Virtual Corporeality: Adolescent Girls and Their Bodies in Cyberspace
By Kerrie Michelle Smyres ([email protected])
Arizona State University
This piece, framed in a critical feminist perspective, explores the relationship adolescent girls have with their bodies and how they share these experiences with their peers. Through qualitative analysis of the interactions of members of gURL, an online community for teenaged girls, themes of compulsory heterosexuality and the desire to attract boys are examined in relation to body dissatisfaction. Perhaps more significantly, issues surrounding ethnography and the internet, including questions of the possible need for informed consent in a private public space, the reality of cyberspace experience, and the nature of the population of internet users, are also explored and addressed.
Please help me. I know i am on the way to anorexia, but i cant stop myself. I know I am fat, and i WANT to be annorexic. I know it is very harmful, but i cannot lose any weight. I need some more alternitives before really am in trouble. Please Please help me. ScorpioSistah, anorexia, 3/17/99
This comment, obtained through my participant observation experience and uttered by a teenage girl, encapsulates the impetus for this project. Bodies are problematic for many, if not all, girls and women. As illustration of this point, Garner (1997) discovered that body dissatisfaction is increasing at a faster rate than ever before among both men and women; among the 3,452 female respondents in this study, 89% desired to lose weight (p. 34). These findings are especially problematic for women and are affecting them at younger and younger ages. A study of 36,000 students in Minnesota found that girls with negative body image were three times more likely than boys of the same age to say that they feel badly about themselves and were more likely to believe that others see them in a negative light. The study also found that negative body image is associated with suicide risk for girls, not for boys (American Association of University Women, 1990). As Wooley and Wooley (1980) discovered, girls are more influenced, and thus, more vulnerable to, cultural standards of ideal body images, than boys are. Recently, a national health study found that 40 % of the 2,379 nine- and ten-year-old girls studied were trying to lose weight (Schreiber, Pike, Wilfley, & Rodin, 1995). Similarly, a study of almost five hundred schoolgirls reveals that 81% of the ten-year-olds had dieted at least once (Mellin, Scully & Irwin, 1986). It is disheartening to note that these studies are merely examples from the plethora of body image research that indicates that women and girls are dissatisfied with and worried about their bodies.
Even without the aforementioned studies, it is readily noticeable that adolescent girls are concerned about their bodies. Magazines targeted to this demographic (nearly all of which have a photograph of a beautiful, thin woman on the cover) consist of little except suggestions for looking great for that boy, how to get rid of pimples once and for all, and methods for minimizing the appearance of cellulite. The cultural ideal body size for women, as portrayed by models, is unattainable for most women and is likely to lead to feelings of self-devaluation, depression and helplessness (Rodin, Silberstein, & Striegel-Moore, 1984). Women and girls are also consistently taught from an early age that their self-worth is largely dependent on how they look. The fact that women earn more money than men in only two job categories, modeling and prostitution, serves to illustrate this point (Wolf, 1992).
Scholars are now generally aware of the internalized beliefs and lived consequences of the all-consuming desire for beauty but few have discussed these experiences in womens own words. Those who do tend to describe womens experiences without overt discussion of the different experiences one encounters at different stages in life (see Spitzack, 1990a, 1990b; Hesse-Biber, 1996). Others focus on one specific activity of a variety of women (see Smythe, 1995). Interestingly, there are very few studies that enable adolescent girls, who are at the stage of entering into a womans body, to discuss their experience. A large majority of those that do so rely primarily on interviews between adult researchers and adolescent respondents (Grogan & Wainwright, 1996; Guillen & Barr, 1994; Lerner & Brackney, 1978). Additionally, the lines between eating disorders and body image are often blurred, with a heavy focus usually on anorexia and bulimia (see Chernin, 1981, 1985; Pipher, 1995).
The turbulence of adolescence, filled with struggles and secrecy, causes one to question how much information teenaged girls are willing to comfortably disclose to adults. Thus, it is necessary to examine the experience of adolescent girls in their own words and on their own terms without apparent adult intervention. Brumberg (1997) begins this exploration through examination of adolescent diaries throughout the twentieth century and discusses a wide range of the tribulations of teen years throughout history. In addition, it is important to examine how girls feel about particular topics in a limited space and time. In an attempt to provide a more narrow look at the lives of adolescent girls at the end of the twentieth century, I observed participants in what appears to be a safe space where I could be unobtrusive, a website devoted to teenaged girls (www.gURL.com) and adolescent struggles.
As a critical feminist with profoundly painful memories of my adolescent experience of my body, I am in a particularly vulnerable position. My primary desire is to begin to type furiously and share my newfound self-assurance with these girls. Of course, I realize that my acceptance of my body, while better than it was in high school, is still not altogether positive. More importantly, I know that my altered perspective came from years of struggle and self-education and that I cannot send a magic bullet that will soothe the strife of these girls. Also, I recognize, fundamentally, that the struggle has been beneficial for me and know that this is just one more aspect of uncovering enough of ones identity. This background is necessary to understand that I have a deep emotional investment in the topic and, consequently, a personal commitment to the participants. Additionally, this history has enabled me to become critical of the systemic and relational factors that influence how a woman learns and maintains her view of her body. It is important to recognize my position as it influences the way I view the world and the data. As such, discussion of my experiences with my body, the data, and the findings are threaded throughout this discussion.
