Sisterhood Blog

Fighting the Israeli Macho: A Gchat with Elana Sztokman

By Chanel Dubofsky

Copyright Ingrid Muller

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, the former executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is a leading writer and thinker on topics of feminism, Judaism, Israel and orthodoxy. Her first book, The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in the area of Women’s Studies. Her second book, Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools (co-authored with Dr Chaya Rosenfeld Gorsetman), won the 2013 National Jewish Book Council award in the area of education and identity.

Next month, her latest book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Ravaging of Freedom, will be released by Sourcebooks. In a recent piece for the Atlantic, “Gaza: It’s a Man’s War,”, Sztokman, who lives in Modi’in, Israel, looks closely at the impact of sexism in Israeli society, particularly in the context of the current Gaza war.

Chanel Dubofsky caught up with Sztokman, who said that her book was born on this blog, The Sisterhood, where she started posting stories about gender segregation in 2009, via Google’s instant messaging service gchat.

Chanel Dubofsky: Set the scene for us regarding feminist activism in Israel.

Elana Sztokman: There is a lot of entrenched macho in Israeli culture. The challenge is the way in which that macho intersects with religion and the (secular) business and political establishment’s support of religious radicalism for their own needs and interests. It’s easy for men across the spectrum to throw women under the bus for the sake of coalition, business or money. Women are fighting this reality, to raise awareness that protecting women’s rights is a basic part of democracy, and to introduce different thinking about the role of religion in Israeli society and politics. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel, which means that religious groups have had tremendous political influence over the years. Religious (male) Elana’s wordsleaders have gotten away with lots of very anti-democratic stances and policies vis a vis women. It’s an uphill battle, but there is definitely a growing consciousness that we are witnessing now, and there is something exciting on some level in watching a real feminist movement grow from the ground up.

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When Women Bully Other Women

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

The road to the corner office isn’t an easy one for a woman. There is the glass ceiling to break, and then the maternal wall to mount and then, if you get that far, there are glass cliffs to avoid. Oh my!

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5 Reasons 'Seinfeld's Elaine is Feminist Icon

By Elissa Strauss

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Seinfeld, the mostly loved but sometimes reviled sitcom about nothing. In honor of this milestone, the Sisterhood would like to pay our dues to the character of Elaine Benes, whose spunk and guile was given shape by the most enduring cast member, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Elaine was an unlikely shero for the generation of women who grew up on the show and today, as we look back, it feels fair to crown her as an official feminist icon. Here are five reasons why.

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You Can Do it In a Skirt

By Talia Weisberg

Cross-country skiing in a skirt / Courtesy of youcandoitinaskirt.wordpress.com

As someone who identifies as an Orthodox feminist but still (mostly) follows the dictates of tznius, or modesty, I often find myself feeling marginalized. Among the women who dress the way I do, I am judged for my progressive views; among those with views more like mine, I am judged for the way I dress.

Consequently, when someone in an Orthodox feminist forum linked to the website You Can Do It In A Skirt, I was one of its few supporters. “Anything you can do, I can do it in a skirt,” the site’s tagline proclaims. It features photos of skirt wearing Orthodox girls and women doing physical activities that most would do in pants: riding a horse, swimming, cartwheeling, running a marathon, hanging upside down on monkey bars, and jet skiing.

Although other Jewish feminists on the Internet (or on that particular forum, at least) seem to be unimpressed with this website and its accompanying message, I think You Can Do It In A Skirt is important. It debunks the myths that Orthodox women are coerced into wearing skirts, and that their garb prevents them from living life to the fullest.

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Why Women Are the New Gatekeepers of Modesty

By Frimet Goldberger

Getty Images // Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel

Who are the gatekeepers of the conservative religious ideal of tznius, or modesty? This question has been argued and parsed on social media and on blogs in recent years as radicalism in the ultra-Orthodox communities has taken on new and more visible forms.

A common misperception is that rabbis and male community leaders are fueling the radical surge. But are Haredi women indeed victims of a patriarchal culture that puts extreme and outsized emphasis on tznius? Are Hasidic and Yeshivish women merely oppressed by fanatical males fervently trying to control their flock of subservient women?

Yes and no.

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Why Shouldn't Feminists Be Happy?

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images // A smiling Gloria Steinem.

In a recent column, the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti takes aim at our culture’s fixation on the happiness of women.

She argues that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether or not feminism makes women happier because happiness is not the point.

