When my daughter was twelve, I asked her what she and her girlfriends were going to be for Halloween. Among the litany of vampy costumes she didn't even understand were vampy because they're so the norm, she casually mentioned that one of the girls in her class was going to be a prostitute, and one of the boys would be going as her pimp.
As we ramp up for the holiday that showcases in stark relief what's become the routine sexualization of our daughters, here are an award-winning film and two great organizations to inspire mothers to offer our girls ways to wriggle free of this cultural strangle-hold. The better we understand the forces at play, the more we can help our girls stand against the pressure to find their value mainly in the kind of fake sexuality that gives true sexuality, the way women and girls really experience it, a bad name.
As women's confessions in my book make clear, as we age, we don't just "get over" the burdens we felt as girls to compress ourselves into teeny tiny ways of being female -- as sexual objects valued for "beauty." What actually happens is that we internalize them and carry them forward where they continue to thrive and undermine our adult sense of self. And, they also do damage where we're not used to noticing it. They interfere with our ability to be happy in our love relationships, including our marriages.
Women report experiencing this in ways such as being so caught up in their sexual performance for their partner that they're completely disconnected from their own pleasure, like the following young woman who states, "When I'm with a guy I often shift to how is HE feeling, and therefore my orgasms during sex are few and far between... I just forgo it, accept that I won't orgasm during sex, and just say I'll do it for myself later."
Knowing they can never achieve the sexy retouched beauty they see splashed all around them, they also describe not feeling attractive enough to even be worthy of love and sexual pleasure. One woman put it this way: "I feel insignificant and unworthy of the love my boyfriend shows me. And I wish that I could feel content in my own skin. Having a loving, supportive partner who thinks I'm perfect does not seem to make it easier, so I'm not sure what will."
The women in my research also disclose wishing their mothers had offered far more closeness and guidance around acquiring a gradual understanding of the importance of healthy sexuality -- and wishing they had offered far fewer lessons on how to scrutinize our bodies.
As mothers, we would never want our daughters to feel these levels of disconnection or shame throughout their lives. But how can we prevent it? I believe the answer lies in feeling a sense of community with other mothers and daughters who are also out there fighting the good fight... or are, at very least, aware that a good fight is needed. To that end, here are three things we can check out to begin to build this sense of supportive community.
The documentary Miss Representation, which examines the media's role in the sexualization of girls, will be having screenings in NYC October 14th and in LA October 17th (among other cities listed on their site). With the objective of revealing how harmful such limited images of women are for our girls' development of confidence and hope, it features interviews with both teenage girls and notable women such as Nancy Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, Lisa Ling, Rachel Maddow and Katie Couric.
Watch the trailer here.
Once we see the pervasiveness of this dynamic, with all its potency crammed into the time frame of a film, it will be easier for us to be aware of the ways it corrodes our daughters' spirits. Then we can better arm them to protect themselves.
Second, I recommend SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge), an organization for girls started by a group of academics in response to the American Psychological Association's report from its Taskforce on the Sexualization of Girls. The APA creates taskforces when it feels there's a potential mental health risk that needs to be addressed in a segment of society. Its concern in this case was the damaging effect of increasingly sexually-objectifying messages confronting our girls at younger and younger ages, thereby profoundly impacting how they come to see themselves in the world.
The taskforce's goal was to galvanize a grassroots movement to empower girls to participate in solutions to this problem, and SPARK was founded to heed the call. Two psychologists I admire, Dr. Deborah Tolman and Dr. Tomi-Ann Roberts, who have both conducted moving and groundbreaking research on girls, their sexuality, and desire, are champions of girls engaging in this movement.
Their work will be of great benefit to mothers struggling to raise daughters who feel good about themselves, including feeling grounded in healthy sexuality. They distinguish the difference between healthy sexuality and sexualization this way:
- is a developmental task we all have to integrate into our lives
- uses girls' and women's bodies as a marketing tool and a ratings grabber
Programs and researchers can help us understand what our girls are up against and what they need from us. For example, in a mini-lecture on SPARK's site, Dr. Roberts gives insight into one of the reasons our girls are so susceptible to unrealistic messages on female sexuality in the world around them, saying:
Girls are not passive recipients of these cultural messages. Girls are active agents. We know from developmental cognitive psychology that young boys and girls, once they know what their gender is, are very motivated to be the best example of their gender. And if the examples of femininity around you are a sort of tarted up, pornographied sexuality, then that's what you're psyched to be.
And Dr. Tolman, in her book Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality, describes the sad and unfortunately common experience of adolescent girls being so consumed by how boys will see their bodies, that they barely even think of their bodies as their own property.
Lastly, another organization we can look to for support in raising our daughters to be confident and fully engaged in life is Girls Inc., a national organization made up of local programs throughout the US. (They'll be hosting a SPARK Summit in Portland, Oregon October 29th for girls in grades 6-12.) Their focus is cultivating strengths in math and science, economic literacy, building community through peer support as well as leadership, and being able to critically analyze messages in the media. Girls Inc. serves girls ages 6-18 in 350 cities, and this is their Bill of Rights:
- Girls have the right to be themselves and to resist gender stereotypes.
Mothers and daughters have a tremendous amount of power to change our culture. The sexualized Halloween costume plight presents the perfect opportunity for us to open up a dialogue with our daughters. It's a great time to share our hopes for all the ways we want to support them coming into themselves feeling the kind of well-rounded self-esteem that will allow them to flourish throughout their lives.