Ethnography on the World Wide Web
The elusive nature of the internet may raise questions regarding the site choice. Before these issues are addressed, it is important to recognize the numerous reasons that a website is an ideal place to being research on such a sensitive topic. One of the most pressing concerns is that teenagers are a difficult population to approach as they are considered minors and, thus, parental consent is necessary. Although such consent is not as pressing for an observation-based study, ethical issues arise in doing so. Within these constraints, studying teenagers acting and interacting in a natural environment is nearly impossible. I considered eavesdropping in the dressing rooms of teen clothing stores, but was concerned that bodies would be on the forefront of discussion in this instance. Furthermore, the history one has with a close friend, a likely shopping partner, might obscure the information I was trying to gain by only providing part of the story. I also wanted them to remain anonymous while discussing intimate life issues, for their sake and mine. As mentioned, one fear is that I would make judgements about the validity of complaints. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted them to be in a safe space, one that they had specifically chosen, and one where they felt comfortable to speak their minds.
It may be easy and appropriate to some to consider the internet as simply another communication channel, and many web-based studies have explored the internet in just that fashion (Paccagnella, 1997). Those who have begun to research this vast, unknown world from the perspective of social constructivism reveal that the internet is much more than a medium. Turkle (1996) examines anthropologist Ray Oldenbergs writings about the "great good place --the local bar, the bistro, the coffee shopwhere members of a community can gather for easy company, conversation, and a sense of belonging. Oldenberg considers these places to be the heart of individual social integration and community vitality" (paragraph 1). Turkle comments that coffeehouses and cafes have experienced a resurgence in recent years, but "most of them do not serve, much less recreate, coherent communities and, as a result, the odor of nostalgia often seems as strong as the espresso" (paragraph 1). Where, then, does one go for this community? Many (see Masterson, 1997; Meyer, 1997; Nunes, 1995; Turkle, 1996) argue that people are creating a much needed sense of community in the virtual world. Rheingold (1993) proffers a similar definition based on his extensive personal experience in the online world. He defines virtual communities as "social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (p. 5). While some may, at first, discount the web as nothing more than an alternative medium, it is evident that others believe that the internet contains an intricately woven web of complex relationships and communities. Furthermore, some studies show that online interactions can be even more social and rule-governed than more traditional media (see Spears and Lea, 1992, 1994).
The kinds of community found on the internet are unique because they are not based on proximity, as so many relationships are, but on shared interests. These relations are what Haraway (1991) refers to as "affinity groups - related not by blood, but by choice. (p. 155). Rheingold (1993) agrees with this assertion and furthers is by claiming that virtual communities exist "a specific place ... and time" but it is "a cognitive and social [place], not a geographical one"(61).
The primary research published on computer mediated communication (CMC) focuses on multi-user dimension (MUDs), virtual communities where users interact through typed commands as characters they have created who exist in an online society with typical social ills and expectations. Although gURL does not include the diverse elements typically seen in a MUD or a physical communities, this site still serves a crucial function in creating a sense of community for adolescent girls all over the world.
Another aspect of the internet that is regarded positively is its role in locating a space for ones voice. Through the examination of stories of seasoned "MUDers, " Turkle asserts th at "These young people feel they have no political voice, and they look to cyberspace to help them find one" (1996, paragraph 21). Turkle invokes Radaways argument that women often use romance novels not for "escaping but building realities less limited than their own. Romance reading becomes a form of resistance, a challenge to the stultifying categories of everyday life" (1996, paragraph 33). According to Turkle, Radaway's perspective can allow us to regard online communities as places of resistance to a multitude of avenues of oppression. Similarly, I argue that the adolescent girls that frequent gURL are searching for their own voices in a patriarchal culture that devalues the input of "kids."
One frequent objection to web-based research is that there is no fool-proof way to verify the identity of participants. As Deetz (lecture, 4/23/99) argues, identity is an ever changing construction that is constantly created and recreated as a conglomeration of personal and social experiences. With this definition of identity, identities are never fixed and, as such, it is nearly impossible to know, with a capital K, identity no matter how extensive the interaction is. Within this perspective, a more accurate way to address the objections of web research is that a researcher can never be sure of the demographics of site users. This is absolutely correct, there is no possible way to obta in confirmation of this information. Even though gURL states that only girls 13 and older are allowed to access the site and requires that users register with their names, email addresses, birthdate and birthplace, even the site owners cannot verify the age or sex of each user. Additionally, although the vast majority of users are adolescents, gURL acknowledges that a fair number of users identify themselves as college aged.
Beyond relying on a "gut feeling" about each posting, there are important considerations that can be made to assuage ones fears about user demographics. To begin with, the research can participate and/or examine a variety of websites to ascertain general interaction patterns and discussion topics based on the sites requested user demographics. Before choosing gURL as the ethnographic site, I visited 14 other online communities where womens bodies were designated as important topics of conversation and, thus, had bulletin boards specifically for the topic. The requested users for different sites included only girls under 15, girls and women aged 13-35, teenaged boys and girls, only girls and women, all men, boys, women and girls, only men and women over the age of 18, and all men, boys, women and girls under the age of 25. Becoming familiar with the type of information discussed and the diverse methods of approaching and responding to topics on these different sites provided invaluable information about the demographics of site users. For example, on the sites that are specifically for girls and/or women, the topics typically revolve around their dislike of their bodies, complaints about not getting dates, and assurances that their bodies "arent that bad" or that "not all men are creeps." Furthermore, occasional announcements are made that a men or boy has entered the site and he provides his perspective. The sites that attract men, boys, women and girls tend to contain postings that request the perspective of the "opposite" sex or adversarial debates on the enactment of social ideals. Obviously, the researcher cannot verify the demographics of the users, but different types of conversations appear to occur when sexes are mixed, either by invitation or intrusion. Furthermore, users on "girl only" sites asked boys to leave the bulletin board or chat room and chastised girls who requested that boys join the conversation on the site.
