Teen girls, self-esteem, and how they can save us
I like opinions as much as any other opinionated human, but lately I feel like I’ve been offering them without giving any concrete solutions. So today, after a conversation with one of my best friends, Amanda Brooke Perrin, I thought more about it.
I’m 27 now, and it took me until I was about 27 to feel strong. To feel like a whole person. To feel powerful. To feel like if you fucked with me, I wouldn’t collapse (and that I could fight back). 27 whole years of worrying and of feeling weak or feeling scared or feeling like I was doing “woman” wrong. Teen years defined by low self esteem and decisions stemming from that, and then early-to-mid 20s just fighting for everyone’s approval — though never mine.
I’m far from the only person who’s experienced this. Talking about the horrors of being a teenaged and then 20-something girl fuel everything from blog posts to TV shows to movies which only confirm the sad fact we already know: we, as a society, are setting women up to fail.
“Yes, Anne, you’ve said that before,” you respond. And you’re right. So instead of going on about what we’re doing wrong without why, here’s what we can do right — from my experiences. That if these things had happened or been in place when I was 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, and beyond, it wouldn’t have taken until age 27 to see myself as a strong, adult woman living for herself.
And of course, if you have any of your own, post them, too. We can’t expect change without being able to say what it is that needs changing. (Though “everything” is a good start.)
1) Stop with the shaming
Stop it. Just stop. Whether you have sex or whether you don’t, your choice is yours, and yours alone. Y-o-u-r-s. There’s no right or wrong sexual lifestyle (unless you are physically hurting people — and in that case, that’s an entirely different situation), and your number (or lack thereof) does not define you. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have conversations like this in high school? Knowing your self worth wasn’t hung on some man-made expectations that don’t actually exist? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that teen girls going to school right now knew that because sex had to do with their own bodies, they only had to worry about themselves? That they weren’t going to be called a slut if they slept with someone, or be judged if they didn’t? And isn’t it fucked that so many insecurities throughout adult life come out of this? Case in point…
2) Define yourself by yourself
We’re not helping this one as adults, let me tell you. What do we expect kids and teens to think when they see us freaking out about dating or dying alone or searching for some magical prince who’ll become our “better half”? Of course they’re going to align themselves with someone below them or who treats them bad because “being alone” is so much worse? (It’s not.) We tell young women they can do anything they put their minds to, but teach them marriage is number one thanks to the neuroses that we’ve been taught. What the fuck is that about? It’s bullshit, and it isn’t true. A married or dating person is no better than a person who is not, and vice versa. Worth is not determined by a partner. (No matter what Disney tries to say.) (Merida excluded — because she’s amazing.)
3) Learn the definition of feminism
No one was a feminist at my school. Well, that’s not true. Certain students who knew what feminism was were, and maybe a few teachers (particularly my history/anthro teacher, Mr. Chard, who is still one of the coolest people I have on Facebook), but for the most part, it was bro central, bro o’clock, bro corral, all the time. Feminists were not a thing. And if they were, I certainly didn’t know where to look for them or what they were. We didn’t learn about gender (which is actually changing in the schools in my province — praise all of the lords), and we certainly didn’t learn important words like “rape culture,” “sexism,” or “misogyny.” I wish we had, since it probably could’ve helped a lot of the girls I know who were shamed, harassed, and bullied — myself included. So for the record, feminism is this: equality. The “radical notion that women are people.” It is wonderful, and it is insane — INSANE — if someone wants to avoid being labelled as such (not the other way around — no matter what you may hear).
4) Re-affirm that you can actually do what you want
ACTUALLY, though. You can actually do whatever you want. You can grow up and be a doctor or a nurse or a teacher or an artist or a musician or a comic or a writer or an actress — anything. You can do anything. You know that, but are we raising girls to know this? That it doesn’t matter where they came from or what their backgrounds are? That if they’re willing to work hard and work towards their goal that they will achieve it? Or do we say they can, then usher them into a college program they can get into easily and wipe our own hands of responsibility? College, graduation, and a job were priorities one, two, and three up in my school (and home), so while a few choice family members had my back when I went off in my own direction, the controversy surrounding the disinterest in a steady salary is still being felt (six years later). Take time, figure things out. Learn who you are. These lessons could start in high school — in ELEMENTARY school — and a whole world of hurt could be avoided. Instead, we have TIME magazine’s riveting cover story.
5. Eliminate this bullshit “women are in competition” myth
Did you know women can work together and be friends? OF COURSE YOU DID. Because you CONSTANTLY SEE IT. Sadly, what you also see is the backstabbing and the name-calling and the bullshit stremming from the seeds planted back in middle school. But instead of recognizing that and instilling the wonderful Mean Girls dialogue (“Calling someone fat won’t make you skinny”), it’s brushed over without promoting — wait for it — girl POWER. Girls (and women) rallying together to make changes, and to get along, and to form friendships. Do you know why? Because it’s like A Bug’s Life — all those ants realizing they could band together made Hopper (patriarchy) go away. Imagine if teen girls were aware of their power? Of what they could accomplish, abolish, and demand? Imagine they were taught that instead of “trust no bitch” the exact opposite? Good lord, it’d be wonderful. But instead, those same lessons that fuel our insecurities are being instilled in the next generation. Why? Because Hopper still wants his place.
So here’s a start. A small, tiny, minuscule start in not only saying what needs to be changed by how we can change it. The magical word? Discussion. A few more? Safe spaces. Communication. Encouragement. No judgement. I could go on. If we can instill self esteem in young women, they will grow up to be adult women who believe in themselves. Who define themselves by their own expectations only. Who work together to abolish the damage our culture has caused. We can help make this happen — we can ensure that this next generation can be the one who learns from our mistakes once and for all, and fixes the problem it’s taken us centuries to create, solidify, and finally recognize.
They don’t call it girl power for nothing.