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Interview with Jane Fonda on Her New Book About "Being a Teen"

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Jane Fonda is well known as an Oscar- and Emmy-award winning actress and for her best-selling books and exercise videos, as well as for her activism around a variety of issues, such as co-founding the Women's Media Center. What you may not know, is that Fonda also has a long and varied history of working with children and teenagers. Back in 1977, Fonda and her former husband Tom Hayden started the Laurel Springs Performing Arts Children's Camp that served disadvantaged children for fifteen years, and she also founded several non-profits and initiatives that specifically serve adolescents, including founding the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential (GCAPP) in 1995 and the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory School of Medicine in 2000. Helping teens has been a longtime passion, and learning about their needs, problems and questions compelled her to write her comprehensive new book, Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More for which she consulted with a variety of additional resources and experts.

Fonda says these "challenging" teenage years are especially critical for our overall development because, "it's when the stage is set for who you become as an adult. It is the gateway to adulthood." With directness and clarity, Fonda provides detailed information and helpful guidance on many sensitive topics that parents and teens frequently have a difficult time talking about, ranging from how their bodies work, to sexuality, how to be authentic and discover their identity, challenges like bullying, eating disorders, and sexual abuse, what constitutes healthy relationships and much more. This book, which takes on modern day issues that impact today's teens, including social media, cyber bullying and sexting, is an invaluable and timely tool for parents, educators and teens themselves.

I recently talked with Fonda about her inspiration to write Being a Teen, the advice she wishes she had received as both teenager and parent, and her hopes for this book and for teens today.

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Marianne Schnall: I am happy to interview you about this project, which strikes a personal chord with me - I have two teenage daughters, 13 and 16, so I'm in the throes of it, and I also remember facing many of these issues myself. So I'm very grateful that you've written this book.

Jane Fonda: Thank you.

MS: What inspired you to write a book for teens?

JF: Well, I had a difficult adolescence. And I didn't even think of it much until I started running a children's camp in California with Tom Hayden for 15 years. It was a performing arts camp. And, you know, you spend a summer with a bunch of adolescents and you begin to see - they were of all socioeconomic backgrounds - I mean, there was Angelina Jolie and there were kids who came through parole officers and there were very poor kids, or very rich kids - and I saw that the things they needed, what kind of advice they were looking for, all the confusions. Kids were feeling these new feelings, but didn't know what to do with them - and didn't know that because they had the feelings, it didn't mean that they should act on them.

And then I married Ted Turner and moved to Georgia, which had the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country. And I started an organization in 1995 called the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. And not only because of us, obviously, but for all kinds of reasons, the rates have dropped 50% in Georgia. And we have expanded our focus now to include health and fitness and healthy relationships. So now the acronym is the same, but the name has become the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential ("GCAPP"). And in 1997 I started the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory School of Medicine, and I helped create the state-of-the-art Teen Clinic at Grady Hospital; which is the largest emergency hospital in the southeast.

So for 20 years in Georgia I have really up close and personal worked with teens, especially disadvantaged teens. And members of my Board of Directors about four years ago were saying, "We need a book!" Because their kids were approaching teen-hood. And so I decided to write one. The profits will go to GCAPP. And here it is!

MS: What are your highest hopes for the book? What are you most hoping to accomplish?

JF: I would love schools to buy it in bulk and use it as part of their sex ed curricula. I'd like parents to buy it and use it with their kids. I'm assuming that it would be parents or grandparents that will buy the book, and at least glance through it. And with younger teens, they would want to read certain sections with them. For older teens, like your 16-year-old, you could look through it and then just give the book to them and they can dip in at whatever stage they want to read. You know, if they want to read about relationships or sexual identity - because that chapter on sexual orientation, I think it's one of the best - I haven't read anything better for kids, to help them understand gay, lesbian, questioning, trans - all of that, which I think is very important, and the importance of compassion. Living in Georgia and seeing the homophobia and how it affected kids just broke my heart.

And I hope that a lot of teens will be able to have access to it. I know that libraries are starting to buy it, which makes me very happy. And I know some people that run sex ed courses and they're buying it. I just hope there will be more of that.

MS: So many important issues are covered in this book. What strikes you as some of the issues of most concern for teens today?

JF: Boys are a little different than girls. For girls: what is a real relationship? What is a healthy relationship? That's a question I was always asked a lot, so I've spent a lot of time writing about what a healthy relationship should feel like. And then, what is a not healthy relationship?

I think the influence of the media is very, very important now, more so than when I was a kid, and so I spent time writing about that.I mean, this is something that my book offers that most other books for teens don't talk about, which is: become conscious of what the media is doing to you. How it's making you feel like you're supposed to be, 'manly', you're supposed to be this kind of a guy, if you're a guy, or this kind of a girl, sexy and thin and so forth. If we can politicize that and make them aware of it, it helps them distance themselves from it, it's like social inoculation.

