability to befriend me at age 14, to lure me away from home, and to force and coerce me into accepting a life of perpetual exploitation…
But there’s hope.
Media renegade, Nicole Clark, aims to be that missing messenger for today’s teens and preteens. Nicole has created a documentary to teach girls and boys about the negative messages and negative effects that the media has on girls’ self-image and self-esteem. As a former Elite fashion model, Nicole gained valuable insight into the inner workings of the fashion and advertising world. From the oversexualization of girls to the pressures to be thin and pretty, Nicole explores the impact of the media on our girls.
“Who sets today’s standards for beauty,” Nicole asks, “And how are these standards affecting individuals and society? Who is responsible? Are there ways this can be changed? If so, who can and will change it?”
In her documentary, Cover Girl Culture, Nicole navigates the worlds of fashion, modeling, advertising, and celebrity and exposes their impact on teens and young women. Through exclusive interviews with the editors of Teen Vogue and Elle magazines, the film takes a hard look at the fashion industry and the messages it conveys to young people. It also reveals the pressures that tweens and teens face, including our celebrity-centered culture to the shocking problems caused by the sexualization of girls by the media.
Cover Girl Culture comes with a curriculum for teachers and other caregivers to explore this topic more in-depth with their students. A key feature of the film is that it focuses on solutions, and it leaves audience members feeling informed and empowered. Seeing through the Media Matrix, a companion DVD to Cover Girl Culture, is also available and offers 60 minutes of media literacy tools for educators, parents, and teens.
For a more a customized and personal approach, Nicole also offers workshops to middle and high schools, organizations, and businesses across the country and abroad. Nicole’s presentations offer the following objectives to teens and adults alike:
• Exposes how the media has manipulated their perspectives on body image and beauty.
• Explores the motives behind advertisers and challenges audience members to take back their power.
• Gives girls tools to build their self-esteem, which helps to immunize them against the media’s manipulative messages.
• Examines why we’ve given our power away and allowed fashion editors and advertisers to dictate beauty to us.
• Encourages teens and preteens to become media activists and to develop critical thinking.
• Educates youth on true values versus the false values that are perpetually peddled to girls by the media.
• Helps youth understand how the media’s sexualization of girls affects them.
Nicole’s husband, John Clark, also offers workshops for boys with similar topics called “Wise Guy Workshops.”
I am a firm advocate that media literacy must be included in every intermediate and middle school program in America. Children are most easily influenced in their early teen and preteen years; it only makes sense to offer them the tools needed to navigate the many negative messages in the media. Traffickers depend on these very messages to groom our children for exploitation.
Had I understood the tactics of advertisers and the plasticity of popular culture, I could have developed a more solid foundation of self-esteem, assertiveness, and positive values. I can’t help but wonder how different my middle school summer vacation could have been… It is for this reason that I also believe media literacy is paramount in any trafficking prevention program geared to teens.
For more information about Nicole’s workshops, or to order your copy of Cover Girl Culture today, contact Nicole@zenpenfilms.com.