Interview with 19-year-old author and feminist Julie Zeilinger

It’s a powerful bunch that makes up The Daily Beast’s ”150 Women Who Shake the World,” including Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga, Kristen Wiig…and Julie Zeilinger. If you don’t know the last name on the list, it’s time to get familiar—Julie is the fearless leader of the influential feminist blog The FBomb and the author of the new book A Little F’ed Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word. She’s also a student at Barnard College and contributor to publications like The Huffington Post and Feminist.com. A mover and shaker, indeed! Learn more about Julie in our exclusive Q&A below:

What was your first exposure to feminism? Why did it speak to you?

I was first exposed to feminism in 8th grade as part of the research process for a speech. I learned about female feticide and infanticide (a practice that predominately occurs in Southeast Asian countries, where parents abort their female fetus/kill their female infant based solely on her gender); I was astonished that I’d never heard of them and that nobody seemed to really be doing anything to try to stop these horrible deaths. I felt my whole world shift as I realized how privileged my own life was and how much sexism still exists in the world. I knew that I had to get involved in a movement that was trying to end such practices as well as combat similar issues.

How has blogging been an effective platform for your message? What’s your advice to other bloggers who want to make a difference?

I think the biggest difference between blogging and any other form of media is that blogs can reach such a vast number of people in an unprecedented way. It’s because of this complete accessibility that the FBomb has grown into such a large, diverse community. The FBomb has given voice to girls all over the world and brought up a wide array of issues that our generation faces simply by existing as an open space, as a place that anybody can claim by submitting a post. I don’t think there are many other (if any other) platforms that give young women this opportunity or make this vast convening possible on a daily basis, and I think such community-building and support are really the heart of feminism.

In terms of advice, I would say that the greatest thing a blogger can do is to write regularly and with a consistent level of quality. Even if nobody reads your blog at first, it’s really great practice and will help you form your own ideas, but if people come across a blog that displays that kind of quality, they’re more likely to come back. Also, don’t be afraid to contribute to other blogs that do take submissions, like the FBomb—cross-posting is a great way to get your voice out there.

What do you believe is the current perception of feminism in today’s society? Is it still a “dirty word,” so to speak?

I honestly think the issue is less that people viscerally oppose it and more that the word causes a lot of confusion. In my experience, I’ve found that the biggest reason young women shy away from identifying as feminist is because they don’t feel that they really understand what the movement is or what that word means. Plenty of people still associate feminism with negative stereotypes, but I think more than anything else it’s a lack of education about and exposure to the movement. I find that my generation is more willing to identify with and support feminist issues than any other generation in the past. (And the statistics back me up on that: according to Advocates for Youth, 74 percent of millennials support gay marriage, 68 percent support access to abortion and 88 percent support access to comprehensive sex education). But more often than not, unfortunately, they don’t realize that that’s what the feminist movement is all about.

Which feminists (past or present) do you admire most and why?

Like most feminists, I always have and always will admire Gloria Steinem. She’s such an incredible icon for this movement. I think she’s an incredibly intelligent and charismatic leader and it’s undeniable that she completely changed the way our society views women and women’s issue. Jessica Valenti (author of Full Frontal Feminism) and Courtney Martin (author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) were some of the first contemporary feminists I read, and I just think they’re brilliant. I also really look up to women like Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg and Tina Fey for excelling in their respective fields. More recently, I’ve come to really admire and respect Ashley Judd for her bravery in response to the media’s attacks on her appearance and the brilliant feminist essay she wrote for the Daily Beast on the topic. And there are so many others—too many to list.

Do you think that media identifying as feminist, such as Jezebel and Bitch, do a good job of portraying feminism? What would you change if you could?

I think they do. They both certainly show that feminism is relevant and that we can take feminist issues seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. One problem I had with blogs like Jezebel was how critical and negative the commenters on that site and other similar sites could be—although I’ve definitely noticed that this has abated a lot over the past year or so. To me, feminism is certainly about being critical, but I think that, especially online, it can cross the line to nitpicking and cattiness, which I feel is in fact anti-feminist. I think that a sense of community and support are essential to the feminist movement, so when infighting like that occurs online I find it incredibly frustrating. However, like I said, I feel like that’s abated a lot recently and I really appreciate Jezebel, Bitch and Bust magazine for the work they do.

 What women’s issue(s) are you most passionate about?

I feel like I sometimes sound like a broken record when I talk about body image because I bring it up often, but it really is one of the most written-about topics on the FBomb, one that surrounds most women in our daily lives and one that I’ve struggled with personally. I don’t know one girl who hasn’t struggled with the way she looks, and I know plenty who have been so consumed with it that it’s completely impeded them from achieving all that they could otherwise. My generation’s body image issues and our society’s preoccupation with beauty are so much more than an issue of vanity—I believe it’s holding us back in so many ways and is a huge issue that we need to tackle.

However, I’m also really interested in focusing on global women’s issues like sex-trafficking, honor killings and female feticide and infanticide (all of which I discuss in my book). There are horrific, widespread atrocities being committed against women all over the world that I think are hard for young women in a privileged country like America to even comprehend. We may have gained relative equality in this country, which makes a lot of young women believe we don’t need feminism anymore, and yet there are women in this world who are literally killed for something as innocent as talking to a man who is not a member of their family, who are sold into sexual slavery and who don’t even get a chance to make it past infancy just because they are female. These things are happening right now, and it’s insane to me that in this day and age such horrifying misogyny and human rights abuses are occurring on a daily basis.

You were recently on a women’s panel moderated by Chelsea Clinton. How do you keep your cool in high-profile situations? Any tips on public speaking?

It’s still a difficult thing for me to do—public speaking definitely doesn’t come naturally to me. It helps that I’m always passionate about what I’m asked to speak about and really believe in what I’m saying; that sense of purpose definitely makes it easier. In terms of tips, I’d just say try to focus wholly on what you’re saying and having the opportunity to impart whatever you’re saying to an audience rather than the act of speaking itself, which is admittedly much easier said than done.

Your brand revolves around being outspoken and even angry at times. How has this served you (or not)? Any tips on developing a brand?

It’s interesting—I think the FBomb is definitely outspoken, but I think we’ve been able to be outspoken without being angry. Sure, there are certain topics that make the readers and writers of the site justifiably angry—like violence against women, for example—but I think in general the FBomb community is more supportive and based on creating solutions than anything else. I think this has served us well, because in terms of feminist groups I think we’re one of the few that focuses heavily on building a community and making everybody feel included and like they have the opportunity to have a voice. In terms of developing a brand, I have always tried to make any decisions about the FBomb and anything related to FBomb from a place of complete honesty. I’ve always asked myself what I would want from a blog, or a book, in the case of A Little F’d Up, or whatever it is that I’m doing rather than try to figure out what an ambiguous group of “others” might want. Chances are, if you can think of something that really excites and engages you, it’ll excite and engage others as well.

Any other thoughts or advice for the teens who visit our site?

I would just say if you have a dream, go for it. That might sound generic or easier said than done, but I can’t even count how many times people have told me that I was “brave” for starting the FBomb or made it seem like I was some great innovator for creating it, when in reality, I just had an idea, set up a blog and put my whole heart and soul into it. That’s really all it takes—an idea you really believe in and a ton of hard work and dedication. And if you try and fail, so what? I think many young women are so terrified of failure that they never try things that might seem like a long shot. I say embrace failure—it’ll just make you stronger and smarter when you try again.

What women’s issue makes you want to drop the “FBomb?” Share your thoughts below! And stay tuned for our review of Julie’s book later this month!