Interview with Shaping Youth Director

This is an interview with Amy Jussel, the Founder & Executive Director of Shaping Youth, a nonprofit, nonpartisan consortium dealing with media and marketing’s impact on kids. The interview was conducted by a student.

Using the tactics of industry insiders, Shaping Youth is embedding innovative programs that promote healthier, positive values by using the power of the media turned on itself. Shaping Youth’s programs are deployed via the digital sphere using film, web, and hands-on counter-marketing games in train the trainer format.

1) Do you feel that in school, girls face more peer pressure than boys do? If so, how and why?

Unequivocally. The diva-driven branding of ‘popular’ girls hasn’t helped either, with consumption cues about what you have over who you are. Girls hear hurtful snipes on everything from body image and appearance to what brand they’re wearing just running the gauntlet past the social stratosphere of the lunch table. That’s just not right.

I strongly feel our media culture is complicit in creating this tummy churn, as it not only normalizes, but practically sanctions ‘bullying’ in ‘mean girl’ hipster characterization. Even in these sappy happily-ever-after sitcoms where the bully gets her come-uppins in the end, the drama and fear-factor is signaling ‘what matters’ to girls, and positioning the chaos as an ongoing reality. The entire lexicon of terms like ‘thinspiration,’ ‘frenemies,’ ‘robo-student,’ ‘ho-wear’ or ‘hoochie mamas,’ reflect the pressure-cooker cues of media defining girls before they can define themselves.

Way back when Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girlshit the bookstores well over a decade ago, there was lots of talk about ‘odd girl out’ and ‘relational aggression’ and I remember thinking Mary Pipher summed it well when she said, “At adolescence, girls become ‘female impersonators’ who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces.”

But now in the digital age it’s taken on a whole new speed with cellcams and bodysnarking (mean comments about outfits, hair, and other appearance based ‘what were you thinking’ snipes) which can turn those ‘slam books’ of yesteryear into a public forum potshot.

Cyberbullying is a very real problem (far more than stranger danger) and can be pretty harsh with ‘reputation management’ an ongoing challenge. I Highly recommend the Adinas Deck Cyber Bullying Kids
films to help girls this age navigate this chaos.

(Read a review of Adina’s Deck. Read more about the impact of Cyber Bullying.)

So yes, I feel it goes well beyond peer pressure into the acceleration and commodification of childhood. The coarseness of entertainment culture, from ‘tear ‘em down’ polling in reality shows to embarrassment and humiliation as sport seems to be shaping behavioral norms, right when girls’ bodies and emotions are changing at the most rapid rates of their lives. They sure don’t need another thing to worry about when some are petrified of navigating the transition from elementary to middle school…will I find my classes, what if I can’t get my locker open…toss in the ‘Gossip Girl’ factor and it’s overwhelming!

Don’t get me wrong, boys are getting hammered by peer influences too, and sadly, ‘gaining’ on girls with eating disorders, depression and lack of satisfaction with their appearance. I mean, c’mon, when Disney-licensed kiddie cologne is being marketed to boys (ages 4-11!) they’re starting ‘em young with grooming cues.

Read the Boy Cologne story.

I wrote a post less than a year ago called “Buffed Boy Body Image and the Teen Scene Hottie Factor” all about “roid rage” and “Bigorexia” and the pressure to fit into a heightened sexual culture that’s pummeling the 10-14 year old boys with cues from billboards, gaming, and music messaging to porn and peers.

If you want Ivy League data, researchers like Alison Field from Harvard Medical School (professor of pediatrics and lead researcher on the GUTS study which stands for Growing Up Today) could tell you more, but I know we see it in our work with kids ongoing…(especially in our ‘Dare to Compare, Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition’ where boys will self-identify as ‘fat’ or ‘chunky’ just the way girls berate themselves with narrowcast ideals) Not pretty.

2. Do you think schools should do more to educate young girls – (between the ages 10 and 14) about certain subjects, such as sex, date rape, assault, etc.? If so, what should be done?

I think knowledge is power, but fear is the reverse…so we have to be careful not to add more layers of angst in this fragile preteen time. Yes, there’s a need for comprehensive information, but I’d prefer it took the form of an empowerment message (self-defense, self-care, pragmatic prevention) over a victim-based identity predator/prey mode.

