Girls Will Be Girls:
Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters
by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker
Published by Hyperion; August 2002; $23.95US/$32.95CAN; 0-7868-6768-X
Copyright © 2002 JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
The Search for Perspective
"It's pretty hard being a girl nowadays. You can't be too smart, too dumb, too pretty, too ugly, too friendly, too coy, too aggressive, too defenseless, too individual, or too programmed. If you're too much of anything, then others envy you, or despise you because you intimidate them or make them jealous. It's like you have to be everything and nothing all at once, without knowing which you need more of."
Nora, twelfth grade
My friend Clara calls me every now and then with one of her "bad mother" confession stories. Ostensibly it's to give me fodder for my talks and workshops, but just after she finishes the story comes the real reason: She needs some reassurance that she hasn't ruined her daughter for life. She's not a bad mother at all -- just the opposite, in fact -- but with a twelve-year-old daughter, her parenting judgment is always subject to criticism, and her confidence takes a drubbing.
The parenting dilemmas she describes are usually garden-variety, everyday episodes involving her daughter and school, friends, fashion, and responsibility. But sometimes even simple decisions -- like whether to let her daughter buy the stylish but scanty swimsuit she wants -- become more difficult in the high-risk, high-pressure context of contemporary life for girls.
Clara called one day, exhausted, confused, and depressed. She had just bought her daughter Robin the swimsuit of her choice. Of course, it wasn't as simple as it sounds. What had begun as an ordinary shopping trip had morphed into an episode in which Clara's parental judgment and values had fallen victim to a tiny two-piece bathing suit. As they walked from store to store, from mall to mall, from one slip of a swimsuit to another, it had become very clear to Clara that it would be almost impossible to find a fashionable teen suit that wasn't extremely revealing. Robin, ordinarily a modest sort, had begged to buy a popular style of two-piece suit, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it only barely covered any piece of her anatomy. Clara urged her to find something less revealing. Robin argued that in years past -- before she "had boobs" -- she could wear anything, and she felt that she should still be able to wear whatever she found comfortable and stylish.
Clara countered with a few predictable words about the way our clothes communicate something about ourselves. She said that while Robin might feel moved to buy such a suit because she felt stylish and fit and at ease with her body, the fact was that the males in the crowd would make their own interpretation of her clothes, her body, and her intentions, and their reactions had to be taken into account. She had to be careful "not to send the wrong message," Clara counseled.
But even as she spoke, Clara winced at the sound of her own words and the message they sent to her daughter -- that Robin was not free to simply dress as she pleased for a day at the pool. She had to consider the possibility of undesirable consequences. That despite her girlish view of herself and the world, her body spoke of womanly potential, and that was problematic. Yet why should a girl have to view her blossoming body as a liability?
Robin objected and was furious. She didn't care what boys thought; why should she have to take them into account?
"The trouble was, on the inside, I agreed with her," Clara said. "I can't say that I honestly thought anything bad would happen to her at the pool. At the same time, there is a real element of danger for girls -- you can't ignore the news stories of sex molesters, rapists -- girls and women are preyed upon. But there was something else, too. It was depressing for me to see her wanting to buy into this media image of girls as hot chicks, at twelve! She's this wonderful girl, with a great mind and funny sense of humor and a good heart, and I don't want people looking at her body and sizing her up that way. It's so demeaning!
"She's right -- it ought to be okay for a girl to wear what makes her happy. Boys don't have to worry about what they wear, but the reality for girls is different. It made me angry to think about it, and sad to hear myself telling my daughter that she has to go by the same old unfair rules 'because I said so.' But I didn't want to go into much detail about my reasons because I didn't want her to have to think about the dark side of all this like I do.
"It was," she said, borrowing from the title of one of her daughter's favorite childhood books, "a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad shopping trip."
Eventually, though, Clara gave in. Every other girl in Robin's circle of friends had the same skimpy, stylish suit. To dress differently would have set Robin up for teasing and the most humiliating attention. Clara could remember the pain of that from her own girlhood; who can forget? There was also the fact that no other parent she knew had mentioned this as a source of worry, dismay, or a conflict of values. Maybe she was being unreasonable, too protective, too reactive. Maybe it really didn't matter anymore. She didn't believe that, but she wasn't sure that winning the bathing suit decision was worth the cost to her daughter, who would be the one to suffer the consequences in her peer group. Clara threw in the towel, so to speak, and accepted the inevitable. It was, after all, just a swimsuit.
"But I'm still upset by the principle of the thing," Clara told me. "Just because everybody's doing it doesn't make it right. There's so much that 'everybody's doing' that isn't right or healthy for girls. And how can I expect my twelve-year-old to make sense of things if I can't do it myself?"
Clara often feels like the Lone Ranger as she grapples with the issues of the day, but she isn't alone. In my work as a school psychologist, consultant, and speaker, I hear from thousands of other mothers, fathers, and teachers, and thousands more girls themselves, all of whom share similar stories of their own struggles to navigate the rich and risky contemporary landscape for girls.
Copyright © 2002 JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
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