After all, a social justice movement seeks justice, not contentment. The truth is a little unhappiness is good for the soul — and the movement. When I started Feministing, it wasn’t because I was happy: it was because I was frustrated. There’s nothing “happy” about fighting to end rape, to end discrimination, or for the right to be considered capable enough to decide what happens to our own bodies.

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Should Monica Lewinsky Be Mad at Feminists?

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images

In her already widely dissected 4,300 word Vanity Fair essay, Monica Lewinsky takes aim at the feminists of the late 90s.

She says she found no support from the women’s rights crowd back then, and when they did respond to the situation she appeared either as a punch line or a scapegoat. No one seemed to think much about whether she was exploited, or about the undeniable double-standard at play. Bill Clinton emerged, after a few bumps and bruises, a rock star; Lewinsky, a scarlet-letter branded harlot who still struggles to get work today.

When the asked whether the scandal might have been affecting Gore’s run for presidency, the ever-tactful Betty Friedan told the Los Angeles Times:

What is that? I can’t stand the way you media people just trivialize everything. It’s the campaign for the president of the United States… . What is your concern with some little twerp named Monica? What has she got to do with the presidential election? That just disgusts me.

Barbara Ehrenreich called the aftermath of the scandal “The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis.”

Others, like Maureen Dowd painted her as a looney bimbo, and others like Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe (who doesn’t have the tidiest of a feminist record herself) also didn’t have much in the way of words of support for her, all the while they gushed about adorable Bill.

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Louisa Solomon of The Shondes Talks Censorship

By Sarah Seltzer

Shondes.com // Louisa Solomon of The Shondes

Louisa Solomon is the feminist lead singer of The Shondes, a punk-rock band (think “Bruce Springsteen meets Bikini Kill,” she jokes) with openly queer members. The Forward once said she had “ a talent for androgynous sass.” Although the group espouses punk’s rebellious ethos and sometimes touch on geopolitics in their lyrics, they’re not explicitly political. “Most of our songs are about the power of friendship, hope, surviving heartbreak. We aren’t terribly polemic,” Solomon told me during a Friday afternoon gchat. “We are a rock band, we try to write anthems that help people survive, and we regularly invoke Judaism!”

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Abortion Belongs in TED Talks, And Beyond

By Sarah Seltzer

Last week, feminists launched a flurry of actions demanding the inclusion of abortion rights as a topic tackled by trendy TED talks. A representative from TED, interviewed by Jessica Valenti for her column in the Nation, had deemed the subject too political and controversial. This admission was followed by a petition from NARAL and general online outcry (digital feminism! it works!) which then prompted a lot of backpedaling from TED. So far, so good. We’ll just have to wait and see whether abortion-themed talks emerge from the slick-wisdom factory of TED in the future.

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'Lean In,' Orthodox Style

By Elana Sztokman

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a three part series answering the question, “How should Jewish feminism change in 2014 to be more effective?” Read the first post here and the second post here.

It’s no secret that women have a hard time supporting one another. Sure, we’ll bring each other lasagnas and casseroles when we’re sick, and we’ll give each other warm hugs as we listen to one another kvetch. But real support, the kind where we stand behind one another and say, “This woman is my leader; I trust in her vision, and I am willing to follow her,” well, not so much. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, when women are successful, we all tend to attribute their success to luck or to pluck rather than to intelligence and worthiness. The more women have ambition and vision, the less they are considered likable, by women and men alike. When a woman does well, she tends to hear things like, “You must be lucky,” or, “You’re obviously persistent,” as opposed to, say, “You’re a skilled, intelligent visionary.” We tend to be more comfortable with women as soft, submissive and servile than we are with women of power.

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How Can We Make Online Feminism Better?

By Sarah Seltzer

Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three part series answering the question, “How should Jewish feminism change in 2014 to be more effective?”

This past year was an extraordinary one for digital feminism. Debates and ideas that originated on the feminist Web became national news, as the generation of activists weaned on blogs and social media began to ascend into the mainstream ranks in media and activist organizations. Thousands of voices joined together in online campaigns, both planned and spontaneous, and sometimes quite radical. (A black feminist critique of white feminism! A Texas filibuster in favor of abortion rights!) Today, nakedly feminist content appears everywhere from The Huffington Post to The New Republic, and mainstream websites don’t relegate that content to a single beat writer or to a feminist subsection.

The question going into 2014 is, what do feminist activists do with this power? My hope is that digital feminism can leverage its newfound mainstream visibility to provoke even deeper and more nuanced conversations, and that we can transcend the Web’s tendency to force us into opposing camps. I hope it’s the year we take online feminism’s spirited debates and expand them to create dialogue that leads to common ground and to action. Our work is needed more than ever. We face persistent problems: a war on the working poor that affects mostly women, a continual erosion of reproductive rights and sexist messages from the media.

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Should Feminists Go on Diets?

By Elissa Strauss

In the past 20-some years, women have “taken back” many things from the patriarchy. These include lipstick, the words “lady” and “slut,” and knitting. But there is one last thing feminists have yet to re-appropriate, and that, according to a new essay in Elle magazine, is dieting.

In this month’s magazine Marisa Meltzer writes about her struggle to reconcile her desire to lose weight and her identity as a feminist. She said she felt she had to keep her recent diet a secret, even as it made her physically feel much better, because no smart, enlightened woman would do such a thing.

“I fear that instead of fighting for a world where all bodies are admired,” Meltzer wrote, “I’m pandering, reshaping my body to make it acceptable to the world around me.”

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The Rise of Ultra-Orthodox Beauty Salons

By Elissa Strauss

According to the BBC, a quiet revolution is taking place among ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem. They have discovered the power of mascara.

There are, of course, numerous strict restrictions on these women when it comes to their appearance. They must wear modest clothes — no elbows, no collar bones — cover their heads, and many even cut off their hair. And yet, whether it is pressure from the secular world to look a certain kind of pretty or some deep-rooted desire in women to beautify oneself, they are heading to the beauty salon.

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A Vision for a New Western Wall

By Elyse Goldstein

On November 4, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall with over 600 women at the Kotel — a joyous event that went off with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and megaphone-enhanced cursing that the group normally endures during its monthly prayer protests. Two days later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal on corruption charges at the Kotel.

I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years this group of pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to gain the right to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. Lieberman can swagger right up to the front with his kippot-clad guards and be sure he will be welcome.

I wish I could feel that the stones themselves are imbued with holiness. But the mechitza (the partition between men and women) has slowly moved to the right — both physically and metaphorically — from half the Western Wall being open to women to only 12 meters compared to the 48 for men. Presidents and popes place their little notes in the crevices without being briefed about or taking note of what happens on the other side. Scores of evangelical tourists squeeze their way through to the front trying to soak in the Jewish vibe while praying for their own messiah to come back and redeem them and the place. Shas leaders preen for the press and pray there for success in their next campaign. There are separate entrances, and now a “men’s only” upper plaza where women cannot even tread. And day after day both male and female Haredim pray there for the restoration of the priesthood, the Temple and the sacrifices, taking up the spaces closest to the stones. Those prayers and subsequently the stones which absorb them do not speak to me, or for me. Instead they have become a symbol of an encroaching public misogyny, an ultra-Orthodox legal hegemony and a manufactured emotional tourist-industry “high-point-of-your-trip” site that is part primitive and part Disney.

I can think of a hundred other places in Israel where I feel more spiritual. Give me instead a trip to the Ramon Crater, a hike to the top of Masada, a sunset in the Galilee, an afternoon at Yad Lakashish watching 90-year-olds in Jerusalem create Judaic art, a Friday night singing “Lecha Dodi” at the port in Tel Aviv. Give me instead the countless Jerusalem synagogues where on any Shabbat the harmonies of men and women move me to tears.

That does not mean I do not fully support Women of the Wall. I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have historical memory and the weight of tradition. In my dreams, like them, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured and valued. I want an apolitical wall not used to garner religious votes. I want a spiritual wall where harmonies are welcome and I can pray a silent Amidah with my tallit over my head. But that Kotel does not exist. The stones have been sullied and I think we need new “old” ones.

Women of the Wall is at a critical crossroads. Some members believe that the Western Wall can still have power for women, and that, if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer will one day be welcome there. And some of them know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right to don tallit and tefillin is hanging by a thin thread. This second group feels we have been given a historic opportunity to create and renew, and represented by the board of Women of the Wall, has agreed to move its monthly service over to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you can stand above fallen Herodian stones that are as old as the stones of the Western Wall. But this site doesn’t have the optics of the main part of the wall, the backdrop of the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967.

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Split in Women of the Wall Widens

By Maya Shwayder

A subset of Women of the Wall leaders and supporters, who disagree with a plan to compromise on where the group can pray at the Kotel, has doubled in size from 10 to 21. Women of the Wall is a feminist group pushing to be able to sing, pray aloud and wear ritual garments typically worn by men at the women’s section of the Kotel.