Additionally, site users regulate those who do not fit the expectations of the site. An interesting discussion occurred on gURL right before I began data collection that highlights this process. The name brat_4_ever was found frequently in many of the "body issue" forums, yet the questions asked were inconsistent. Many other users noted the discrepancies and brought them to the attention of brat_4_ever and every other user. An example of this is from piklegrl who posted,
Honey, STOP BULLSHITTING EVERYONE AND START TELLING THE TRUTH. YOU ARE WASTING OUR TIME WITH YOUR PEICE OF CRAP STORIES. YOU ARE 9 AT ONE TIME, THEN YOU ARE 12, AND YESTERDAY YOU WERE ASKING WHAT SEX IS BECAUSE YOU AND YOUR GIRLFRIEND WERE GOING TO HAVE SEX. IF YOU ARE JUST GOING TO LIE OUT YOUR ASS, THEN GO SOMEWHERE ELSE, CAUSE I'M SURE NO ONE WANTS TO WASTE THEIR TIME WITH YOUR BULLCRAP. Thank-you and please.....GO AWAY! (bras, 3/7/99)
At least nine other users posted similar responses to brat_4_ever, and every other one included requests for brat_4_ever to quit wasting their time because the site users had "real problems" to attend to.
The mission statement and description of gURL provides exquisite insight into the intentions of the site. gURL is a different approach to the experience of being a teenage girl. We are committed to discussing issues that affect the lives of girls age 13 and up in a non-judgmental, personal way. Through honest writing, visuals and liberal use of humor, we try to give girls a new way of looking at subjects that are crucial to their lives. Our content deals frankly with sexuality, emotions, body image, etc. If this is a problem for you, you might not like it here.
The gURL site was launched in April 1996 [as a class project of three college women at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University]. At our readers's enthusiastic requests, we created the gURL connection a year later as a members-only area for communicating and exchanging ideas online. Our community extends and extends from our content. We hope to provide connection and identification in a way that is not possible in other media. (http://www.gURL/hq/info/)
Clearly, the founders of gURL and those who support the site have discovered that the target audience flocks to the page, and it has gained an extraordinary amount of popularity among websites and popular press. A search on Infoseek, a popular internet search engine, indicates more than 60 sites that have reviewed gURL. Of these sites, every one provides and overwhelmingly supportive and positive assessment of gURL. Furthermore, the s ite has gained attention in the popular press, including ABC, Elle, and The New York Times (see www. gurl.com/hq/info/). The number of monthly visitors is a sign that gURL has achieved its goal of creating an online community for girls experiencing that oh-so-lonely and awkward time of adolescence. Although the owners of gURL does not disclose the number of site visitors or members they have, the do acknowledge that they "experiences a 40% growth in traffic every month" and the staff makes sure they update the site content frequently to keep users coming back and spreading the word among their uninitiated friends" (McGinty, paragraph 9).
The staff of gURL explain a portion of the site as, "The gURL mag/zine is frequently updated and contains stories, games and interactive content. The gURL connection is our free membership area which provides a valuable community for teenage girls. The connection offers chat, the gURL palace (which enables visual based chat), posting boards, pen-pal lists and homepage listings."
Visiting the homepage of gURL begins to explain why the site is so popular among adolescent girls. With its black background, brightly colored text and off-beat fonts, the page is "funky" and inviting. The logo that appears on the homepage and throughout the site consists of the word "gURL" written oven a drawn image of a girls arm and her hand cle nched in a fist. The site name is a clever combination of girl, the audience the site appeals to, and URL, which stands for universal relay protocol, more commonly referred to as the website address.
The content of the site is diverse, but targeted toward a specific age group of adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 19. On this site, girls have the opportunity to visit [email protected] to find out "does the person you like like you, too?" They may also set up shop on the site with free gURLmAIL (email address) and gURLpages (individual homepages hosted by gURL) which are grouped into gURLnet, "all the best teen girl sites under one roof!"
Users may also browse gURL mag/zine, the online magazine on the site which addresses topics such as "ha! the big 12; the piercing 2," "looks arent everything virtual makeover," "where do I go from here? palm reading may has an excellent sense of humor ," and "deal with it! help me heather." These articles are an example from a recent visit, they change weekly and address various teen issues in a sometimes serious, sometimes silly manner. Other potential interests of users are addressed in areas such as "gURLmusic," "gURLmovies" and "shopping."
In addition to reading, girls are given voice in "mouthpiece" and "connection." In mouthpiece, users gain access to a teen girls take on current news, are able to "dig or dis" new media offerings and can view the art work of other adolescent girls in the gallery. The connection section requires users to register to enter and provide a username and password for future visits. Entrance into connection enables users to access "our free community with chat, pen pal lists, poetry shoutouts and much more!!" It is in this section that my research is focused, particularly in the "shoutout for advice" section. Shoutouts enable users to post their opinions or ask questions on a variety of topics including school, dating, family, friends and bodies.
