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The Genesis of a Campaign

June 15th, 1997

A couple years ago, I was standing near a family with several teenage girls ranging in age from 12-15 years. Their mother offered them some cookies and the girls took them laughing, “Oh I’ll have a cookie! I can start my diet tomorrow!” I was so surprised, and then saddened, to see these gangly teenage girls already talking as if they needed to pay attention to their weight. OH NO!!! I thought. It’s starting so young! Just as I used to pretend to smoke when I was a little girl, copying my mother, I think that young women today copy what older women say and do; mimicking our conversations of diets and fat grams and drooping body parts.

I tell you, that day changed my life. I am thirty-five years old. I know what women talk about. I have heard female friends and relatives, coworkers, acquaintances and strangers, public figures, movie stars and TV personalities, sports figures and artists and my own wicked little “you better not eat that” voice bemoaning their bodies. It’s unfortunate, but true that women spend an inordinate amount of time talking, thinking or worrying about the way we look. It strikes me as so unfair that our culture actually encourages young women to think about the flatness of their tummies and the number of calories in a bagel while their male peers are still eating as many brownies as they please. (Yes, there is a standard for men to look good too. Quick, go count the number of magazines for men that mention weight/appearance/bodies on the cover. Consider whether any of them are aimed at boys age 13-18. Now count the ones aimed at women and girls. I’ll wait here.)

Back? So you see what I mean. It does seem that if we women obsess about the way we look, we keep more than a few industries in business. When we start to believe that there are products and services out there that will make us be more this or look more that, we SPEND! (This phenomenon is not limited to women by the way.) Let’s see. We gals spend an awful lot on clothes. Can’t be left looking out of date! Then there’s make-up, hair cuts, hair stuff, shoes (glorious shoes!) hosiery, intimate apparel, nail stuff, jewelry, bath products and other sundry beauty potions. When it comes to products for women, after all, there is always a cure for something too dry, too oily, too rough, too soft, too pimply, too hairy, too short, too long, too dark, too light or too damned stinky!

Good thing there are all those fragrances for sale. All the designers have a perfume now for one chief reason. They are really, really cheap to produce and you can charge a bundle for them. (Hell of a profit margin there.) We also buy workout gear (always important to dress totally cute when you’re sweating) and pay for gym membership or workout videos. Then there are diet products: diet foods, diet books, diet programs, diet regimens and just plain diets. (The diet industry receives billions and billions of dollars from women every year.)

And if you can’t get your body to look perfect, you could always have some fat sucked out of it or a sack of saline stuffed into it. (According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, the plastic surgery industry made $5 billion in 1996. 94% of the patients were women.

I’m not really down on all the choices we have. I AM down on all the “needs” that are created. Hey, it’s fun to wear lipstick and you feel great after working out, but do we feel that we HAVE to do these things? What if we don’t do them? Is there a price to pay if we spend more time say, reading than we spend working out? Is there a penalty for not shaving our bikini line before going to the pool? Just asking.

Creating About-Face — the organization and the website — is our attempt to examine and shake up all these issues about women and body image and fat and identity and disordered eating and our worth within our culture and our role as good consumers and good little girls. And to poke a little fun while we’re at it. I think we have a responsibility individually and as a society to try to stop what is unfair and just plain wrong. Encouraging females young and old to feel badly about all those characteristics that make them unique or female, or both is wrong. I want to stop it. But then, I’m a meddler from way back.


Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. By day she works as a software applications manager for Miller Freeman Inc. She never ever weighs herself and is going grey fast.