Why Generation Z Is Embracing Feminism

Younger feminists demonstrate a fresh confidence in the power of activism, particularly via social media.
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In 1995, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I spent seven months. I was 18 and had just gained five A Levels, four at A-grade, the highest mark possible in England. I was set to head off to the University of Cambridge to study modern languages.

The hospital where I was placed was not a specialist eating disorder unit, but a general psychiatric ward. That meant that I was the only eating-disordered patient there, and they had no idea what to do with me. I did not receive any treatment. I learned to gain just enough weight to leave. I learned to tread that line carefully for the next six years as I moved almost inevitably into fashion modeling. I became known as the "model" model because the sample sizes always fit me.

When I began to gain weight, approaching a healthy and normal size, I lost work until my agency had the bright idea of making money off me as a "plus-size" model. I was a British size 14, which is a size 10 in the United States.

In 2004, I finally went to college, where I began to put the pieces of my experience together and view them through a feminist lens. Suddenly, it was impossible not to make the connection between the personal and the political. Although I had been vocal in my pre-teen years about gender equality, something had happened when puberty hit and combined with the pressures to excel academically and conform to a standard idea of feminine beauty. Something in those gendered pressures turned my ambitions inward and made them self-destructive.

Since university, both my life and my academic work have been transformed by that feminist awakening, so I take special interest in the ways my Generation Z students view gender and feminism, and the ways in which those two things relate to their mental health.

In 2008, when I was teaching in Germany, not a single student in my class of 30 identified as feminist. Over the last 10 years, that has changed dramatically. My female students at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom, sport T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Feminist." They use the term "patriarchy" seriously and unironically, and one of our students was the first trans woman to run for the National Student Union's Women's Officer.

In a recent student survey I conducted for a departmental gender-equality self-assessment, students seemed to understand gender equality as an absolute given. Students made clear statements, such as "I am not a victim," and offered thoughtful references to the university's shocking gender pay gap. (New legislation in the U.K. that compels organizations to publish their gender pay gap revealed that, of the top 10 universities in all three U.K. league tables, Lancaster has the largest gender pay gap.)

In many cultural contexts, Generation Z appears to be embracing feminism as a positive thing, demonstrating confidence in the power of activism, particularly via social media. You'll recognize that simply by thinking of this generation's dynamic young women: the 21-year-old Pakistani activist and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, or 18-year-old Emma González, who's at the heart of the #NeverAgain movement protesting gun violence in the U.S., and the 16-year-old actor Rowan Blanchard, who spoke at the 2017 Los Angeles Women's March about Generation Z as a "generation that recognizes the collective power and potential that can be generated through social media." Online feminist campaigns such as #everydaysexism, #MeToo, and #TimesUp all draw energy from the new consciousness among this generation.

Yet statistics from the U.K. government and the British Medical Journal suggest that the experiences of life today among Generation Z "appear to be more challenging" than those of older generations, in particular the Baby Boomers. One of the main factors is mental health: Sixteen- to 24-year-olds in the U.K. are "more likely to report symptoms of mental ill health. They also have higher rates of unemployment and more frequently report loneliness." There has been a 67 percent rise in the number of teen suicides in England and Wales since 2010. Research published in the BMJ reveals that "affective disorders in young people are rising substantially, particularly among girls and young women." Between 2011 and 2014, there was a 68 percent increase in 13- to 16-year-old girls taken to the hospital for harming themselves.

In contrast to my experiences in the 1990s, there are now specialist eating disorder units in England that offer excellent treatment available on the National Health Service. There are many more mental-health charities that offer support to children and young adults and work to raise awareness about mental-health issues than there were when I was ill. So the crisis in mental health may relate to higher rates of self-reporting and general mental-health literacy. Yet the BMJ also notes that these young people "grew up in the age of social media and the great recession (2008)." During this period, there were "increases in family breakdown, [the] growth of international terrorism, and, in the U.K., student debt and predicted gaps in prosperity between [young people] and their parents."

More research needs to be done into the causes behind such poor mental health among members of Generation Z. And given the high numbers of girls and young women who are particularly at risk, more feminism needs to be done. I have hope that the resurgence of feminism among young women that I've seen on campus and in the news can also offer a way to address the crisis. I hope it can help those girls and young women connect the personal and the political, and see the ways in which the pressures that affect them can be overcome. Generation Z's version of feminism says that self-destruction is not an option.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

See more in this series:

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The Future Is Non-Binary, and Teens Are Leading the Way

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