The subset group announced last week that it rejected a plan put forth by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and conditionally accepted by Women of the Wall that would expand Robinson’s Arch, an area of egalitarian prayer.

The group released an open letter on Tuesday clarifying its dissent of the Sharansky plan and declaring that, “We are committed to our dream and to the work needed to fully realize and sustain it.”

Signatories include Rabbi Susan Silverman and Dr. Phyllis Chesler.

The dissenters wrote:

“The government proposes making structural changes at Robinson’s Arch to create a site to which all whose prayer practice is not tolerated by those who now control the Kotel will be relegated, leaving the Kotel permanently and officially in the hands of a segment of Jewry that suffers the presence of other Jews only on its terms. Regrettably, the Israeli government is yielding to intimidation, threats, and violence as the basis for policy making, rather than upholding the equality of rights of all citizens in public space that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and longtime supporter of Women of the Wall, told the Forward that the Reform movement officially supports the Sharansky plan, and that dissent like this was not uncommon in Judaism. “It’s not that we don’t think there’s a legitimate argument on the other side,” he said. “It’s a respectful difference.”

Getty Images
Women of the Wall gathered at the Kotel in May.

“Good moral caring people can differ on strategies and tactics, and how to achieve common goals, in this case, equal treatment of women at the wall,” Saperstein said. “Each of the locations has different strengths, and each of the locations has drawbacks. It seems that significant majority are willing to embrace the Sharansky approach.

“We’re sympathetic and appreciative of the majority of Women of the Wall who think that opening a larger area of the wall to be accessible to all people, all Jews, is most effective way of addressing need of having egalitarian, pluralistic, access to the Wall,” he said.

In an email to the Forward, Chesler wrote: “It occurs to me that we are not the dissidents. We are sticking to our fundamental and foundational principles. We are, oddly, the traditionalists and the current WOW Board have departed from our tradition. We hope we can get them to change their mind and come back to basics.”

Stay tuned for more updates on this developing story.

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Hello from the Sisterhood's New Editor

By Naomi Zeveloff

Linda Zeveloff (Naomi's mom)

Dear readers,

I’m thrilled to introduce myself as the new editor of the Sisterhood blog. As the deputy culture editor of the Forward, I’ve been covering gender and Judaism for the past two years, writing about topics like halachic infertility, Hasidic feminism and transgender Jews.

But my path to the Sisterhood actually began long before my time at the Forward. In middle school English class, I was given an assignment to instruct my peers on a topic of my choosing. Initially, I thought I would “teach” my classmates why girls are better than boys. (My logic at the time was that girls can grow up to have babies, an argument that today strikes me as rather sexist.) But in the end, I decided to go with a less controversial lesson: How to insult someone in Yiddish. (“Gai kaken oifen yam” or “Go poop in a lake” is still my favorite.)

From a tender age, it would seem, I was ruminating on gender and Judaism and the interplay between the two. Now, some two decades later, I finally have the opportunity to share my views in the public sphere. (I guarantee they’ve evolved beyond “girls are better than boys.”)

Of course, I’ll be joined by a talented bevy of freelance writers who will share their personal stories, analyze breaking news and, in the words of founding Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner, “break ideas” on the blog. Speaking of Gabi, I have some big shoes to fill. Gabi and Abigail Jones, the immediate past editor, populated the blog with thoughtful prose and meaningful series, like “What Jewish Feminism Means to Me” and “Women in Mourning.” I am indebted to both of them — and their hard work and vision — as I helm the blog moving Forward.

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What About Malala's Religion?

By Elissa Strauss

Last week Malala Yousafzai charmed Jon Stewart’s, and therefore America’s, socks off when he interviewed the Nobel Peace Prize contender about her new book, a memoir about her experience as an education advocate and a victim of the Taliban.

Yousafzai, 16, was all conviction and grace when explaining to Stewart that she knew she was a target of extremists long before they shot her in the head, but had decided that it would not be worth fighting back.

“If you hit a Talib, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib,” she said. “You must not treat others with cruelty…You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education. … I would tell him how important education is and that I would even want education for your children as well. That’s what I want to tell you now do what you want.”

As touching as Stewart’s interview with her was, and it was touching, it did overlook a big part of what makes Malala Malala, and that is her religion. Yousafzai is a Muslim, and sees the potential for reform within the context of Islam, and not, like other prominent feminists from Muslim countries, outside of it.

