By Diana Martinez

Diana Martinez is proud to say that she is a senior from Mount Holyoke College and a Woman’s History major, Spanish minor.  Her journey as an activist began when she joined the feminist a capella group on campus called The Nice Shoes, which sings empowering songs to promote human rights.  With the Shoes, her Mount Holyoke sisters, and the strong influence of her sister and mother, she has learned how to effectively dialogue and raise awareness about the issues most important to her.  The SPARK Summit champions her beliefs about the perceptions of women, and she cannot think of a more effective, or FUN way to join the struggle for equality!

Geena Davis, Amber Madison, Jean Kilbourne, feminist organizations like About-Face, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Women’s Media Center…these are just a few of the big names and influential activists who have come to the SPARK Summit in new York City in support of girls’ and women’s ownership of their bodies and identities.  We were encouraged to Take Sexy Back! and stop letting the media and this patriarchal society tell women that sexy can only fit into one mold, and that sexy only pertains to society’s ideals of beauty. Why isn’t smart sexy? And I don’t mean the “sexy librarian” or the “naughty schoolgirl.” I mean, intelligence and speaking your mind. Why isn’t power sexy? Why not having an opinion and stepping outside of the box? This is what Taking Sexy Back means: to choose for yourself what makes you confident and comfortable in your own skin. It is a feeling, not an appearance. It is for you to decide, no one else.

I had no idea that the Spark Summit would be so huge, that it would attract so many women and girls. There is something empowering about so many people coming together from all parts of the country and from completely different backgrounds, all advocating for the same thing. Just the numbers prove that the sexualization and objectification of young girls, teenagers, and women is a HUGE issue and affects all kinds of females.

Being a huge fan of the About-Face organization based in San Francisco, I had to attend their workshop “Hard Core Media Literacy.” We learned how to be critical of advertisements and truly read the underlying message. This is something we can all do, and it’s really easy because all you have to do is watch TV and music videos or look at magazine ads or billboards. Next time you find yourself viewing the entertainment industry, ask yourself these questions: “What is the ad selling” “Which techniques is it using to sell the ad?” and “How does this ad want to make its viewers feel?” It’s surprising how many times the latter question is answered with: It makes me feel bad about myself. The advertisement industry does this on purpose to make people want to buy their product. According to the workshop, ads play off the hope of viewers to improve their dissatisfaction. But what if viewers are already satisfied with themselves and their lives? Easy fix: make them feel like they shouldn’t be.

Did you know that most TV advertisements are targeted toward males ages 18-34? Doesn’t it make sense now that many ads portray women as objects or accessories? So in reality, the ads are feeding of the desires of men, and are telling men that this is what they should desire in a woman. Vicious cycle. According to empirical research done by Geena Davis’ ,Institute on Gender in Media, the more males watch television, the more sexist their views become. Similarly, the more females watch television, the more likely they are to believe that they have less options to go by,  i.e., the virgin angel or the sex kitten.
When you see an ad again, ask yourself what you really want, not what the media tells you to want. And also ask yourself if you want to buy the product when the company displays women so negatively. Then you can implement a boycott/girlcott on the item. Refusing to buy goods is one of the oldest methods of protest. Um, U.S. Revolution anyone? Civil Rights movement ring a bell? These two huge movements in U.S. history are examples of how people can make a change.  It’s inherent in our own history!

In the afternoon I attended a workshop on sexual harassment in schools led by Girls for Gender Equity.  I think sexual harassment is a very important topic, especially among young women in middle school, high school, and college.  Many do not realize what exactly falls under the term “sexual harassment.” In the workshop, we brainstormed different meanings and descriptions of sexual harassment: It is always unwanted, sometimes in the form of touching, looking, or through verbal mechanisms.  It can sometimes be disguised as a compliment, but truly it is meant to be a way in which one can insinuate ownership over another’s body.  Many experience it from random people on the street, or people they know; friends can even sexually harass one another- which makes the situation all the more difficult to confront.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment has been normalized in the school system today.  It is commonly excused as something inherent and natural.  There is an attitude that everyone has to go through it, but this is not true.  As women, we have a right to our own bodies and we should not have to endure others imposing themselves on our own sexualities.  What’s even scarier, many colleges are beginning to protect those students who commit sexual crimes against women. Too many times I have heard of instances of sexual violence ignored because the incident occurred on a college campus.  Even though it is a huge problem today, it can be helped.  We must communicate and show others that it is not acceptable, and should not be excused.

Of course, there is no way to avoid sexual harassment, so do not think you have to dress, walk, or act differently just because somebody else is behaving inappropriately toward you.  We did, however, discuss ways to be more confident and assertive when dealing with those who make us uncomfortable.  Being the target of sexual harassment can be embarrassing, and sometimes it is in your best interest to just walk away and ignore the comments.  But there are other times when we have the opportunity to say something.  Be assertive; let someone know if you are not okay with his or her actions.  Many times communication can solve the problem directly.  We can throw them off by resisting and not submitting.  The best advice one could give is to be confident.  Women are taught to walk with their head down- it is a sign of passivity.  So let’s make a conscious effort to stand straight and look the world in the eye.  Sometimes direct eye contact from a confident woman can make a cowardly cat-caller back down.

The SPARK Summit is the result of girls and women speaking up, which is a hard thing to do, especially with the popular media, influential advertisements and large powerful corporations on the other side of the argument. But obviously when somebody speaks, others listen. We all came to SPARK because we have heard others advocate for this issue and it has influenced us to spread the message. The most important thing we can do to further our cause is speak out. So say something! Whether you were at the summit or not! Whether you are advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, labor rights, or any other cause, SAY SOMETHING! Because although we think that many don’t care or don’t agree, there is always someone who will! OR just because we may not have a lot of influence, somebody in your audience maybe DOES and can do something about it! So use your words, because you have a right to express your opinion and fight for something better!