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November / December 2004

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Beauty Secrets

Photo by Fred J. Field

Beauty Secrets
Maine girls learn how important it is to Turn Beauty Inside Out

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The screaming headlines, provocative ads and glitzy glamour photos are a siren song. Despite Jennifer Heald's directions to the contrary, the small group of fifth-grade girls can't help flipping through the glossy, color-blasted pages of the latest issues of YM, Teen People and Elle Girl they've just been handed.

"As you go through the magazines and cut out images, what messages are you getting about what young women are supposed to be?" prompts Heald, as the girls paste the pictures on poster board.

"These women are interested in making other people happy," says Brandi.

"Here the message is to be skinny and wear bikinis," says Elise, holding up an ad.

"And wear high heels."

"And wear a lot of makeup, look pouty and sexy, barely have any clothes on, have long hair and really big ugh, I can't say it."

Once the girls have their collages compiled, they compare the images and media messages to their earlier list of characteristics of the important women in their lives. What the girls find in the teen magazines doesn't jive with the strengths of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters loving, caring, fun, intelligent, strong, honest, cool, artistic, ambitious, talented, accepting, messy. Women who speak their minds, work hard and are "super duper."

In this basic exercise in media literacy, the differences between real life and media portrayals of women are stark. Girls learn how the media work, how they produce meaning and how they construct reality.

"This gives girls an opportunity to talk about what's real and to realize there are many ways to be a woman in the world, not just the ways they see on television or in magazines," says Extension Educator Aileen Fortune.

"These activities help girls develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques used and the impact on the consumer. Girls soon recognize that advertisers in magazines or on TV aren't going to make a penny unless you don't like the way you look."

Maine Turn Beauty Inside Out Participants

Maine Turn Beauty Inside Out Participants

Maine Turn Beauty Inside Out Artwork
Photos by Fred J. Field

Artwork by Turn Beauty Inside Out, Maine participants

Media literacy is just one component of a program for girls and women called Turn Beauty Inside Out, Maine. Developed by University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Turn Beauty Inside Out is designed to heighten awareness of a new cultural definition of beauty: good hearts, great works and activism. Through York County Extension, community and school groups receive an "awareness kit" of activities, educational materials and resource lists focusing on issues of body image, self-esteem, media literacy and leadership.

Last spring, Sea Road School in Kennebunk, Maine, added Turn Beauty to its after-school program. The six-week segment for girls was led by Jennifer Heald, school-based youth advocate with Caring Unlimited, York County's Domestic Violence Project, and Rachel Phipps, youth services coordinator for Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.

"Megan loves it," says Vicki Davis of Kennebunk, the mother of one of the girls in the Sea Road School program. "She's learned to accept herself better; she now says good things about herself."

Michelle Fortier-Oosterman, who also has a daughter in the program, says the Turn Beauty Inside Out message is particularly poignant for girls headed into middle school. "It's important for girls this age, when they're starting to be interested in boys, to not lose sight of themselves who they are and what they can be as women," she says.

Other Turn Beauty "thought-changing" activities include "Stepping Over the Line," in which participants focus on their similarities books, pets, sports, etc. "Lunch Tables" addresses clique behavior; "Alien Invasion" focuses on the definition of a girl.

"True Beauty" is the project's signature activity, in which girls explore how beauty is defined in their schools and communities. By sharing powerful stories about the women in their lives, the girls reconceptualize the meaning of true beauty.

"The girls are not exposed to some of these ideas, but we find they're hungry for them; they ring so true and are ever-present in their lives," says Phipps. "The hope is this will help girls find and use their voices, and support and become allies for each other."

Turn Beauty Inside Out began as a campaign of New Moon magazine, an ad-free bimonthly for girls 814. In 2000, in reaction to People magazine's annual "50 Most Beautiful People" edition, New Moon published its own special issue, "25 Beautiful Girls." The now annual New Moon edition in May/June celebrates girls' inner beauty and kicks off a yearly Turn Beauty Inside Out campaign, focusing on different media and their portrayal of girls and women.

In collaboration with New Moon in 2002, Fortune brought the campaign to Maine as part of Cooperative Extension's Gender Project. Fortune has spent 22 years as a parenting and child development specialist in York County, and as a leader in Extension's Gender Project, which explores gender socialization and equity issues in homes, schools and communities. A primary focus is on how cultural definitions in society dictate what it means to be male and female in this country.

"Research shows that the media are powerful, daunting forces in raising our children," Fortune says. "As media and culture define masculinity as increasingly violent and femininity as more sexualized, the challenge is what to do about it. How can we give parents the tools and support to help their children deconstruct the media and decide for themselves who they are in the world?"

To begin to change culture, girls and boys need to grow up with new skills that, coupled with parental and community support, help them move beyond stereotypical limits and become happy, healthy, whole adults. For girls, it's about recognizing and valuing what constitutes true beauty, and that there is much more to people than outward appearance.

Extension's Community Awareness Kit contains educational curricula compiled from the best state and national programs in the areas of media literacy, body image, leadership, and empowerment for girls and women.

"So much of this is about working in small groups in communities. It's in communities that conversations and networking inspire local action. These conversations in homes, schools and community settings become the bridge between individual action and cultural change," Fortune says.

by Margaret Nagle
November-December, 2004

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