Getty Images
Malala Yousafzai

Rafia Zakaria has a powerful essay on Al Jazeera America about why it is important that Yousafzai’s fans in the west don’t overlook the fact that Malala is a practicing Muslim. She says that for “Muslim girls and women around the world [her story] is more than just a tale of survival. … [It] is proof that feminism, or the desire for equality through education and empowerment, is not the terrain of any one culture or faith.”

Zakaria compares Yousafzai to Somali-born Dutch author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose memoir “Infidel,” about her journey from a repressive Muslim family in East Africa to the freedom she found in Netherlands, became a New York Times best-seller and turned her into an international celebrity. Hirsi Ali’s message was that Muslim women can only be free when they renounce their faith and cultures.

Yousafzai, on the other hand, offers a different model for reformation, one that better resembles the battles being waged by millions of Muslim girls, who long for emancipation too. “Their victories,” writes Zakaria, “lie not in renunciation but in resistance and reclamation of faith, culture and public space.” She ends her essay by urging Western feminists to take note of their blind spots that might lead them to believe that renunciation is the only way.

She concludes:

”The tradition of narratives that hold up the medieval backwardness of abandoned countries and pivot invasions on liberating their hapless women is a strong one, but it is built on the historical edifice of colonial subjugation. A Western feminism that asks Muslim women to leave their traditions at the door is fundamentally disempowering.”

While I can’t say for sure if there is widespread trend among Western feminists to ask Muslim women to “leave their traditions at the door,” I do know that talk of Yousafzai ’s religion was largely absent from the media coverage of her in the States. Because of this, we lost our chance to hear her speak not just as a feminist crusader, but of someone who has managed to negotiate her religious traditions with how she thinks the world should look. As Jewish feminists have long known, and still know, this isn’t a simple task.

I can only hope that this is just the beginning of Yousafzai-fever and that we will still have our chance to hear more specifics about how she makes her observance of Islam and cultural traditions and her activism fit together. All feminists, religious or not, would surely benefit.

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Forgiving The Men Who Sexually Abused Me

By Caroline Rothstein

Caroline Rothstein

Content warning: The author has requested that there be a content/trigger warning as this piece talks about sexual abuse and rape.

You tell your editor you’ll write a piece about forgiveness and sexual abuse — about surviving being both sexually molested and raped, and then forgiving your abusers. And you’ll write it for Yom Kippur. When you pitch this story, first in spring and again in summer, you are certain you know what you’re talking about. You have no doubts. No unwavering concerns that this could be anything other than easy.

When Rosh Hashanah nears, you panic. Who are you to use words like “forgiveness” alongside your survival story when that word may not necessarily ascribe itself to any other survivor’s story? There is no right or textbook way to heal. Survival is as personal and intimate as that which was taken. I would know; I was sexually abused in high school and date raped in college. So finally, I forced myself to take a deep breath and write myself into understanding.

I started a new Word document. I cut and pasted links to articles about sexual abuse and forgiveness, but I knew I’d never read them. I didn’t need someone else’s thoughts to validate my truth. I’ve been in therapy. In college, I produced “The Vagina Monologues” and the V-Day Campaign. I’ve been publicly sharing my story through activism and art for over a decade. I listen as other survivors — women, men, genderqueer alike — share their stories. I’m not supposed to struggle with this anymore; I’m supposed to be certain in my healing.

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More Than A Fashion Statement

By Elissa Strauss

Joanne Ginsberg

Two new feminist t-shirts entered the world this past month and I am not sure which will incite more scandal, considering the context.

One is a tight, black, short-sleeved v-neck tee that has “’Daughters of Israel, Do Not Dress Provocatively” printed across it in Hebrew. This is the same language women find on signs posted around religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem warning them to not show too much skin.

This shirt was the brainchild of Jerusalem-based Joanne Ginsberg, who came up with the idea after being harassed for her “provocative” dress a few summers ago. She was wearing long sleeves, a long skirt sandals and a head scarf.

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Michael Bloomberg Bans Low Self Esteem

By Elissa Strauss

Thinkstock

New York City just launched an offensive on yet another modern plague: low self-esteem in girls. The city started a new public health campaign aimed to encourage girls, aged 7 to 12 years, to challenge the unattainable notions of beauty foisted upon them by pop culture and advertising.

The campaign, which consists mostly of ads on public transportation, was the brainchild of Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary. Levine said she was moved to start the project after learning that 80% of 10-year-old girls report being afraid of being fat and most girls’ self-esteem drops at age 12 and doesn’t improve until 20. The Sisterhood spoke with Levine about what she hopes the campaign will achieve and why we need to redefine beauty.

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