Toxic Girlhood

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by Stacey

I’m deep into raising two little boys so that means I know a lot about trains, planes, sticks, and shovels. But a couple of articles I’ve read recently, one in the NY Times and the other in the Wall Street Journal, have got me thinking about the daunting prospect of raising girls. Thanks to Salon’s Broadsheet for the tip on both stories.

The WSJ piece looks at the increasing pressure on girls and teens to dress fashionably. According to the article, high-end designers such as Marc Jacobs, Chloe, Missoni, and Alberta Ferretti have all launched clothing lines for kids. And trendy boutiques in New York are opening offshoots specifically for children.

Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has studied teenage behavior for 14 years, says she has seen an increase in “bullying related to clothes.” She attributes that to the proliferation of designer brands and the display of labels in ads. In the more than 20 states where she has studied teens, she has been surprised by how kids revere those they perceive to have the best clothes. Having access to designer clothing affords some kids “the opportunity to become popular — and that protects you and gives you social power and leverage over others,” she says.

Surveys of young teenage girls show that many of them feel they are bullied over clothes. One survey of more than 1,000 middle school students at five schools in the Midwest found more than one-third responded “yes” when asked whether they are bullied because of the clothes they wear. While the prevalence of fashion bullies was greater in wealthy cities and towns, where more designer clothing is available, the researchers found the problem is significant in poorer communities, too, the article says.

“The better brands you wear, the more popular you are,” says Becky Gilker, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Sherwood Park in the Canadian province of Alberta. “If you don’t wear those things you get criticized.” In many schools, the most expensive designer goods, such as those by Chanel or Louis Vuitton, have the highest social ranking among girls. But popular teen brands such as American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale are also important. Miss Gilker says Hollister and Roxy are big logos at her school.

Chanel? Louis Vuitton? I can’t imagine buying my kid a Louis Vuitton anything. Not even a fake Louis Vuitton lunchbox. Is this what parents of girls are dealing with?

Several new programs are trying to help parents, teachers and girls cope with bullying. In Maine, a nonprofit called Hardy Girls Healthy Women has developed a curriculum that has caught on at a number of junior high schools and is being adopted in after-school programs in Florida, Ohio, New York and other states. The program encourages young girls to build coalitions and gets them to look more closely at the messages they get from the media, including those about fashion and clothing.

I suppose that’s a good thing, but honestly, is there anything adults can do to combat this? In her NY Times column last week, Judith Warner (author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety) talks about a new book that was just released called The Daring Book for Girls, a kind of sister book to the mega blockbuster The Dangerous Book for Boys.

The authors told Warner they wanted to offer up “an escape route out of the high-pressure, perfectionist, media-saturated and competitive world of girlhood in our time.”

“The Daring Book for Girls” teaches the art of playing jacks and handclap games, roller skating, darts, jump rope, gin rummy and daisy chains. There’s fun and old-fashioned feminism: “Putting Your Hair Up With a Pencil” and “A Short History of Women Inventors and Scientists.” Instead of e-mail, instant messaging, group weigh-ins or slumber parties organized around “America’s Next Top Model,” the authors offer instructive chapters on “Clubhouses and Forts,” “Writing Letters,” “Telling Ghost Stories” and “Fourteen Games of Tag.”

The Dangerous Book for Boys spent 20 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and is slated to become a Disney film, Warner says. “If the “Daring” book does anywhere nearly as well, then it could mark the start of a pop culture re-imagining of modern girlhood – one, perhaps, with an emphasis on doing rather than seeming, on growing rather than shrinking, and on exploring rather than shutting down.”

But she’s skeptical that this will actually happen. The book may promote bonding between mothers and daughters, much in the way that dads pass down tricks of the trade to their sons. “I wonder if it will have any wider effect,” she writes. “What power can any of us – moms and daughters, adrift in the cultural mainstream — have against the hugely seductive, hypnotic machine that has brought us Paris, Miley, Lindsay and more?”

A family counselor I heard speak last Spring said she believes that young girls today who get caught up in skinniness, fashion, popularity, pop culture and boys are, essentially, “underemployed.” Their brains, she said, need to be engaged by things larger than themselves: things like hobbies, sports, art, music or community service. If they’re not, there’s a vacuum, and all kinds of wretched stuff comes to fill their minds instead.

There isn’t a simple answer to relieving the social pressure on girls. “We can’t – and shouldn’t – raise them in a total media vacuum,” she says. “The only thing we can do is provide some sort of inspiration – of a kind of womanhood that makes them want to connect to the better aspects of the girlhood we once knew. And then, give them the space and the time to make it their own.”

Whew. So what say you moms with daughters? How are you faring in these waters?

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3 Comments

Filed under family, girls, kids, media, mothers, parenting, teenager, television

3 responses to “Toxic Girlhood

  1. ugh. well, i have two girls, but they’re too little to care about that stuff yet. we’re still blissfully wearing hand-me-downs. but for how long . . . anyway, this story really stirs me up. why are we teaching our girls to care more about a fancy handbag than each other? as a society, we are not teaching our children to be global citizens, to have the big picture in mind as they move through their lives.

    this story makes me think even harder about my master plan. when my kids are nearing the middle school years, i want to spend the summer (or longer if we can swing it) going to places outside the US doing service projects. i just did a quick search and there’s tons of opportunities for families. Cross Cultural Solutions (http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/) offers week-long family volunteer projects.

    i know we can find people living in our own community to work with too, but i like the idea of disorienting the kids, shaking up their understanding of the world and all the different ways that people live. living in india for a month or two helping orphaned babies would do wonders for a tween who thinks she NEEDS a louis vuitton bag. our kids need perspective on the wealth they “enjoy”. obviously.

  2. raremer

    Given the state of things for American girls, I want to make a plug for school UNIFORMS. I wore one all through school (and hated it) but they are great equalizers. You look past people’s clothes. You focus on what they say, their skills, humor, empathy. Uniforms also make getting dressed easy….and who wouldn’t want to wear the same thing every day for 12 years!!

    Did I mention that I used to kick-ass at jacks and hand clap games? Of course, I’ve never im’ed. Guess my daughter will have some things to teach me.

  3. i always admired the way that some girls who wore school uniforms still managed to look cool. i agree, it must take a lot of the pressure off of clothes, but didn’t you have some girls in your school who just knew how to wear their hair or accesories so that they looked fashionable?

    hey, i was great at jacks too. maybe we should plan a fussbucket tournament! anyone else want to compete? ahem, i mean play?

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