So making adolescents conscious of the fact that what's happening to them right now, along with all the body changes, is they're forming their identities that will take them through the gateway into adulthood, and they should do it consciously. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of values do you want to represent? Write them down so you can internalize them more easily and focus on them, and then, every now and then, go back to the list. Are you being those things? Are the friends that you've chosen to hang with people who encourage you to be those things? The focus is not what do you want to be when you grow up, but who do you want to be? What kind of a person do you want to be? And to make them conscious of it, because this is what's happening to them as adolescents. They're moving from concrete thinking of today and what's right there around them, to abstract thinking. What is the future, and so what is my identity forming that will take me into the future? And the more conscious that we can make them of that, I think the healthier they'll be. And the more they'll be able to handle what comes along the way.

You know, I talk to my friend Paul Kivel who's written a lot of books for boys, and he uses the analogy which I quote in the book, "Adolescence - it's like being on a boat on a stormy sea. You can't just let the boat drift. You have to know where you want to go and set your sails for it and steer in a direction where you want to go." And so that's what I've tried to give them, are the tools to do that, to steer their boats.

MS: What were your own teenage years like? And looking back, what piece of advice that you now offer in your book, do you wish you'd most known in your own teenage years?

JF: Oh, God! [laughs] Well, I wish I'd known that it was okay to say no. And that no is a complete sentence. I wish I'd known what to look for, before I said yes, like trust and the ability to communicate. That you shouldn't have sex with someone, until you could talk to them about sex beforehand and talk about, 'No, I don't want to do that. I'm not prepared to go that far. Don't push me to go that far.' I wish I'd known that I shouldn't be in a relationship with someone who tried to manipulate me in going further than I wanted to. I wish I'd known that I shouldn't be doing something just to please the guy, in the case of a heterosexual relationship. I should be aware of what I want. And wait until I'm in a situation where I feel enough trust to be able to ask to be fulfilled in my own self and not just think about what I'm doing for the other person.

I mean, I didn't even know - I didn't get my period until I was 17 and it scared me to death. I thought maybe I was in the wrong body. I thought maybe I was supposed to be a boy. It was very fraught for me. And if I had been able to read a book like this, I would have been much more empowered, I think.

MS: Many parents may feel reluctant to bring up some of these very sensitive topics with their teenagers. What advice do you have for parents who feel squeamish about bringing up some of these topics with their kids, like sexuality?

JF: What not to do is wait for the "big talk" - sort of girding your loins and having a drink or something, and, "OK, now I'm going to have the 'big talk' with my teenager." Because you think that you're having the "big talk" and later on if somebody interviewed the teen, they would probably feel that no one has really talked to them. As hard as it is for the parent, it's something that has to be ongoing, it has to start early. Parents have to use opportunities - like I remember one guy who said he would watch "Sex in the City" and use that as an opportunity to talk about different things with her - what seemed right, what wasn't right, etc.

Teenagers - and it's not unhealthy, because they are individuating - they make a parent feel that they don't really want to hear them, that the parents are old fogies that have nothing to say - but the fact is that adolescents need us to talk to them. But we should also listen. Be an approachable parent so that you can listen without being judgmental. The child has to feel that they can come to you and that you can listen without being judgmental - that's a very important component. Otherwise the kid will never come to you. And I'm saying this as a parent who was not approachable. I didn't do a good job with my kids at adolescence, which is another reason, you know, you teach what you need to learn. It's why it was so important for me to study parenting, because I feel that I didn't know enough when I was... I was not particularly parented properly. You know, my mother died when I was young and my father was very busy, and so I didn't quite know how to do it. But you can learn it! And so I've learned it. Being approachable, starting early to talk about difficult things, takes the onus off when they are actually getting to an age when they might have sex and you're not so scared. You know, when I started talking to my daughter, I was two years too late. Because I waited too long, because I was too scared.

MS: Another issue that you cover in your book that affects teenagers' relationships with their bodies, especially girls, are eating disorders. I know that you've written very openly about your own history with eating disorders, and I experienced eating disorders myself as a teen, as did many of my friends - and it's still such an epidemic for girls today. What insight or advice do you have for girls on cultivating a healthy relationship with our bodies, and resisting the pressure to fixate so much on their looks or to think of their bodies as nothing other than an ornament that they wear?

JF: Yeah - and to realize - because I think I wrote about this, that eating disorders don't represent a lust for food. It represents a loss of authentic self. It's when there's something about our lives and our relationship to ourselves and others around us that is inauthentic. And we're trying to fill an emptiness. That's what I think it's really about. It's a spiritual and emotional hole that we're trying to fill with food. And so it's important that if you do suffer from an eating disorder, to find help - not a nutritionist. It has nothing to do with nutrition. I give a lot of resources of places to go, with therapists who are used to dealing with girls, and some boys, who suffer from eating disorders, who have experience with it and who know how to bring them back into their authentic self, regain their voice that tends to get lost at puberty.

