Inspiring women offer lessons from the limelight

Chelsea Clinton speaks to Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School students on April 7. Photo: Eric Berger

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Two very impressive women came to St. Louis last week; each to speak to students. You’ve likely heard of one of these women but not the other.

Maayan Keret, who grew up in a small town in Israel in the Galilee region, moved to Tel Aviv when she was 15 to become an international supermodel. Chelsea Clinton moved to the White House from Little Rock, Ark., when she was 12 with her parents, Bill and Hillary Clinton, because her father had become president. Both Keret and Clinton were teenagers in the limelight and both took away important lessons, which they came to tell.

Keret, 40, spoke to about 80 people, the majority female undergraduates, in Holmes Lounge at Washington University, about the impact of media on the female body image. Clinton, 35, addressed a larger crowd in the gym at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, including 90 or so students in grades 3 through 8. The school was suggested to her by Missouri Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, because of its reputation for having a progressive curriculum and commitment to teaching about social justice. 

Clinton talked about her latest book, “It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going” (Penguin Random House), in which she encourages youngsters (the book is geared toward ages 10-14) to take an active role in a number of global issues, including poverty, education, gender equality and the environment.

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Not only did these women convey their messages by drawing upon their own experiences, but both also said positive change starts by taking action, be it speaking out against the way women’s bodies are distorted in mass media or telling kids they have “a powerful voice” and should use it.

“You may not be old enough to vote yet,” Clinton told her audience as they listened intently, “but you are old enough to go to a town hall and ask a question.”

Clinton explained how when she was young, the book “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth” changed her life. “This was the first book I read that took me seriously as an activist,” she said. “I may have only been 10 or 11, but I deserved to know about climate change and global warming and pollution and be given suggestions of what I could do to try to make the world be cleaner, safe and try to make a difference.”

She said, “all engagement should always start with what we are most passionate about, what we care about the most or what we feel angriest about.” To illustrate, she related several anecdotes, including one about 7-year-old Haile, who was determined to help her dad, newly diagnosed with diabetes, eat better and exercise.  

“She became the family chef and her dad got healthier,” Clinton said. “She helped other kids she knew become their family’s chef, launched an online cookbook to help kids she didn’t know become their family’s chef, and then Hyatt Hotels hired her to rewrite their children’s menus across the country.”

She spoke of the dogged efforts of 14-year-old Celia in China to stop the slaughter of African elephants for their ivory tusks. Celia started a campaign reaching out to family, friends and elected officials but it wasn’t gaining much traction. Deciding she needed a celebrity voice to elevate her actions, she “reached out and reached out and reached out … to Yao Ming, who finally agreed to meet with her,” said Clinton, adding that today, the 7-foot-6 former NBA star is on a mission to stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa.

“We shouldn’t get discouraged even when things seem impossible or improbable,” Clinton said. 

She recalled at age 5, sending a letter to then-President Ronald Reagan, begging him not to visit a Nazi cemetery on an upcoming visit to Germany. She said she had just seen the “Sound of Music” and told Reagan “the Nazis don’t look like nice people.” She never got a response.

Fast-forward to when her father became president and her parents asked her what she hoped to get out of the experience. She told them she “really hoped every child who wrote a letter to the president gets a response,” so her parents set up a White House Correspondence Unit. “I do hope young people continue to raise their voices and receive the kind of validation of getting a response from the White House,” she said.

Keret also hopes young people raise their voices and receive validation for who they are rather than what they look like. “My goal is to help people, especially women, be more confident with their appearance, which should have nothing to do with a beauty ideal,” Keret said as we chatted before her Wash. U. talk. “You can feel confident and beautiful in whatever shape or look you have, but as a society we need to embrace more images of beauty, more variety, more diversity, rather than this absurd ideal portrayed on billboards, in fashion magazines and in the media.” 

Keret, who like Clinton is now a mother of two, started traveling the world as a top fashion model by age 16, appearing in magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. As she worked with leading designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs, she became increasingly aware of the intense, often brutal, pressure to be rail thin. By 22, she was so disgusted with the modeling industry she quit. 

“I wanted to have a calmer life,” she said. “I wanted to speak my language, be in my country, be with my people, be who I am. I was done.”

Fifteen years ago, she wrote and published “The Beautiful Women” (Yediot Ahronot Press), which tells of the struggles models and actresses have had with eating disorders and body image issues. Today, she has a business educating youngsters about having a healthy body image and self-esteem. She models occasionally but only if a project truly interests her.

Peri Feldstein, a 19-year-old sophomore at Wash. U., said she found Keret’s talk inspiring. “One thing that stuck with me was how when she was in middle school kids made fun of her because she was tall and thin. Then she got into the modeling world and was told she was not tall or thin enough.”

Feldstein said hearing Keret’s stories of always being judged on her looks were especially impactful. “It’s such a struggle, balancing being healthy, strong and feeling good with stereotypical images of what we think we should look like,” said Feldstein. “(Keret) said she doesn’t even own a scale. She pointed out that weight is supposed to fluctuate. It’s not about the number but how you feel in your own skin, if you’re healthy and have energy.”

Meanwhile at Mirowitz, students flooded Clinton with questions ranging from how many drafts it took her to write the book, to the number of places she volunteered, to whether she planned to run for president. She quickly turned that question around, asking the children if they wanted to run for president someday.

Max Lagoy, 13, a seventh grader, said he found Clinton’s talk to be very interesting, and definitely better than being in class. 

“I liked hearing about her travels and what other kids are doing to make a difference in the world,” he said. “I found the whole thing very motivating.”

When asked if he volunteers, Max said he “was very big in the disability department” volunteering with Special Olympics as part of his mitzvah project. Then I asked if he thought that one day he might run for president.

“Not president,” he said, “but maybe senator.”