Julia Sokolowski, a Boston University sophomore who grew up in Vermont, applied to be on the reality TV show "Survivor" last year with a goal: to win the million-dollar prize and pay off her college tuition. She was an enormous fan of the show since age five, and saw competing as a chance to "prove to everyone who ever doubted me that I am strong, strategic and intelligent, not just some Barbie princess, dumb blonde." I spend so much time exploring the harmful repercussions of the "perfect girl" media image sold to girls, that I forget sometimes how young women considered beautiful by media standards also suffer from burdens and stereotypes. So I was excited when Julia reached out to MEDIAGIRLS after returning from the show (where she was placed on the "beauty tribe"), to share how the experience altered the way she thinks about beauty, smarts, and self-worth.
What is it about "Survivor" that made you apply, and what were you hoping to get out of it?
"Survivor" is the television show I grew up watching. It originally aired in 2001, so I have been a viewer and fan since I was about five years old. I always wanted to be on the show; I have a really exploratory spirit. I love to travel, be challenged and be social. Of course my underlying goal was to win the million-dollar prize, but what I really craved was the once-in-a-lifetime, outrageous adventure.
What were your first thoughts when you heard you were accepted?
When I was cast on "Survivor," I was thrilled. However, I found out after I had already started my second semester at Boston University. I was a few weeks into my classes; I just became a pledge to my sorority... so the idea of putting my new life on hold, and disappearing mid-March for the rest of the academic year, was a bit daunting. Still, I knew opportunities like "Survivor" don't come along very often... and participating on the show has always been a life long dream of mine. Although I was taking a risk, my choice to "go for it" was very clear.
What went through your mind when you found out that you got placed on the "beauty" team? (Was it a pro or con?)
I found out I was placed on the "beauty tribe" about a minute before we started shooting the show. Of course I was flattered, but I was also nervous because I was already going out there as this young, blonde, sorority girl; so adding the title of "beauty tribe" was intimidating and only fueling my stereotype. I initially thought being placed on the "beauty tribe" was a liability.
Had you grown up thinking of yourself as beautiful, and did it matter to you?
As a young child, growing up in rural Vermont, beauty wasn't a pressing concern of mine. I think that as I got older, and entered high school, I started to care a little bit more about the way I looked. By the end of my sophomore year, I definitely fell into a trap where I thought that being skinner, and blonder, and wearing push up bras would make me more likeable, more popular and happier. I think a lot of this pressure came from social media. By the time I entered college, I was a little bit more secure with the way I looked, but the mentality of "always looking my best" stayed with me.
How have your thoughts on beauty changed since undergoing this experience?
Since shooting "Survivor," my perception of beauty has completely changed. Once I was stripped of makeup, clothing, toothbrushes, showers, mirrors, I had no choice but to be confident in myself and the other characteristics and qualities I have (that didn't pertain to the way I look). The title of "beauty tribe" became this source of empowerment, like look at me; I'm this 18-year-old girl on national television, without makeup, in a bikini, sunburnt and bug bitten, appearing far from perfect and knowing the country is going to judge me, but owning it- and that is what's beautiful. As cheesy as it sounds, this is when I discovered that beauty really does come from within. If you can show your positivity when stripped of everything while completely exposed, that is beauty.
In a culture of constant selfies, what was it like to spend all that time out not seeing yourself on the island and also knowing there were cameras on you?
At first, it was difficult to not see myself, knowing that I was being filmed 24/7. Naturally, I feel as though people try to present themselves a certain way when in front of a camera... and on "Survivor", that is nearly impossible. You are you, and there is no hiding that out there. After a few hours on the island, you kind of realize you have to stop caring about how your clothes look, and your hair... because that's not what the show is about. It was kind of thrilling to be in an environment where it really doesn't matter at all what you look like, because in reality, appearance is such a societal concern.
How has the experience most changed you, and how you value your self-worth?
The experience has taught me that I am strong. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone that can go ahead and put themselves out there. I have realized that the qualities I have, that don't pertain to the way I look, are MUCH more valuable than I ever really realized. Now, instead of trying to enhance my appearance, I try to focus on enhancing things like my intellect; for example, focusing more on reading the newspaper in the morning, than doing my makeup. Through this, my self-esteem has risen... I'm more confident in who I am as a person.
How has the experience changed your own participation with media - such as what you consume and share on social media?
Throughout high school, and my first semester of college... I was really focused on branding myself as "cool" on social media. I constantly posted partying pictures, "duck face" pictures, and pictures that almost sexualized my appearance. Now, I focus my media on positivity. As "Survivor" airs, this is my media crux... why not use it to empower? I want to use the exposure from the show to be a good role model, and the easiest way to do that is by generating inspiring content. I now try to focus my media on happiness, humor and intelligence.
You are about to undergo media scrutiny as more and more episodes air - how will you deal with the public attention and commentary? Do you have a game plan?
As with any reality TV show, part of participating on "Survivor" was knowing that I'm going to be in the public eye, and that I'm going to be talked about. People always tell me, "oh, don't read the negative commentary online," but I'm not going to lie, it's really hard not to do that. What I have realized already, it that some people are going to love me and some will hate me... and that's just the way it is. I don't take the negativity too seriously, because I was the one on the show, doing the best I possibly could...and the bullies are just posting mean comments behind a computer screen. I know my own truth, and I focus on the positive support I receive from fans. Going forward, I think just owning my decisions and having confidence in myself will help me through the media scrutiny.
If you could send one message to preteen and teen girls, what would it be?
If I could send one message to preteen and teenage girls, it would be to focus on experience and live in the moment. Instead of watching videos online with your friends, talk to them... play cards, go to the beach, bake cookies... try something adventurous for yourselves, not to show other people. My social media consumed so much of my teenage years, and that is something I really regret, because the best life experiences I have had didn't include a cellphone. Those were the experiences where I gained my inner strength and have given me confidence in all aspects of life.
To watch Julia and the other contestants compete on "Survivor" this season, tune in on Wednesday nights on CBS.