Last week I shared three of the five things I, and the other noted Feminists I asked to contribute, believe we need to stop saying to girls now. You can read this post here: “That skirt is sending out the wrong message” and 5 other things we should never say to girls. It’s now time to share the other messages that, even though they may be well intentioned, do in fact have the potential to harm.
4. “She is only interested in exploring her sexuality as she’s troubled.”
It can be confronting for us to accept that our children will grow up and become sexual beings. However, self-motivated sexual exploration and age-appropriate information about sexuality are vital to our daughters emerging as healthy, whole women. Given that for many girls puberty will start in their early teen years, we should start having conversations with them about sex and sexuality while they are young. We need to offer them alternative voices and role models of sexuality to those they are exposed to in the media and in pornography. This is especially important given that advertisers and broadcasters certainly will be targeting them with messages about sexuality long before their early teen years; to me it seems damaging for girls who are just developing their own sexuality to be influenced largely by porn-inspired examples of sexuality. I am concerned not just because there are too many hyper-sexualised messages bombarding our girls, but because the ideal being presented to them of female sexuality is so narrow. Just as we are told that only a leggy size-8 model can be truly beautiful, we are now being told that only a busty, wet and wild blonde (who is solely focused on male pleasure) can be truly sexy. Women’s (and men’s) sexuality is, in reality, so much more diverse and complicated.
But before we can begin having truly meaningful conversations around our girls’ sexuality, we need to also establish a positive and non-judgemental attitude because in my experience, a negative or stigmatising attitude towards girls’ sexual development may cause harm, particularly when it comes from parents, teachers or other trusted figures.
Writer Emily Maguire offered an important caution against pathologizing female sexuality:
The idea that teen girls are asexual unless ‘activated’ by some external force. This is so common – this denial of the fact that teenage girls might be into sex (doing it, talking about it, imagining it, whatever) because they’re sexually developing human beings. It’s like, a boy who is distracted by lust, eager to gain sexual experience and proud of himself when he does so, is normal. A girl who acts this way is a dupe with low-self-esteem, a cautionary tale. Yes, there are external pressures on girls to look and behave in particular ways related to their sexuality, but more acknowledgement that not all sexually active/interested teenage girls have had their sexuality imposed on them by advertisers, pop culture or predatory men would be good. In fact, a lot of them, a lot of the time, are simply doing what feels good. (Or what they think might feel good, getting better at figuring out what that might be as they go along).
Nina Funnell, who co-wrote Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, with me, also warned against shaming:
We still teach girls to equate promiscuity with low self-esteem and poor self-respect. Meanwhile boys are told that it’s only natural that they would want to sow their wild oats. The reality is that both boys and girls have sexual urges, libidos, pumping hormones and a desire for physical intimacy, pleasure, arousal and connection. So why do we shame girls, and teach them that they must have low self-esteem if they crave the exact same thing boys crave?
5. “Pink is for girlie girls!”
Emily Maguire in her essay “Letter to the Girls I misjudged” laments the fact that as a young girl she associated all things traditionally girly with weakness and took great pride in being seen as “one of the blokes.” This idea was extended by Clementine Ford in her post “Betraying Our Girlhood”;
Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.
As adult women, Nina Funnell and I have both admitted to each other (almost tentatively for fear of losing some feminist credibility) that as little girls we were bower-bird like in our pursuit for all that was shiny, pretty and pink. We adored our Barbies, were besotted by anything princess-like and suspect that were they around back then — we would have sold our little glittered-up souls for a Bratz. And yet like Clementine, we somehow managed to turn out just fine ( we explored this idea in a piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves). Raising healthy, well-adjusted girls has less to do with the toys they play with ( or the colours they chose to wear) and more to do with the values we instill in them. By teaching our children to think critically about cultural goods and by equipping them with skills to navigate complex cultural messages we will be empowering them for life. Education — not panic — enables girls to see clearly, think critically, and reinvent their worlds.
Girls too need to be told that there are many ways in which they can chose to be a girl and a woman. Enlighten Education Presenter, and Manager for WA, Nikki Davis agreed:
When I work with teen girls I tell them upfront that I have always been attracted to very traditionally “girlie” things – I demanded to choose my own (usually pink) clothes from age 3, dressed up as a Princess at every available opportunity and I still love high heels and make up. I then go on to tell them how important feminism is to me and how powerful I believe we all can be as women. I love to see the relief on the faces of a number of girls in the room as they realize that they don’t have to trade in their nail polish or love of clothes to be strong and independent with opinions that matter. I think telling girls that they have to fit into any sort of “mould” is incredibly limiting and we risk perpetuating age-old ideas around women having labels like ‘sporty’, ‘girlie’ or ‘tough’. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be all of those things if she chooses to be!
Once again, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful?