I’m continually struck with the amazing number of pro-girl organizations and initiatives that are spawned and nurtured by amazing people—mothers, fathers, celebrities, journalists, social activists and girls themselves. I track these organizations, their tweets, campaigns, cyber pledges, polls, and share these missions as best I can with my daughters and broader social networks of mixed company.
- Half The Sky
- Girl Effect
- Miss Representation
- Big Sisters
- CEO Girls Connection
- Girls Inc
- Girl Scouts of America
- Girl Up
- Planned Parenthood
- Rewrite Beautiful
- Dove’s Self Esteem Fund
- for Real Beauty
- Pennies for Peace
…and many more.
I’m also sobered by the realization that pro-girl initiatives will be needed perhaps as long as humankind exists. The efforts for girls’ education, empowerment and entrepreneurship– the three Es are necessary for the health and vitality of the world. Although I feel privileged to exist in the place and time in which I find myself, there are so many parts of the world where girls and women are oppressed in unimaginable ways—where basic needs and human rights are priorities. In the Western (and ostensibly advanced) USA where I raise my daughters, the onslaught of negative cultural messages targeted at girls appears to be at a peak. So is a contagion of destructive coping strategies among girls—disordered eating, cutting and self-harm—to name a few of the most searing and heartbreaking of silent epidemics. These conditions are now amplified by social media and mobile communication, a medium that has its advantages and disadvantages depending on how they are used.
In a conversation with dad of a struggling daughter we lamented over this state of girls’ health and the recipe for tragedy–where shame and secrecy, combined with the viral effect of sharing insidious ways to deal with stress or despair, have fueled an adolescent health crisis. He noted that boys are next as he reflected on his son. (The cultural assault on our boys is a topic for another discussion but has been well underway for many years and is inextricably intertwined in our gender scripts).
It’s impossible to guard against the assault on my own being—as an adult woman and a mother—or to even feel empowered to protect my girls
from blatant, sexist and narrow gender typed messages. And it’s getting worse. It’s one reason why I created BodiMojo.com ad the DailyMojo blog by girls. Even after three waves of feminism (the last two tidal waves on which I surfed), progress is in peril. Despite some enlightened media outlets and cause marketing to stem the tide, I confess I often feel a backward pull.
I recently heard Deepak Chopra speak at the Massachusetts Conference for Women (Dec 6, 2012). He told a beautiful story about his mother. His remembrance evoked an image of a strong matriarch, grounded, spiritual, and in control, and who never failed to think of the welfare of others as a model of sustainability and growth. To an audience of over 8000 women, Dr. Chopra spoke of a universal shift toward feminine power—one that has been a guiding force for him. “It’s arrived,” he said. And you could feel it in the presence of a sea of women—the possibility, the hope and renewed energy.
Yet, at a private level, in my small world of raising teenage girls in a household that espouses the three Es, little things peck away—eroding my girls’ confidence while it is just in the making.
This became most poignant recently with my 15-year-old Sophie. On the surface she is a smart, confident girl on varsity sports teams in freshman year, involved in a youth group at church focused on social action,has a great group of friends. As parents, my husband and I are fairly relieved at a smooth adjustment to middle adolescence. Yet, we still hold our breath.
She’s also “pretty” by cultural standards. Indeed, a panel of judges might consider my daughter to be a promising “package.” This word is now flippantly used to describe a human being. The phrase speaks volumes about how American Idol or The Voice shape our cultural scripts. Of course, like many teenagers, Sophie has put up a “good cover.”
Few signs of distress could be discerned from her, other than complaints of homework, bad coaching, or sister fights. And even less is available about her inner world—until that secret life appeared on her Twitter feed.
Before she had her own iPhone she’d check her Twitter account on mine. I’d hear the retweets pop up. I didn’t totally mind this, although I was getting particularly annoyed one Sunday when there seemed to be a flurry of conversations I cared not to be interrupted by. Then I see that her friend had retweeted a comment Sophie posted earlier:
I wish I was pretty like the girls on Tumblr.