As previously mentioned, it is not possible to confirm the demographics of the participants, but some important information can be obtained by recognizing that those who visit gURL all have internet access and they have voluntarily visited and joined the gURL community. With computers still a luxury for many and internet access as an additional expense, it is easy to assume that the majority of visitors are situated in middle-class families or higher on the socioeconomic hierarchy. In that they have all voluntarily joined the gURL community and are actively participating in discussions within it, one assumes that they are actively seeking other friends and/or another community outside the one in which they live and socialize. Considering that adolescence is a lonely, turbulent time, it almost seems intuitive that teenagers will seek out advice and support from others with the same experiences in a space where the risk of being ostracized or teased is fairly low.
Data Collection (evaluation of the site, shoutouts, articles about the site)
Data for this study were collected from the shoutout for advice section on gURL.com. Over the course of a month and a half, I spent approximately 60 hours on the site exploring all areas of the website, reading posts from users on a daily basis and waiting (with baited breath!) for responses or updates on their situations. In this time, I gained extensive knowledge of the sense of community the staff members of gURL attempt to foster and how adolescent girls interact within that context. Much of this information was obtained by simply followi ng links to see where they took me within the site. I also read reviews of the site from more than 60 website reviewers and examined newspaper articles about the site.
I examined two bulletin boards in the shoutout for advice under the body section. These were, "Do guys judge girls?" and "Exercise." I chose these two sites because they address issues other than those that have been the focus of previous research, namely breasts, menstruation and sexual activity. Additionally, the titles intrigued me. "Do guys judge girls" is a vague topic that could invite conversations from a wide range of angles. I was interested in seeing what angles the users chose and what topics were touched upon. The title of "Exercise" provides more defined boundaries for the discussion, but it is interesting to understand how the discussion deviates from these boundaries and what topics are addressed instead. Analyzing the discussions on the boards exposes very few differences between the two bulletin boards and those that do exist are superficial at best.
The literature review provided considerably more than a place to find gaps in research as it provided extensive insight into the role of the internet in human communication, methods of data collection, and problems associated with ethnography on the web. Interestingly, very little of this information was obtained from print sources, but a copious amount was found on the internet itself.
As I attempted to remain unobtrusive, I only read the statements provided by site users and did not participate in any discussion, or contact the users outside the bulletin boards. Furthermore, my research question sought to uncover the topics adolescent girls would discuss in their own space and without the intervention of adults. Within this, I did not need to clarify information or probe into why the girls felt this way. Instead, the data found on the site were sufficient for this initial study.
One benefit of this type of research was easy access into the site. I simply added my name to the list of site subscribers, obtained a username and password, and was free to log onto the site at any time. Because this is not a real-time part of the site, it was easy to remain anonymous. Quite simply, no one even knew I was there.
Locating the researcher
Fascinatingly, I found it difficult to remain on the outside of the site. I subscribe to the belief that communication and qualitative research are interactive, ongoing processes where meaning is developed between and among participants. Clearly, I was taking the words of the users and combining their shoutouts with my knowledge and experience to obtain an understanding of their beliefs about their bodies. In this sense, the process is co-creational, but I wonder about the nature of co-cr eation when one is unaware that others are making meaning of their statements and, even if they realize that this is likely occurring, they do not know what meanings are constructed. An example of this occurring raises the concern that one must consider who responds to whom, when the response occurs (if at all), and how others react to the response. A memo in my fieldnotes speculates how zelda2000 will feel if her question is not answered. I worry that she has turned to the bulletin board as a chance to get an honest opinion and assistance with a serious issue. Will she be hurt if no one answers, or will she justify as I have?
Another unique aspect of an internet-based ethnography is that this participant observation is conducted through a website, where I was not an active participant, nor was I observing more than text. As I have mentioned, a website is a necessary and significant site for observation to occur, but it is incongruent with my presuppositions regarding participant observation. With this in mind, there are several aspects of the experience to address that will explain my position and experience while indicating that I am truly acting as a participant observer in this context..
Although I say that I was not a participant observer, the nature of such a website and bulletin boards requires that I was a participant as well as an observer. The role of participant is gained through site registrati on with a username, password and email address as well as simply reading the posted messages. I am unable to cite specific statistics, but the assumption in the computer world is that the vast majority of site subscribers read the messages posted by others, but never post their own. In a similar fashion, Masterson (1997) discusses his experience of gaining a high status position on a MUD. In this situation, he explains that:
...there was some consideration of the possibility that the researcher's words and deeds might be altering or even creating the phenomena being observed. However, part of the position attained was the ability to make oneself completely invisible to all other participants. While invisible, no significant differences in the behavior of the other participants were noted. In addition, while this position was noteworthy on one of the three MUDs studied, the researcher held no such position on the other two; again, no significant differences in the behaviors of the other participants was noted. The ease with which the author could define his own social status while assuming multiple identities was an affordance perhaps peculiar to MUDs and their ilk" (Masterson, paragraph 73).
Although the context of gURL precluded me from conducting this sort of "experiment," the findings of Mastersons study indicate that participation of a research may have little or no impact on the interaction among site visitors.