I definitely think media opportunities can be used to open windows for dialog on dating violence, inebriation/date rape, and such, but at 10-14 you don’t want kids to be scared of their own shadow or walking through life in a high state of anxiety ‘code red/orange’ alert…that’s exhausting! As for school as a venue, I think it could even be part of P.E., after-school enrichment, a campus ‘club,’ YWCA, etc.

Personally, at this young age, I really like the idea of using hands-on physicality under the guise of health/fitness and body control for self-defense, turning it into a ‘life skills’ game like we do at Shaping Youth. That way you can weave in some ‘what if’ role-play without being heavy-handed.

Staying calm without panic, and keeping my wits has saved my hide many a time in every single one of those settings you mentioned, and leveraging ‘brains over brawn’ is just plain smart. First tip I taught my daughter very young was how to shake off a slow moving car using the ‘pivot and pass it’ maneuver. The element of surprise seeing you run straight AT them (and PAST them) forces the driver to either put the car in reverse and drive backwards to pursue you, or waste time circling around as you bolt into safety.

True confessions, I was the token female security guard (graveyard shift!) in college trained to have instinctive/fast reaction time for street survival skills’ (no weapons, no objects) just keen environmental awareness…If you think about it, that’s the best preventive tactic for girls there is; anticipating the next move before it happens.

3) Do you think that providing your teenage daughter with birth control is giving her the okay to become sexually active? Why or why not? At what age do you think parents should have “the talk” with their daughters and why?

I think that’s a very personal and individual choice, just like the decision of when to have “the talk.” It depends on the child’s maturity and development (and your own!) as well as regional influences and exposure.

Most kids start getting the sex ed primer basics in 5th grade now it seems, but we all know ‘media as super peer’ has been pumping sex chatter a mile a minute, so the level of ‘exposure’ is in surround sound. I asked my 13 year old daughter if she’d feel I was sanctioning sex if I handed her a condom. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Um, no…But…can we just not talk about this?”

4) Based on your blog regarding “Influences, Accountability and the Global Cost to Youth” – do you feel that the media is making celebrities out to be experts about sex? When they guide teenage girls down the wrong path, what should parents do to prevent it?

I think the obsession in our culture with celebrity and sex has been a driver for a considerable amount of toxicity, as girls are sold heavy doses of materialism wrapped in the concept that power comes from fame and appearance, most often associated with being a model, actress, pop star, or diva.

As far as celebrities cast in the role of ‘sexpert’ I think that’s really more of a ratings game, as evidenced by Tyra’s ‘shock and awe’ findings on her audience poll, and to the sensationalism of the talk show formats in general. It’s entertainment, not reality. And as we all know, even the ‘reality shows’ aren’t reality.

Whether it’s Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, Dr. Ruth, or the big “O,” entertainers should have accountability and responsibility for what they’re putting out there on the sexuality circuit when it comes to accuracy.

As for parent prevention and how to steer clear of vapid values and the trashy party girl scene of celebutantes?

I think it ultimately comes down to how we instill critical thinking skills rather than play dodgeball with the media messages. Deconstruct it, defuse the energy. Show and tell the motivation of selling sexualization and insecurity for profit…

Same goes for appearance based cues, I use tons of media literacy tactics for this age, whether it’s online ( or talking about retouching (Dove’s Evolution spot for ‘real beauty’ and the same company/Unilever using the Axe cologne and magazines”>“Bomchikawawa” girls).

For books for girls this age, our ‘tween club’ read All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty
by Audrey Brashich and of course Packaging (all authors are on our Shaping Youth advisory board) and for a hands-on rallying cry for taking back your own identity, I love the work they’re doing at Courtney Macavinta’s Respect Rx.

I did a whole series on ‘all things girl’ that details cool orgs, blogs, and ways to empower girls rather than consume them…counter-marketing the toxic cues. (e.g. Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, The Girl Revolution, 5 Resolutions to Transform the Beauty Industry, etc.) Here’s that post with all the roundup to the links at the end.

To be continued . . .

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