My heart stopped for a split second.
Wait. Does she really feel that way?
Does she have a blog there, too?
Moms always think they are on top of things. Nope. Sure enough, her Tumblr blog was stated on her twitter profile. I clicked on the link.
I scrolled and scrolled. What I see is an amazingly creative, stream of posts, not unlike the magazine collages my girlfriends and I would spend hours making. As teens we would cut out images from Seventeen or Teen Beat, rearrange letters and glue photographs—photosthat we had to spend our babysitting money on and wait a week to get developed on Main Street. It was heartfelt work. Collage making was a teenage girl’s right of passage, along with hundreds of notes folded into triangles, pressed in the back of jean pockets, and saved in shoeboxes.
Thirty years later my daughter is doing the same thing with modern tools. On her blog she had reposted pictures of baby animals, muddy female soccer players, various Olympians. So, too, were numerous gorgeous girls and guys, in the strict, gendered ways media portrays male and female beauty: Skinny girls with long hair; guys with glossy six-pack abs. (Really, are there any other images available?)
And I thought I was so smart in not having any beauty magazine subscriptions at home.
I was heartened somewhat that her mixed media clearly portrayed vestiges of coming of age. It was cuteness, love, courage, athleticism, and positive quotes. Just scrolling the blog undoubtledy evoked feel-good hormones. An Oxytocin hit.
I thought, Ok, this is totally normal. There are no images of violence, self-harm or pro-anorexic girls. But how to start a conversation about her comment on Twitter? I had told her clearly I’m not snooping when my own phone alerts me to her social network. She knew I was getting these and could not figure out how to disable her account on my phone (she later did).
She’s a very private child. A private child with a public channel. The only way to bring up her comment about girls on Tumblr (AND Tumblr) was in the car.
Driving side by side we can usually talk with ease, not having to look the other in the eye or hide flushed cheeks. We talked about her height (she’s disappointed to have peaked at 5’2), her “poofy hair,” and body image; and once again we discuss social media, the blessing and curse of it, and how to manage it with discretion and privacy. Of course, she finds me too serious or overly concerned. Oh my god, Mom, really?
But my mother, who cared deeply about her two girls, never asked how I felt or ever wondered about my emotional life. She did not prepare me for puberty or offer to buy me a bra. I wish she had. And if she had asked me how I was doing? I may have dismissed her outright. I’m sure I scared her.But on some level I would also know that she was at least curious or courageous enough to ask me.
I have worked with the most wonderful and connected of parents who become flabbergasted to learn about their own child’s conflicts or pain. Many adolescents do not want to upset parents, or disappoint them, and many don’t know how to approach them. They live secret lives on many levels.
There are no easy answers. Parents aren’t mind readers. The hardest part for parents now seems to be how to genuinely connect in a hyper-connected
world—a world increasingly devoid of interpersonal nuances, emotional cues and heartfelt empathy. Yet, the answer always seems to be the same:
- Stay connected, listen, and be present
- Know who your kid’s friends are, and know who these friends’ parents are
- Observe their social networks online and offline
- Be curious but not intrusive
- Notice media messages and consumerism with them
- Share (with discretion) some of your teen challenges and how you got through them
- Have clarity on your own internal story of body image, identity, and self-esteem
- Take a witnessing stance and notice what you may (or may not) be modeling for your child
- Join and support organizations that support girls and make it a part of family life and core values
- Help girls see the plight of other girls to challenge their perpectives, to broaden world view, and foster global sisterhood (the upside of social comparision)
- Find older and near-age mentors and role models who may be perceived as more relatable and less intense than you may be (i.e., find
a cool younger person)
- Be open, authentic and courageous; be honest about mistakes; go forward with love
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
There is no silver lining playbook for ushering our girls into the adult world. Love and connection is the way.