The variety of data collected from the site consisted of more than 150 pages of text which included a rich description of the appearance of the site itself, the statements of the site users and outside assessments of the site. Additionally, the researchers interpretations of the site icons and bulletin board postings appeared in the data. I began with the intention of using the open coding strategies explicated by Strauss and Corbin to determine categories and their properties and dimensions. I expected to draw on Kvales (1997) notion of meaning categorization to ameliorate the process. However, as I began to familiarize myself with the site and the data, I discovered that meaning condensation would be most beneficial in interpreting this data (Kvale, 1997). Through this method, I was able to allow meanings to emerge from the text and examine how these meanings were interrelated.
The "holy trinity"
Kvale (1997) argues that researchers in the realm of social science have elevated the concepts of generalizability, reliability and validity to the status of a "scientific holy trinity." As such, qualitative research in the social "sciences" is expected to conform to these values. It is problematic for many to attempt to conform the fluid nature of human interaction and identity into the constructs, but Kvale argues that a reconceptualization of the terms in relation to the fluidity social existence is advantageous to qualitative research. In this reframing, he asserts that "The discussion represents a rather moderate postmodernism; although rejecting the notion of an objective, universal truth, it accepts the possibility of specific local, personal and community forms of truth, with a focus on daily life and local narrative" (Kvale, 1997, p. 231). In order to explore these concepts and bolster the perceived legitimacy of my arguments, I will explore my research in relation to the trinity.
If asked to explain my position on the generalizability of qualitative research, my immediate response would be that it cannot occur because human experience is based on a variety of interactive factors that cannot represent the experience of a ll members of a large population. In conducting this research, however, I find my self identifying wholeheartedly with the assertions of the site users and expect that their experiences hold true for the majority of adolescent girls. Had I approached this project with little knowledge of the role of womens bodies in western society and previous research findings, I expect that I would have avoided generalizing their experiences. With this knowledge, it is nearly impossible for me to avoid generalizations because the experiences discussed by gURL subscribers resoundingly support previous research findings. Thus, in combining this qualitative piece with the results from a vast number of previous quantitative and qualitative studies, it is apparent that these findings coincide with others and, thus, are considered generalizable.
One concern I had in approaching this site is that I would be unable to "read" the emotion of the interactants and would need verbal and nonverbal cues beyond the text that were inaccessible due to the nature of the study. I found doing so astonishingly simple; to the point that I fret and wonder if I ascribe emotions that participants may have not actually experienced or that are different from the emotions they were trying to convey. Since I never heard the voices of the interactants, I have, unwittingly, created a mental persona for each with unique vocal quali ties and text-specific inflection. While this is useful in understanding the data, it is problematic to give participants the qualities the researcher expects them to have. If my original fear had come true, then I would not have so much concern about the reliability of my coding.
The deep involvement I have in this topic required me to pay close attention to the reliability of my analysis. The most powerful tool to assist in checking my interpretations was for me to code the data three separate times, each time printing a new copy to mark up, and letting approximately a week go between analysis periods. I also frequently turned to friends and colleagues to ask how they would interpret a phrase to see if our interpretations aligned. Although these techniques were efficacious, and the study has a relatively high degree of validity, member checking would have been another, and arguably better, mode of assessing reliability. I did not, however, wish to expose my self as a researcher at this time, so I chose to avoid asking site users if my interpretations corresponded with their experiences.
The validity of this study is also high when considered in relation to the seven stages of validation explicated by Kvale (p. 237). Previous research studies provided the theoretical presuppositions of the piece and contributed to the assumption that the design of the study would provide knowledge into the human condition. Additionally, the design was carefully assessed in relation to previous CMC research and ethical expectations of the field, the researcher, and the site. As Paccagnella asserts,
Field research conducted with unobtrusive techniques is inevitably doomed to create major ethical problems. Scholars generally do not agree on common ethical guidelines...All, though, are concerned with the privacy of the users and do take precautions such as changing names, pseudonyms, or addresses from the logs. Changing not only real names, but also aliases or pseudonyms (where used) proves the respect of the researchers for the social reality of cyberspace (paragraph 10).
Paccagnella invokes the following assertion of Sheizaf Rafaeli to further illustrate the position a large number of CMC researchers, including mine:
We view public discourse on CMC as just that: public. Analysis of such content, where individuals', institutions' and lists' identities are shielded, is not subject to `Human Subject' restraints. Such study is more akin to the study of tombstone epitaphs, graffiti, or letters to the editor. Personal? - yes. Private? no (paragraph 11).
The third technique for validation that Kvale describes requires in situ confirmation in the interview context, thus I was unable to employ this method. I w as also unable to use his recommendations for transcribing from oral to written style as the data were already written.
Analyzing, the fifth step Kvale describes, considers "whether the questions put to an interview text are valid and whether the logic of interpretation is sound" (p. 237). While this is an abstract term to attempt to tie down in relation to these data, Kvale asserts that validation requires checking and questioning (pp. 242-243). In checking, I examined my expectations for and presuppositions of the study as well as explored my history with the topic. Each time I began analyzing, I reminded myself of the same aspects of my relationship with body image as I have shared with you. Additionally, I questioned my analysis to check for possible alternative explanations of the data. Questioning requires answering the "what" and they "why" before asking "how." Kvale invokes the work of Becker to illustrate that "to decide what a picture is telling us the truth about...we should ask ourselves what questions it might be answering" (p. 243). As previously discussed, the researcher who relies on CMC for data must accept that the narratives of participants may be false. Yet, those who accept, as I do, that the majority, if not all, of these postings to be true representations of the users experiences at that time, also accept that the "whys" of th eir expressions are also true at the given time. Combining this expectation with previous research on adolescent girls and body image, I was able to ask the data a variety of questions to ascertain a multitude of "whys."
