As I read about programs designed to undo the harm society does to girls’ self image, I can’t help but feel they are swimming against a tide. We live a life relatively insulated against popular culture, and yet on our rare trips to the mall, my daughter still sees the many-times-larger-than-life pictures of women in the Victoria’s Secret windows; at Halloween, the costume store featured plenty of skimpy (and downright lewd) costumes–mostly for women rather than men–and for some reason, many stores feature clothes for the preschool set that would be appropriate for a 20-something going clubbing. Last summer, I went to a department store to buy my 4-year-old a swimsuit. Every suit available, except one, was a bikini. For a 4 year old? Really?
And once A. isn’t 4 anymore, but 14, her Internet use, music choices, and social media will no doubt show her all sorts of role models that would horrify me.
Mostly, though, what I think of is me at 8, at 12, at 14, at 16, and later. I was aware, always, that my hair, my face, the color of my skin and the shape of my body was wrong. In an era of tanned, stick-thin women with long, straight, blond hair, I was rounded, white, and frizzy. But that hardly matters; in any era, some number of girls will be “wrong” according to fashion. Or they won’t have any interest in changing themselves to suit fashion. And to have a week here and there, whether at Temple, at camp, or at school that attempts to rah-rah girls into accepting themselves just as they are isn’t going to work. If, 51 weeks out of the year, girls and young women are told by society at large that their worth is tied up in their beauty, no amount of outside validation is going to matter. The message will be internalized.
How do we talk about this with our daughters? How do we tell them that revealing clothing is not ok when you’re 14 (and dicey when you’re 20!) without sounding like we’re part of the burqa brigade? How do we tell them that some cultural norms are just poison to a maturing self identity?
This is something that we in the US having been talking about and talking about and talking about since I was a kid, and before. Things change so slowly.