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Monica Gallagher Sakala

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Prolonging Girlhood: An Inconvenient Truth

Posted: 11/14/11 03:15 PM ET

"Mommy, only boys are funny, girls aren't funny," boldly stated my almost six-year-old daughter recently when we were out biking.

"Whaaa?" I exclaimed, as I screeched on my brakes and my head spun in full circles, my mind racing... is it too early to introduce her to Tina Fey, Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball, Amy Poehler? Not to mention, I am hilarious.

Obviously I explained, relentlessly, for days, how funny girls are and how there are different ways to be funny. Fast forward a week later, to about the same spot, on a similar day, out for an afternoon bike ride: "Mommy, only boys have muscles, girls don't have muscles."

This time I almost crashed over my handlebars. I'm the one at the gym almost every morning while her father is sleeping deeply, warmly nestled into bed. Yet I don't have muscles?

To say that I covered how strong girls are and all the ways they are as strong and muscular as boys, ad nauseam, would be an understatement. These two scenarios jolted me awake. Mirror Mirror on the wall... am I working hard enough to raise independent, strong, driven, smart girls? I'd be remiss in not asking myself this question after those two incidents.

I know I am not alone in facing the challenge of raising young girls. And because I have only two girls and come from a family of four girls, I certainly would make no claim that raising young boys to be good men is any less challenging. But as a parent of daughters, my job is to raise girls who believe they can do what boys can do, can achieve what boys can; girls who will be encouraged to consider fields underrepresented by women like science and technology. Doesn't every parent believe their child will break molds and shatter the glass ceiling? Yet despite my efforts, outside noise and antiquated notions were still clogging my eldest's brain.

It is redundant for me to note that mixed messages abound in our culture. But I also think we've encouraged a culture of convenience; one of reassigning responsibility for why kids cultivate antiquated notions. For example, I don't blame Disney for leading the charge in antiquated female stereotypes because of the princess movies and heavily marketed items that go along with them. It's not Disney's job to teach my child that there is more to life than marrying a prince, despite how aggressively all major media outlets promoted that notion during the Royal Wedding last spring. It's my job to be aware of what she is watching, to have age-appropriate conversations with her about what she is seeing on TV and to encourage her to play with toys beyond disproportionately sized Barbie, who is notably dressed like a floozy in her doctor gear in the latest holiday toy catalogs overwhelming my mailbox. Or to at least make sure she knows she doesn't have to be seductive and professional -- she should just focus on being professional.

When survey results find that 50 percent of three-to-six-year-old girls worry that they are fat, as the University of Central Florida learned in a recent poll, when hyper-sexualized spray-tanned toddlers are paraded on pageant stages on TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras, or when Time Magazine reports that over $1.5 million was spent annually in 2003 on thong underwear for seven-to-12-year-olds, parents need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and pay attention.

It's convenient to push the blame onto others. It's easy to pin it on Disney. But if parents stopped buying age-inappropriate underwear or t-shirts with sexist, demeaning messages for their kids, then companies would stop making them. Supply and demand isn't tough to figure out.

It takes extraordinary work and attention on the part of parents to consistently deliver positive messages to little girls, to fight the clutter of the conflicting messages bombarding them and to fight them when they want something outrageous, like thong underwear. It's always harder to say "No" to a child than it is to say "Yes." But let's not muddy waters unnecessarily. No seven-year-old needs thong underwear. Nor should she even consider if her panty line is showing in her pants.

A recent cover story by Stephanie Hanes in the Christian Science Monitor examined the panoply of messages bombarding girls as young as five and six years old but, in my opinion, most poignantly noted the role of social media in clouding a young girl's ability to sludge through these messages. Beyond movies, TV and commercials, social media sites like Facebook add an extra "social-feedback loop" that previous generations of girls haven't had to battle. That is, the way kids are using Facebook places a high emphasis on appearance and low value on intelligence and achievements. Hanes remarks how author Rachel Simmons' book Odd Girl Out includes a chapter on the Internet and how teen girls turn to Facebook to post photos of themselves in articles of clothing, with the purpose of soliciting feedback -- both positive and negative -- in how they look.

So what does it mean? It means the prevalence of social media adds another important item to a parent's endless to-do list. It means that parents need to be engaged and involved in how their daughters are using social media. It means that the onus is on mothers of young girls, first and foremost, to not talk about their own body weight issues and insecurities within earshot of their girls because girls model what they see and hear.

It means that as parents, our job is to constantly engage our kids, to stop buying them thong underwear and to quit conveniently blaming companies but instead ask ourselves tough questions about our influence in how these girls view the world and their place in it. When 81% of 10-year-old girls fear getting fat and seven-year-olds can buy padded bras at Abercrombie & Fitch, parents need to own up. Something is gravely wrong because we are allowing these girls to rush to adulthood.

Today, my daughter knows that girls are funny and strong. But now I realize it's only a matter of time before her next inherently sexist statement comes up. I'm ready for the uphill battle.

 

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