“There is so much activism about girls and young women, and sometimes women end up speaking for girls rather than letting girls speak for ourselves,” says Anya Josephs, a a 19-year-old sophomore at Columbia University in New York City.
That’s why she’s excited to be part of SPARK Movement’s SPARKteam, where she and other young women from across the country are working to “demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media,” according to the SPARK website.
“In SPARK, not only do the adults step back and let the girls drive actions, writing and the entire organization based on what matters to us, but there is also a consistent, concerted effort in the organization to make sure the girls who speak out on certain issues are the ones who are most affected, such as girls of color tackling issues that have to do with race or fat girls speaking out on issues of size discrimination,” says Josephs.
Hear Anya’s take on what SPARK has already achieved, tools that should be in every activists toolkit and the ways that being an activist has changed her life.
What has SPARK been able to achieve so far?
Anya: SPARK is an international organization of girls and young women writing and acting directly to combat sexualization in the media and the world. SPARK was founded as a response to research that showed the devastatingly negative effect of sexualized media portrayals of women on girls’ self-esteem.
SPARK has seen a number of successes to our direct actions, most notably Seventeen Magazine responding to our campaign by taking the “Body Peace Treaty” to never Photoshop girls’ faces or bodies (this was in response to our request that they run one un-Photoshopped spread a month).
However, SPARK’s greatest success has definitely been in creating a model for direct, active feminism that centers on girls’ stories and girls’ voices.
You are personally part of a campaign to get H&M stores to start using plus-size mannequins. What’s that about?
Anya: My hope is that it will put the issue of size discrimination in fashion on the radar. We definitely applaud H&M for deciding to expand to a plus-sized clothing line and using plus-sized models like Jennie Runk (see SPARK’s interview with her here!) However, the fact that only so called straight-sized mannequins are used in stores means that, once again, plus-sized clothes are shoved into a corner, proverbially and literally. Stores should not be subtly (or outright) shaming their customers for shopping in plus-sizes.
We want to call on H&M to set an industry standard of treating plus-sizes and straight sizes the same way in their stores, and to be a safe space where girls of all sizes can shop together and have fun. The experience of shopping, often a very social one for most teen girls, can be devastating for a plus-sized girl who has to accompany her friends to store after store where there is nothing that fits her—or where the clothes that do are hidden away. Putting plus-sized clothes on display, with plus-sized mannequins, will reaffirm H&M’s commitment to making their clothes accessible to everyone.
What tools have you and SPARK used to create change?
Anya: We use petitions (in our partnership with Change.org), give interviews to media outlets and participate in direct actions, such as when I posed next to a mannequin at H&M to demonstrate just one of the wide range of shapes and sizes girls come in—and mannequins could, too. Our blog is also a critical lever to create change. The blog allows us to explain and support our positions with long-form writing. However, the importance of social media cannot be denied. Our campaigns are successful because they are virally shared on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr by the girls who these issues affect most.
What would you want other girls to know about why it’s important to get political, and how they can start becoming activists?
Anya: It’s important to engage in activism because young women have to be the ones to work to change the systems that are holding us down, or people will continue to speak for us instead of to us. We need to be able to speak out about what the problems are, which young women can do by blogging, by tweeting, and speaking in person to their friends and loved ones. [We need] to be able to imagine solutions through direct action.
Not everyone can engage in activism—it’s exhausting and difficult and requires an amount of financial and educational privilege that not everyone has. I want to acknowledge that, but I also want girls to know that feminism does affect them. There’s this stigma around the word “feminist” that really worries me—as though you can’t be interested in fashion, or love men, or be stereotypically “feminine” and still speak up to demand human rights. Feminism is the reason they have the right to vote when they are 18, that they can go to college alongside men and get the same education if they want to and that they are able to talk about the issues that affect them.
If they can, they should speak up, because every girl who has felt bad about her body, every girl who has been sexually harassed and every girl who has felt silenced in favor of male relatives, friends or classmates could benefit from politically engaging with feminism.
How has your work with SPARK changed you personally?
Anya: SPARK has been transformative. It has certainly made me a much more informed feminist, a better writer and a more passionate activist. I’ve had wonderful experiences, from fulfilling a lifelong dream of meeting Gloria Steinem at an event I attended with SPARK to working with the amazingly creative and talented girls on our team.
However, the real gift SPARK has given me is the ability to recognize the negative effect a sexist society has had on my life. I had internalized so many negative messages about myself and, especially, my body. When I joined SPARK, I was suffering from a serious eating disorder. SPARK has been a major part of my healing process. It has helped me realize that negative feelings are not my fault or anything to be ashamed of. I can use my voice to fight back against shaming and harmful messages for myself and for girls everywhere.