If girls are in inauthentic relationships, they are more apt to have eating disorders. And if girls have been sexually abused, as one in three have, they will tend to have eating disorders. They need to receive help, of a very specific kind. I wish I had had time to write a book for parents, because when it comes to a serious eating disorder, the parent has to play an important role. And parents shouldn't be obsessing about dieting, obsessing about weight. Talking to the child about weight. My father, always - not him directly, but he would send the various wives to tell me I was too fat. But these are the kinds of things that you should not do to a teenage girl or boy. Let them grow up. Love them unconditionally. Don't talk to them about being fat or thin. Set a good example by exercising yourself and eating properly and having good, healthy, fresh food in the house. And set a good example, but don't say you're too fat, don't eat that, you're eating too much. It will cause anxiety - it's anxiety and feeling bad within yourself and inauthentic, that causes the eating disorders, don't you think?

MS: Absolutely. I think what's also so important that you cover in this book are the cultural influences that are the source of so many problems teen face - for instance, the pressures on boys. I was looking back on one of our previous interviews where you talked to me about connecting boys with their hearts, and the importance of teaching our sons to remain "emotionally literate". How do you see the special challenges for boys in terms of our culture and the development of healthy masculinity? Even in what you were talking about earlier, encouraging girls to learn to say no, it's also about explaining to boys on the flip side that they don't have to pressure girls, or act in a certain way, to be considered masculine.

JF: That's why I say boys can be strong and vulnerable. They can be brave and compassionate. They can still have a heart and be a real man. And real men are people who respect women and don't bully people who are different. And I write about that in the book and that was very important to me to write. And I have a special place in my heart for boys. I think in some ways, even though men still have more power in our society, it's really hard for boys. Because as I have told you before, the loss of empathy, the loss of heart happens so young, they think that's just the way it is. For girls the loss of authentic self, or the voice going underground at puberty, that's learned, so you don't have to dig too far in girls to get back at what they were before puberty and turn them into resistors. It's harder with boys. It's harder to find a safe space for boys who are sensitive and caring and who remain whole and germane. It's difficult, but we have to begin to consciously raise boys to stay in touch with their hearts.

My advice for parents, and I've done this with my grandson, is draw pictures of emotions: happy, sad, in between emotions like melancholy and wistfulness. Teach them how to identify and read other people's emotions. How do you think that person right now is feeling? Look at their body language, what is it saying to you? Are they angry? Are they sad? Just teaching boys to pay attention to emotions. And also setting examples in front of boys of men who were strong and yet vulnerable and compassionate: Jesus Christ. Gandhi. Martin Luther King, some examples. Just like we should put examples in front of girls of women who were not necessarily beautiful, not necessarily popular, but incredibly important in history and made huge contributions: Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Nightingale - you know, there are so many of them.

MS: What does it mean collectively, for our society and culture, to have teenagers grow up - as you're saying they have the capacity to - in command of their bodies, being their authentic selves, having agency over their lives?

JF: Well, we have to pay more attention to young boys at 5 and 6 when they first enter schooling, to make sure that the messages they get aren't all messages about being a "real man." ' You know, don't cry. Don't be a sissy. Don't be too attached to Mama. It's okay to bully. It's okay to not respect girls. 'That's a societal message that affects too many young people and so that has to be changed. And girls at adolescence have to be encouraged to not turn into pleasers - they have to be encouraged to hang onto their authentic self.

MS: I was thinking about your last book, Prime Time, which is such an inspiring and helpful guide for navigating the later years of life, and you have now written a book about adolescence, and it made me think that maybe we as a society need to see life as a journey and evolution and realize that there are these different phases that have different considerations and needs that we need to stop and think about.

JF: Yes. Like Erik Erikson. I mean, I've learned a lot from Erik Erikson. There are unique stages of life, each with its own challenge. What's important about adolescence is it's when the stage is set for who you become as an adult. It is the gateway to adulthood. And it's a very challenging time, especially for boys, because the new hormones that are raging in boys are testosterone, which drives sex and aggression. Girls' estrogen is more of the cuddly, romantic, empathic hormone, but testosterone raging through a developing boy's body, whose brain is in still under construction, especially the prefrontal cortex where planning and decision making takes place - it's like high octane jet fuel in a Model T Ford - you know, it's asking for trouble. Not that it happens to all boys, or all teens, or all teen girls, but there's a reason why it's a challenging period, and for a long time adolescence wasn't even viewed as a unique stage in human development, so the more we understand it as such, the more we learn to love adolescents.

You know, it's easy to love kids. It's not so easy to love adolescents - they're prickly. And they make you feel like they know everything and you're just an old fogie and have absolutely nothing to teach them, and yet they want us to talk to them. Even though you think they're not listening, but they are. And just like the third act of life is a unique time with its own unique challenges, as I wrote in Prime Time, it has to be thought of in a whole new way, especially now that we're living longer. It's been fun doing the span - it's been a real blessing for me to be able to touch both phases of life.

For more information on Jane Fonda's books and the organizations she works with, you can visit her web site.

Photo credit: Blake Little

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's new book is What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.