A Girl in the World

I’m just a girl in the world

That’s all that you’ll let me be!

– No Doubt “Just a Girl

I’m about to have a daughter and as thrilled as I am, I’m also scared. When J found out we’re having a girl, he said he was more nervous now because he has to protect her more (than a boy). He was thinking about protecting her from all the boys who come calling and keeping her his precious, innocent little girl forever. Later on, I was thinking more about the idea of bringing a girl into the world and that’s when I also felt an increased sense of needing to protect her. However, I wasn’t worried about raging hormones so much as I was worried about the world at large. The world is not the kindest to girls/women.

Of course sexism goes both ways and boys fight against gender stereotypes as well, but I am most acutely aware of sexism against girls. There are several things I worry about for my daughter and all girls, for that matter, all children. First, and perhaps most extreme, we live in a rape culture, a culture that normalizes rape and sexually demeaning behaviors and sentiments. I could go on and on about this, but to avoid ranting and rambling, I will point to the examples of Rethaeh Parsons of Nova Scotia (semi-close to where I grew up), the Steubenville case, and other stories like them. These cases involve videos of rape, being passed around with the same cavalier attitude with which you might forward a funny cat video to a friend. These videos were treated as entertainment, the rapists were defended, and the victims were “slut-shamed” and vilified. Rethaeh Parson’s killed herself and she is certainly not the only victim of rape to do so. I worry about my daughter growing up in a world that condones and normalizes such behaviors while further victimizing the person who is raped. Something that Jessica Valenti (on my blogroll under parenting but she really need to be moved to either a feminism or miscellaneous category. I erroneously put her in the parenting category based my first exposure to her) posted on her blog really struck a cord with me:

What kind of world do we live in when young men are so proud of violating unconscious girls that they pass proof around to their friends? It’s the same kind of world in which being labeled a slut comes with such torturous social repercussions that suicide is preferable to enduring them. As a woman named Sara Erdmann so aptly tweeted to me, “I will never understand why it is more shameful to be raped than to be a rapist.”

Aside from rape, which albeit unfortunately common, may be the extreme, there are many more forms of sexual aggression. Anything from leering, to comments, to being brushed up against or groped. Anything that could make her feel unsafe, violated, or uncomfortable in her own skin. Anything that could make her feel ashamed for something someone else chose to do to her body against her wishes.

Second, women are sadly overtly and covertly defined in our society by their appearance. Some women are thankfully recognized for more, but appearance never leaves the picture completely, and all too often appearance outweighs accomplishments. Although this fact was not new to me, the point was driven home when I watched the amazing documentary Miss Representation. Because it was a documentary and pieces of media were spliced together, things that may go by unnoticed or become quickly forgotten in isolation became shocking when shown in quick succession. Two key parts of the documentary were most surprising to me. The first was how female broadcasters were so often wearing low cut, revealing outfits and when they tried to turn discussion back to real news stories instead of something inane or fluffy (e.g., how contrite Paris Hilton looked after her brief stint in jail), they were often shut down by male broadcasters. These female broadcasters appeared to serve the primary purpose of “eye candy” whereas news reporting sadly came second. The second point that astonished me (and maybe I was naive to be astonished by this) was the coverage of Hilary Clinton during her campaign to be the democratic candidate for president. Instead of focusing on the issues and her campaign platform, news headlines referred to her as a bitch, made fun of her pant suits, and made claims that she would be inappropriate in office because of PMS. Even with a more positive spin, such comments are asinine when discussing politics. Sarah Palin’s appearance was praised, but often in place of appropriate discussion about her politics. I don’t want my daughter to feel that she is reduced to her appearance. In fact, I don’t want it to be more than a small part of her self-concept. Unfortunately with all of the messages in the media, from her peers, and unconsciously perhaps even from me, she will likely judge her body and find it lacking as so many women do. I will try to be conscious of the message I send and I am aware that even my subtle grimaces at my reflection or an attempt at dieting will have an impact, but I can’t keep the messages away altogether.

Third, inequality exists. It is all around us and many people are discriminated against for different reasons. By being a girl and someday a woman, my daughter will have certain expectations and limitations placed on her. She may surpass or defy some of these, but not without being intuitively aware that double standards exist. I worry about the power of self-fulfilling prophecies and the limitations she may place on herself.

Of course I could come up with more points, but as I’m tired and I fear that I will quickly be going off on a rambling rant, I do also want to say that there are wonderful things about being a girl/woman. I hope to share these things with her and I hope to instill a high level of self-respect and self-esteem in her so that she can be a conscientious consumer of the messages she receives and she can someday feel strong enough to stand up against what she feels is wrong and for what she feels is right. I want her to be her own person, dream big, and work hard to attain her goals. I want to do my itty bitty part to make changes to the world she’ll grow up in and I hope that she will continue on in similar pursuits. I don’t plan on raising my daughter in a bubble or instilling a sense of fear or hypervigilance in her. I just want her to feel secure in herself and her place in the world.

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5 thoughts on “A Girl in the World

  1. You bring up so many good points! Raising a daughter (and soon daughters) has always caused some terror in me. I think the hardest part for me has been knowing that female children are at a greater risk for sexual molestation that male children are. As a victim of sexual abuse myself, that’s hard to face. But I do think that you can make a huge impact as her parents. Obviously, you can’t control all the creeps and jerks that she will encounter, but you can equip her with the tools she needs to fight back against the stereotypes, to stand up for herself, to say no when she needs to. You can help to develop her self-confidence and self-worth so that she doesn’t take crap from others. I know that’s a lot of pressure on you, but she’ll learn most of it from the example you set. And it’s nice to know that we do have a lot of power as parents!

    • I definitely take the responsibility of being a primary role model in my daughter’s life seriously. She’ll learn how a man should treat a woman from how her father treats me, as well as how he behaves toward other women. And she’ll learn what she should accept from a man from me. I think that you’re right that the most powerful tools I can give her are self-confidence and self-worth. I think so many of the difficulties that girls have (at least myself) come from a lack of self-confidence and trying to find their self-worth in other people’s definitions. Issues like eating disorders and putting up with guys who don’t treat you properly all because you’re trying to find the acceptance that you haven’t been able to give yourself.

  2. We are having a boy and you can be sure, he will be raised to treat women with respect and as equals, but everything you just wrote out is what made me fear having a girl before we found out. I wish you every success in helping your daughter to be strong, independent, and a beautiful soul who can help make the changes we all want to see.

    • Congratulations on your son! I agree that if I were having a son, one of my goals would be to raise him to be the kind of man you’re describing. And it’s those sorts of goals and the parenting that accompanies them that will help make changes to how we view the sexes and their relationships, because it’s certainly not a matter of just teaching girls to stand up for themselves, but also teaching men to be aware, respectful, and responsible. By doing so, I believe it helps both men and women (boys and girls) to be all-around better, more well-rounded, happier, safer people.

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