Now that I have chosen the community with which to share my findings and have reported the findings in what I perceived to be a valid and accurate way, I am opening this piece for your interpretation of my ability to fully complete steps six and seven posited by Kvale, validating and reporting. As such, I seek your feedback and interpretation of the following findings.
You can never be too thin...
With or without providing reasons why, many users indicate a desire to have a "better" body than they currently have. Often, the desire for a different body was couched in discussion of factors that provoked a desire to be thin, but the overwhelming concern on both bulletin boards was to be thinner. Lickity206 makes this very clear in her post, "i need to know how you would loose about 10 lbs. in 1 month I am chuuby and have big thighs i am not fat but want to be skinny" (exercise, 3/13/99). Although Lickity206 makes it very clear that she is not fat, she does assert that she is not skinny, but hopes to become so with the information she obtains from other gURLs.
From a feminist perspective, Lickity206 raises the concern that oppressive body ideals encourage women to be thin even if they are not fat to begin with. Other users confirm this, for example, QtPie2003 implores, "please help! i'll take any advice possible!! i eat healthy, am athletic, and like the only part of my body that is fat is my knees and my legs.... please help me... pleaseee! thanx!" (exercise, 3/13/99). Similar statement are also made in the following examples:
okay, let me get this straight. I am a VERY healthy gURL, i eat healthy, i am very athletic, i go to the gym a lot and play basket ball, raquetball, u know stuff like that. i go there about every weekend w/ my friends. But, the thing is, I think i have big thighs. i have a sort of big stomache when i sit down. I am 12 years old, and i weigh some where in the 90s. is that healthy?? Don't get me wrong, i am very pretty, healthy.. i am good in a lot of different ways. BUT I THINK I AM FAT! ! I told my mom that and she just said NO! U R NOT FAT AT ALL!! my friends say the same thing. I don't know if i believe them though?? PLEASE HELP ME!!!!!!!!!!!!! (bippity_boppity_boop, exercise, 3/14/99)
HELP!!!!!! I am Fat!....i KNOW i am fat! im not just putting myself down cos i've had bad things in life. I exercise myself off.I train.I swim.i eat soooooooo much good stuff.And after school i play soccer with my friends!...no matter what happens, i always GAIN weight. Any tips that would help me? Melissa if u can see this ring me up and tell me if u think im over weight or just average. Cos i feel real bad about myself cos every1 teases me and calls me fat and blob and stuff....it is REALLY hurting me!" (FriendShipMaker do guys judge, 4/11/99)
These three shoutouts exemplify beauty standards that cause healthy, muscular girls to question their appearance. Although these girls are active and likely within a "normal" weight range, they are concerned that their bodies are too big. Furthermore, although the ages of all the users are not known, bippity_boppity_boops statement reveals that girls as young as 12 years old are concerned about weight even though their bodies have likely yet begun to develop the additional body fat that comes with beauty.
...Or can you?
As illustrated by the previous comments, a common assumption among those who f eel they are fat is that their problems will disappear if their "excess" weight would disappear. In contrast, I maintain that even "perfect people" are often dissatisfied with their looks and their bodies. Many users of gURL confirmed this. Dream_Maker84 recognizes that her experience is "weird" as she states,
This is really weird. I am 100lbs and I hate it! I know some poeple who weigh that much but atleast they aren't flat! I really hate being like this because some guys are only nice to girls who look "good". It is kind of depressing to watch all of your friends go with someone (expecially a boy you like) and you are all alone. Does anyone know why guys judges girls based on how big their chest and hips are? Is there a way to get a guy to look past that? (do guys judge, 3/21/99)
The distress Dream_Maker experiences reveals that although she is thin, she is still not perfect because her breasts are also small. PSP offers and interesting contrast to this in her assertion that
Honestly I don't know why you girls are trying to loose weight. I'm 5'4 and weigh 120lbs. I'm trying to gain weight. Guys like girls with curves. If anything I am jealous of you!!! You should be glad that you have something. All I have is chest and that's it. I'm black and 16yrs. IN the black community they like girls with some m eat on their bones and I eat anything and everything. I don't know what you girls are complaing about, you should be happy. Don't get me wrong I have boyfriends and guy friends but I would like to gain some weight in the hip and butt area. Someone respond to me please!!!!!!!!!!! (exercise, 4/11/99)
For PSP, the problem is not that she needs more weight in certain places, but that she needs more weight in general. Although this may be at odds with what some of the site users experience with their own bodies, no one offered a challenge to PSPs desire. Those who did respond did so with an offer of sympathy. monirose claims that she identifies with PSP and that she too thin, but cannot gain weight. For monirose, some of the problems associated with being thin come from the perceptions of others. She states, "I've tried eating all the time but nothing helps. I hate how everyone thinks I'm anorexic just because I'm thin. Also there are some girls that will actually get mad at me for being like this. I want to gain weight but people don't understand. I just wanted you to know there are other people like you out there" (exercise, 4/12/99). These postings reveal that those who consider themselves thin, and thus are categorized as "beautiful people," still experience anxiety and self-disgust based on the notion that their bodies do not align with social ideals, or if they do, the g irls do not perceive that they do.
