As a tween in Pepper Pike, Ohio, Julie Zeilinger was so uncomfortable with her body, she avoided shopping for clothing altogether. Just the idea of trying on a dress that was one size larger than she believed she should be made her cringe. As she transitioned into high school, Zeilinger began to craft her routine around this negative self-image, keeping her distance from potential friends, “convinced that the closer I got, the more magnified my flaws would seem,” she recalls.
Rather than slowly drift into the background, however, Zeilinger’s distorted body image sparked a broader curiosity about women’s issues and injustices. While researching a school project, she discovered the horrors of female infanticide and feticide and how common these atrocities were worldwide. She quickly realized that women’s rights had not yet been universally won. Not even close.
After her first year of high school, in 2009, she took to keyboard with her passion, rage, and natural writing ability, blogging about global injustices and the confusing messages about sex, size, and perfection that incessantly bombard women.
“What I want to know is why everything is coming down to ‘me and my bathing suit.’ And why commercials argue that if I eat only bran-based cereals or artificially-flavored yogurts I will win this supposed battle,” Zeilinger wrote in an early post to a blog that would become a leading force in her generation’s feminist conversation.
Today she is a “freshperson” at Barnard College who says her blog FBomb reaches 30,000 readers from around the globe each month. Visitors from her New York City dorm and even Brazil come to read her thoughts and proposed action steps to empower young women and girls. Written by and for young adults, the site posts pieces on everything from rushing a sorority to why women belong in the military to the absurdity of gendered candy bars. It’s not her mother’s brand of feminism, to be sure, but the sassy tone and honest rapport resonate with girls the world over.
Zeilinger and her contributors publish rants like “Top 10 Reasons High School Pisses Me Off” and shame ads that Photoshop women’s bodies into fiction. Posts on emergency contraception, self-cutting, and a gay hate crime called “corrective rape” intermingle with entries about pop culture (abusive relationships in Twilight; female musicians, like indie rocker Polica and the late Whitney Houston). Activist interviews run alongside angst-ridden poetry and musings from the locker rooms and fraught cafeterias of high school. A few choice videos of small girls trying on big feminist subjects like marriage equality or the insidious marketing of pink toys would sell anyone on the good FBomb can do. The blog has a light, informative touch with serious topics like forced marriage and hate crimes while also posting thoughtful personal tales on the trouble with bathing suits and boyfriends. The writing is fresh, never jaded, and makes the reader feel as though she is discovering the world anew.
Basic interactions with teenage boys provide infinite fodder for Zeilinger, who often blogs about young men who toss regressive domestic jokes at their strong female counterparts. She writes of one such boy at a party who commanded, “Get me a beer.” She answered him with a dirty look—not exactly bra burning, but perhaps a more effective form of feminism for our time. “Feminism for my generation is a much more subtle fight than it once was,” says Zeilinger, who is now 18. “We still deal with issues that are sexist in nature, but they don’t always have a blinking arrow pointed at them.”
She bemoans that girls don’t stand up to derogatory jabs from silly boys because they fear being accused of “not being able to take a joke.”
Zeilinger says these peers often bristle at the word “feminist”—while at the same time believing in equality and getting angry when it’s not achieved. This is the inherent reference in the blog’s name, FBomb, which mocks the controversy around uttering the word “feminist” and concurrently reclaims it.
Zeilinger has interviewed superstar feminists like Gloria Steinem and Jessica Valenti and has been named to prestigious lists of emerging activists by magazines such as Glamour, More, and Woman’s Day. The Barnard undergrad speaks on panels about her take on feminism and just finished writing a book, A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word, which will be released in May.
Zeilinger understands that what she does helps young women, many of whom might not come to feminism otherwise, and she loves the interaction with real girls through posts, comments, tweets, and speaking engagements. But the most meaningful interaction she’s had, she says, was with a young Jordanian girl who wrote for FBomb about hijabs and honor killings. Fearing for her own safety, the girl wrote under a pseudonym to disguise her liberated feminist writings from her insular community. Zeilinger says publishing these writings is the most rewarding moment of her work with FBomb to date.
That, and the self-discovery. “To explore my own feminist identity has been the most amazing part of all of this,” Zeilinger says. Thirty thousand other young women couldn’t agree more.