Speaking of My Beautiful Mommy (see post below), in study after study we see the impact of a culture for girls so toxic that such a book is touted unapologetically on national news shows, ensuring the author millions in new clientele and books sales. A recent media survey of 3000 women found that appearance and weight trumped disease as cause for women’s concern — 84% of the women surveyed felt they were overweight and 56% were concerned about diet/weight, while just 20% express concern about heart health and 18% about diabetes. (Alas, we can be sure that the results of this marketing study won’t be used to turn those figures around.)

Campbell Leaper and Christia Spears Brown studied 600 adolescent girls between the ages of 12 and 18 and found that 90% experienced sexual harassment in school, most often in the form of unwanted romantic attention, demeaning gender-related comments, teasing based on their appearance, and unwanted physical contact. As if girls don’t have enough to deal with, along comes “bodysnarking”, the blogosphere posting and dissection of unflattering pictures, usually of and by girls and women. Finally, as if to come full circle in the most terrifying way, a study of 818 adolescents (aged 11-19) conducted for a British health care provider reported that one in three girls surveyed had tried to harm themselves by methods including cutting, burning, punching and poisoning.

The connections among these various studies and reports aren’t simple, but they speak to the distinction psychologist and eating disorder specialist Catherine Steiner-Adair made years ago, between the body pathological and the body politic. In a culture in which there is heightened control and discipline around body and appearance, ubiquitous experiences of sexual harassment, and a steady diet of sexualization and objectification, we shouldn’t be surprised that girls exercise their own means of protection and control, using their bodies to speak their pain, release their anxiety and stress, and channel their resistance. In a world where girls are sold a fraudulent tale of “prettier” at all costs, they want to feel something, anything, real. Their protest reclaims the power of their own authority, their private refusal to be publicly “handled”.

There are some positive signs. In the above-mentioned media survey of women and health, Gen Y women (those “millennials” born between 1980-1994) were more likely than Gen X and Boomer women to say they are at their ideal weight (29% vs. 9%, 7% respectively). Young women bloggers are now calling for a bodysnarking ceasefire. Most hopeful, Leaper and Brown found that the girls in their study who had a better understanding of feminism from the media, their parents, or teachers were more likely to recognize sexism and sexual harassment for what it is. The hope is in the feminist work we do with young women, transforming inner pain to public outcry-not for them, but with them.