And make it quick!
No matter if the user wanted to gain or lose weight, fast results were often requested. As demonstrated above, Lickity206 asks for advice on how to lose 10 pounds in a month (exercise, 3/13/99). Likewise, JsKa makes a plea for help in weight loss because "...it's like March already and I NEED to loose ALOT of weight before graduation in June... (exercise, 3/18/99). Yet another example is the posting by saweet that reads, "hi.im like 100 lbs overweight but i dont look that fat and i still wear a size 16 . if you've lost lots of weight please share you tips with me email me a rose6891 i really appreciate it . i wanna be a size 4 before school next year" (exercise, 4/6/99). Likewise, in the following shoutout, QT_Precious requests a diet plan that will help her lose 10 to 20 pounds, preferable 20, in two weeks.
Hey gURLS~~ I am 5' tall and weigh 125lbs. I feel very over weight, but I don't look it. I hold my weight very nicely, and also I am big boned. I would just like to lose around 10-20lbs. (My goal is 20lbs. to lose!) I am fixing to order tae-bo, and I play softball, fast-pitch softball, I cheerlead, I act, and so, I am always on the go. When I am home, I grab what ever I can get to eat. Any tips? I also need a good diet plan to help me get down a little smaller, bye April 21st. If anyone could help at all then please do!! Thanx alot!! You can post your message on here for me, (i am on here everyday) or you can email me at [email protected] Thanx!! QT. (exercise, 4/7/99)
These are just a few examples of the concerns of girls to lose weight as soon as possible in order to meet goals of being a certain weight or size for "special events" like graduation, summer or the next school year. In these examples, health concerns are not addressed, nor are clear reasons delineated for why the user desires to lose weight. Yes, special events are mentioned, but no user expands on why these special events are important for them to lose weight for.
Attention from boys is important
A theme that gURLs return to with an overwhelming frequency is that attention from boys is extremely important. It is even apparent that girls validate their self-worth through such attention and believe that they will not receive attention from boys if they are fat.. In a request for assistance, zelda2000 proclaims, "...I dont get noticed by alot of the guys at school! Am I ugly is there something wrong with me?" (do guys judge, 3/15/99). Clearly, it is important to be noticed by boys and that being "ugly" or "having something wrong" is the cause for inattention. From this follows the belief that if a girl is ugly, then boys will pay no attention to her. keylarg exemplifies this by stating, "I know I can be compatible with some of my guy friend romantically but it is hard to get over the fact that I am overweight" (do guys judge, 3/17/99).
It is what is on the inside that counts...or does it?
An overwhelming number of users provide advice with some variation of assurance that affability and a good personality are more important than being physically attractive. Though it appears that participants have the belief and/or knowledge that fundamentally, what is inside is what matters. Unfortunately, more emphasis is placed on outer appearances. While the reasons for this are vague and potentially numerous, the two explanation offered are that it takes time to meet a "decent guy" and that that boys are not always able to look beyond appearance to see girls "for who they really are." In a different discussion area, one girl responds to such s uggestions by saying, "Gee, thanks for the advice, but I am so tired of hearing that I just have to wait." As these girls are part of a society that preaches compulsory heterosexuality and pressures women to "have it all," it is not surprising that they feel obligated to be beautiful to attract boys. Although some argue that the focus of the third wave of feminism is to destroy unrealistic and harmful body ideals (Walker, 1998), it seems that message has not yet reached a large audience. Instead, girls appear to verbally embrace the advice of so many parents that what is on the inside is much more important that physical appearance, they, like their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, etc., do not practice the message of this advice in everyday life.
Another facet of this theme is that if one is attractive, accepts this as reality, and shares this opinion with others, she is conceited. Chica732 very clearly tells cutegirly, and every reader, it is "arrogant and rude" to talk about "how cute you were." She continues the message with an obvious self-restraint by saying, "Aaaargh! I had better just finish here before I jusst [sic] totally blow up!" In the opinion of this participant and the assumption that others agree through their silence, it is evident that self-righteousness is definitely "uncool." Others also reprimand cutegirly as well as every other user who allows her "head to get too big."
And we are all heterosexual, too...arent we?
Fascinatingly, the discussion in these data revolves around heterosexualized norms. Further exploration into the site exhibits a consistent conformity to these norms, except when the discussion topic is explicitly homosexuality (When Girls Like Girls..., for example). In these topics, the concern is not how to attract the attention of other girls, but if it is okay to have sexual desire for same-sex individuals or requests for cyber-experimentation into homosexuality via email, chat rooms and masturbation. Perhaps this is in direct relation to the hatred of homosexuality in this culture, but it is interesting that girls do not worry about how to attract other girls, but if they are "normal" for having these feelings.
Someday your prince will come
In line with the expectation that all users are heterosexual, users seem to be sitting, waiting for the perfect man to sweep them off their feet. Perhaps one of the most disturbing themes for a feminist to read is the frequent reassurance that some day some guy will notice how pretty/cute/great/nice/etc. the girl is and will "come to his senses." This is problematic because although users often tell others that weight, size or looks should not matter, they reassure those who are concerned that boys will still notice th em in spite of these "flaws."
