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WomanOf the Month 5-04: Author Gina Otto

The revelation came to Gina Otto one day while she was working in TV production on a diet cola commercial: "I had an awareness that I was working in an industry that uses anorexic models to sell diet cola to teenage kids," she says. She backed away from the successful career she###d developed in film and TV production and as a stylist for fashion magazines. Soon, through connections with friends who were teachers, she was talking to students in junior high schools about self-esteem and media images of women and girls. Of course, more than one moment of awareness prompted Otto###s decision to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Several weeks earlier, she had attended a Marianne Williamson lecture that suggested, "If you secretly feel you###re wasting your life, you probably are." Her desire to help children and adults discover and honor their true selves inspired her first book, Cassandra###s Angel, published in 2001.

Otto grew up in Denver, attended Arvada High School and studied film and journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. During her senior year she was offered an internship with CBS Movie of the Week. More projects followed, and eventually she moved to LA as production manager of a large commercial TV company. In the early 1990s, she joined the commercial division of Lucasfilm before switching to the creative side of the industry as a set designer for commercials as well as a stylist for fashion magazines. Her career was ascending, but she sensed that something was missing. Then came the moment of awareness.

In her work with junior high school students, Otto would hold up pictures of models and point out, "Here###s what she looked like at 5:00 am in the morning. Here###s what she looked like after three hours of professional makeup artists working on her; here###s what she looked like after they airbrushed out every imperfection."

"My motivation for talking about these issues is that if our children are kept in a constant state of insecurity, how can they be of consequence?," she says. "This is an industry where there are people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year whose only job is to prove that there###s something wrong with you, so that they can sell you something to fix it."

She realized she was on the right track, but to be even more effective, she needed to reach younger children. To that end, Cassandra###s Angel has proven surprisingly versatile. "Women are buying the book for children but also for their girlfriends," she says. The reading level listed for the book on amazon.com is 4 to 8 years old, but Otto notes that the official age listed on the book by the publisher is 4 to adult.

Cassandra###s Angel shows children and adults how to discover the best and brightest of what they can be by letting go of the stories they are given from other people. "We all have stories from other people about who they think we are. By dropping all those stories we can become who we came here to be. I don###t know of anyone who isn###t walking about with a story placed on them from the past that they###d love to let go of," she says.

Otto stresses the importance of thoughtful communication with between parents and children. "There is a difference between a child who has made a mess and a child who is a mess. We need to take care when we are talking and remember that our children are listening, and that our words impact them. The entire story of Cassandra###s Angel takes place in a day and a half. She is bombarded with negative messages from peers, teachers, parents and even the government. This brings to mind that children are not only getting the messages we###re giving them, but also from all these other sources. Home needs to be a safe haven."

Nor can we simply blame the media, says Otto. "The media is just the medium. The responsibility comes with the parents. We have to be aware of what children are exposed to and have an ongoing dialogue with them. If we put the blame on the media then we tend not to look at ourselves. We need to do the opposite. We need to take responsibility. And there is plenty of good media out there."

Otto notes she is part of the last generation to escape the era of the supermodel and its resultant pressures to appear perfect. Today, every junior high school age girl she has met has expressed some experience with the phenomenon. "At every school visit, at least several girls come up to me afterward and say they are practicing bulimia or anorexia and need help. It is an epidemic," she says.

Ottos suggests that parents honor themselves and one another. "If we###re being respectful to our spouse and friends that will model behavior for our children," she says.

One way to dilute the junior high and high school pressures on girls is through extracurricular activities, notes Otto. "Summer camp programs, music, sports, and other alternatives all help girls not get caught up in that world. Also, having other role models besides the parents to talk to can also be helpful during teen years when children may not confide as easily in a parent."

Otto now travels throughout the U.S. helping children, parents and teachers examine how communication patterns impact our lives and society as a whole. In 2003, she turned Cassandra###s Angel into a full-length musical production. She has also produced a fifteen original-song CD from the musical. For more information about Otto, her book and other work, go to www.cassandrasangel.com.