It's time to flex your girl power | Amy Johnson

A recent Zits cartoon featured Jeremy starting a conversation with his mom. This is unusual behavior for Jeremy. He prevails, though, and begins by saying: “Mom, let’s say you’re a girl and… Oh, wait! You are a girl!”

This is so my life. As the mother of two young adult men, I’ve spent the last 20-plus years as the minority gender in my household. I’m not asking for pity. I am a strong woman and I have strong women friends and colleagues. And sometimes the guys I live with temporarily forget I’m a girl.

Like many women in my generation, I grew up delighting in the ideal that women deserve opportunities that had previously been afforded only to men.

For instance, my freshman year in high school was the first year girls were allowed to take shop, so I signed up. One day, as I attempted to enter the woodshop, a young man barred the door and said condescendingly, “Sorry. Only men allowed.” Emboldened by the times, I pushed his arm aside and replied, “Huh. Well, I don’t see any here….”

Much like racism in our country, the remnants of sexism seem subtle at times. While many women hold positions of power in our communities and corporations, girls still grow up with a culture that predominantly judges them on looks. This annoys the heck out of me.

It’s gotten so bad that the American Medical Association has called for measures to restrict advertisers from digitally altering pictures in magazines. The AMA is concerned that these publications are routinely showcasing “ideal” bodies that, in reality, can only be attained by computer alteration.

Also notice that the focus of comments by young adolescent girls on Facebook, at a time when they are working hard developmentally to define who they are as people, is primarily on looks and appearance.

Why does this matter? What’s wrong with girls complementing each other about how pretty, skinny and hot they are?

According the American Psychological Association, girls are more susceptible to emulating what they see in movies, in magazines and online than their male counterparts are. Pre-puberty, girls are still focusing on being strong, confident and competent. As puberty begins, however, American females tend to become more preoccupied with appearance and image. They take in the barrage of media messages in new, more nuanced, more serious and more potentially harmful ways.

The NYU Child Study Center reports that almost half of girls are dieting by age 10. The most common mental health issues for girls and women remain depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders (www.aboutourkids.org). This “subtle” sexism has some pretty serious health consequences.

The answer isn’t simple, nor is it something any one person or group can solve. However, there are some tools to help.

If you are a parent, teacher, mentor or role model to young girls, consider the resources below as alternatives to the Disney-Princess-saturated culture many now grow up in. Go out of your way to comment about a girl’s abilities, accomplishments and character, instead of how cute her outfit/nails/hair/shoes are.

If you are a parent, teacher, mentor or role model to young boys, go out of your way to help them see beyond the surface of girls — to dig deeper, looking for commonalities and expressing curiosity, rather than derision, about differences.

In the words of Jane Galvin Lewis, “You don’t have to be anti-man to be pro-woman.” Let’s use our girl power to create a better community for us all.

Online resources

• For parents and young girls: Pigtailpals.com is an online boutique for empowering apparel and gifts for girls. Check out www.7wonderlicious.com, an online social network for women who want to empower girls. Includes online story app and girl-power toolkit.

• For tweens: www.braincake.org is an organization working with girls 11-17 around succeeding in math and science.

• For teens and women: www.adiosbarbie.com is a body image site for “every body.” Blog posts, articles and resources countering the media portrayal of beauty as one certain body type. Blackgirlsrockinc.com includes a blog and pledge for young women of color “celebrating the brilliance of black women.” Sparksummit.com is a site devoted to educating about the difference between healthy sexuality and the objectification/sexualization of women and girls. Poweredbygirl.org is a girl-driven media activism site to counteract unhealthy images of women in media. Blackgirlproject.com is a site educating about the film by the same name.

• Lots more sites for girls: userpages.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/links_girls.html. Also look here at Amazing Women Rock: amazingwomenrock.com.


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