...Guys dont usually judge that much and no not all guys like blonde blue eyes (no offense to blonde and blue eyed girls)The real question to ask ur self is there any guy u want to go out with or want to spend time with b/c thats a big part of it.. I mean i use to call my self fat, ugly etc u name it i called my self that and my friends never said anything to help me feel better and that made me feel worst. Time is a big deal wit a b/f i mean i was single for 2 years b4 i went out wit this one guy and he is my true love we went out for 9 months and i still love him and i havent goin otu wit any one else (KeeblerElf-99, do guys judge, 4/1/99)
Speaking from experience guys don't always want skinny girls..i am 5'9 and 120lbs, and i eat like you wouldn't believe, people say i'm pretty too, but do you see me walking around with a boyfriend? no so guys don't care how fat or skinny you are they're attracted to more than the outside, your attitude and personality makes up for alot of it, so quit putting yourself down and stand up high and have a more positive attitude towards yourself and a positive outlook towards life. (silver_angel, do guys judge, 4/12/99)
Even more frequent is the advice that boys are not truly attracted to extremely thin girls, but they prefer "chubby" girls. Examples of this include,
I agree totally with what u said about the meat stuff. most of the guys I know make fun of the girls that are super skinny. I'm not saying that they are all ugly or anything. But i know of 2 girls in my school who are barley even there. all the guys call them aneorixe. it's how your bodies are. if you r fat or chunky your supposed to be that way so don't fret. (peebles10, exercise, 3/23/99).
A fascinating approach to the idea that boys prefer girls "with some meat" is offered by piklegrl, who states,
Ok, this is for every girl. For all you girls whho are trying to look like the girls in magazines, or the models, so that guys will like you, or find you attractive, STOP! Cause guys DO NOT like those types of girls. The only reason guys look at girls who are that skinny, is because they thnk that those type of girls are the ones who will give it to them. But what they really like, is girls who have meat on them, and that doesn't especially mean muscle meat, but the fattier meat. The like girls with a bit more of a pudgy stomach, cause it's softer to touch, and looks better. They like the girls with legs that have some meat on them, not when it's skin and bones. So if the reason you are going for that model-thin look, so that you can get guys' attention, I don't suggest you do it, cause the girls that they find the most attractive, are th e ones with meat on them. The other girls are just sex objects to them. The only reason they go for model-thin girls, is because to them, the stereotype of a slut, is someone who is model-thin. So take my advice. I have plenty of guy friends who have explained this all to me. B-4 I wanted the model thin look, but then they told me of I was to be that skinny, guys would look at me as a slut, so don't do it. (exercise, 3/23/99)
According to this user, as well as others who have replied in support of this concept, girls should not try to be really thin to attract boys because then the only boys that will date them will be those that will pressure them into sexual activity.
How advice is given
Considering how advice is given moves beyond simply hearing the voices of the site users, but is an interesting look into interaction management. When advice is given, it always takes one of two forms. Either the person offering advice tells the person requesting advice that she has had a similar experience or that the problem is not as bad as the person requesting advice thinks it is. Sometimes the two strategies are used in conjunction, but no other strategies are used as a means to provide advice.
Discussion and Conclusion
The use of qualitative methods in the context of the internet proved considerably less troublesome than anticipated. One of the most proble matic aspects of this study was my perspective that objectivity cannot exist in social research. Although my experience in the field was imbued with the sense that objectivity does not exist, but that partiality is potentially destructive. As my reflections indicate, I could have easily joined in the conversation on gURL when I was 13, and may well have uttered the same statements these adolescents do. This is beneficial in that I feel I am attuned to their experience, but problematic in that I have a biased view that such thoughts are harmful. I know these beliefs are supported with scholarly research, but I also know I am more profoundly interested in body image than others, thus I examine it at a much deeper level than others. Perhaps more significantly, I remember nights of crying myself to sleep wishing for a magic fairy to come and fix my thighs. Since these memories are so painful for me, I assume they represent the experience and, thus, agony of the majority of teenage girls. I assume that these girls may contemplate engaging in extraordinarily harmful behavior because they believe they are so ugly that no boy will ever like them. Some postings indicate this may be the case (like the instance where the girl says that she wants to be anorexic), but I am afraid of overgeneralizing my experience.
Considering these complications, it is evident that I approached the research from a perspective that could easily taint the findings. In relation to my development as a researcher, my main goal in this project was testing my ability to interact with the data in a way that I was to co-create meaning with numerous adolescent girls without attempting to overlay my experience on theirs. Through careful analysis of the text and reliance on Kvales explication of the social scientific trinity and modes of adhering to it, I was able to remove myself from the data enough to let it speak for itself, but not so much that I tried to reduce my experiences and previous research to a level of insignificance. Furthermore, this study was an exploration into the dubious online world that is filled with complications and contradictions. This venture was also successful in that I was able to access information I would likely be unable to access in any other medium. Additionally, this project increased my belief in the "realness" of the online world and th e experiences of those who interact within it.
This study could be used as a starting point for a diverse path of future inquires. It provides new insight into human experience and the role of the internet in "real life" as well as the voices and struggles of adolescent girls. Future research could further the exploration of CMC and/or open new doors for enabling adolescent girls to find their voices in a complex, socially constrictive world.
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