Why are younger and younger girls trying to be "sexy"? Why do experts say that girls' self-esteem peaks when they are just nine years old? This week in my column on South Brooklyn Post I write about the scary, way-too-early sexualization of girls and how a local speaker series, Our Daughters Brooklyn, is trying to face down the problem.
"It was Game Night at PS29, the apex of Wholesome Family Fun. At least a version of fun, featuring a florescent-lit cafeteria with bad acoustics, shrieking kids up past bedtime and tearful Monopoly games ending in accusations of unfairness.
My fiancé and I and our four children were rushing around the house getting ready to go, tying our sons’ complicated high-tops and zipping puffer coats, when we heard one of our daughters upstairs say to the other, “Guess what! He might be at Game Night, so we HAVE to look sexy!”
Wait, what?? No, surely, she didn’t say that. Impossible. Sexy for Boggle? Chutes and Ladders? Who’s expecting sexiness? I vaulted up the stairs. The girls – who are six years old — stopped the conversation, giggling, and pretended I’d heard it wrong. The remark was initially followed by muffled squeals of glee, but now they looked at me with exasperated expressions that said, “Oh, big deal!”
One of them had recently confided that she had a crush on a second grade boy who they were hypothesizing might attend Game Night. A boy, fortunately, like our two sons, who was focused on the NBA and Chima and Skylanders and wouldn’t recognize female interest if Ninjini came to life and tried to kiss him. I was not only horrified that the girls felt they should look sexy “for” someone, but also knocked off balance by the sheer use of the word. Sexy.
Even with everything that’s flashing in front of them—things like I’m Sexy and I Know It, a gigantic hit song with Brooklyn kids, the lyrics of which were proclaimed in a Superbowl commercial by a, um, chocolate M&M. Things like skimpy, womanly clothing sold in little girl sizes (padded 6X bikini tops anyone? No?), and their access via radio and magazines to the general writhing of pop stars—I still found myself shocked. I raged at the corrosive nature of our self-conscious, celebrity-obsessed culture, which had come to characterize even regular, unobserved lives. See me! I’m alive here! Doing fulfilling things while looking hot! I swear, I am living my best life! It felt as if, sadly, life had become a metaphorical selfie, and I feared particularly for the psyches of our daughters. Still, I was compelled to ask how our six year olds arrived in such a spot. Hadn’t we protected them at all? How did our kids, comfortable leaving the house with food on their faces, stained leggings and unbrushed teeth, end up saying things they barely understood, or worse, that they DID understand, about being sexy?
I’m not alone. Many of my friends who are mothers of girls have experienced a version of this. The accompanying dread of hearing one’s Rainbow Looming, 40-pound daughter on a quest for sexiness stokes a particular kind of despair. This feeling of, wait a minute, I thought I was doing this right, and yet still discovering the gaping susceptibility of our girls was what led Sara Woster, a Carroll Gardens writer, artist and PS58 mom, to found a group called Our Daughters Brooklyn.
“It started for me while researching a writing project,” Sara said. “I came across alarming figures about what our girls are facing in terms of external pressure, objectification, and extreme focus on their bodies and looks. The most alarming fact to me was that a girl’s self-esteem peaks when they are nine-years-old! I looked at my daughter, who was six at the time, and found that number devastating. I couldn’t imagine that, statistically, she had three more years of feeling good about herself.
“At the same time, other mothers I knew were experiencing similar anxiety and didn’t know how to approach the problem either. So we started a community forum to focus on the healthy physical, emotional and sexual development of girls. It seemed like a good first step in empowering parents.”
“The name of the series,” Woster says, “is plural for a reason. These are our girls. Everyone owes them a better future. Everyone owes it to them to fight for them.”
She added, “I wish more men would attend, because this isn’t about the mothers—it’s about the daughters.”
Our Daughters, which started in January, is now a thriving series for parents with kids ages 6 to 10 to come together and hear from experts in the field of girl development. Speakers give talks at 61 Local in Boerum Hill (a lovely bar, eatery and community space), sharing knowledge, scientific and psychological, and fielding questions. (Go to the Our Daughters Facebook page for more information).
The Q&A portions of the events are particularly thought provoking. Guests often share anecdotes from their own lives and ask challenging questions on topics both hilarious and heartbreaking. Everyone seems to leave feeling more connected and informed. Recent speakers included Dana Edell, the Executive Director of SPARK Movement, an activist organization focused on ending the sexualization of girls, and Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and author of In Your Daughter’s Bedroom, a book that chronicles McFadden’s years-long survey of the sexual experiences and memories, good and bad, of women and young girls, and the link between mother-daughter relationships and sexuality. McFadden tells mothers to speak frankly and honestly, early and often, to daughters about menstruation, bodies and sexuality.
Lately, I’ve been having quite a few frank mother-daughter discussions on the subject of appropriate clothes. I buy my daughter a loose Nike t-shirt for tennis and she pulls it down below one shoulder on our way to lessons. Tug of war ensues. Sometimes, it’s not even that the outfits are too mature, but that the willful expression of these choices feels pre-teen to me, not pre-third grade. I lay out an A-line dress and mini-Blundstones, and she comes downstairs in Havaiana flip-flops and purple leggings for a chilly autumn Monday. Even when I try to honor her boldness, it forces me to confront the future and the ways her choices might spider out to other, more major choices that should be put off until later, when she’s OLDER. I remember how much I loved dressing her when she was a toddler. Her hair was cut into a pixie-ish bob and she traipsed around in muted dresses like an illustration from a French children’s book. These days, I relish pride in having a kid who strides onto the playground with assurance, even if that assurance comes by way of a pilled Tottenham Hotspur scarf draped at her neck in July, and shorts with tights. Perhaps what I actually miss is the control, not the Mary Janes and hair bows.
Yet I cling to her will-fullness with hope: It’s this well of confidence that I’ve always thought of as a life raft for girls. If there were a full-proof way to multiply it, keep it going through adolescence, there would be little to worry about. Nearly all the speakers at Our Daughters point to that one thing – self-esteem – as most critical. When diminished, girls are more likely to find themselves in a position to make bad choices.
Regardless of what’s eroding self-esteem at different times—the media sexualizing our youth, music from yesterday or today, or simply each girl’s psychological genetics—self-esteem is the armor. To be sure, there’s still a foundational patriarchy to reform and contend with, editorial spreads and air brushing and dangers creeping onto all of our screens, so I censor these things with as much force as I can, often leading to frustrated and indignant kids.
Things are harder than ever for girls (and boys) in this regard. Everything is sped up. And yet, when I was a child, without the Internet and thinspiration websites and cadaverous Moxie dolls, I remember an awful insecurity bleeding in. I remember wanting to be beautiful for boys, and making decisions that grew out of those misplaced desires. It’s always been the measuring that girls engage in that hurts them, a groove that gets worn in, deeply, early. Our Daughters Brooklyn is a major resource for parents trying to figure out how to stop their girls from cutting this groove, and from feeling the need to be better, other.
On the upside, I’d argue that many of the things that trouble us during girlhood–the introspection and analysis and sensitivity–as long as kept in check, are the very things that can make us interesting women. I don’t want those things lost. I just want to know how to keep the core confidence burning—a torch that will burn hot and light the whole way.
Woster believes that coming together to advocate for girls as a community can negate the horrible statistic about nine-year-old self-esteem.
“We reject that as our daughters’ reality. We don’t accept them being marketed to with a dumbed down, pink aisle in the toy store. We don’t accept the alarming figures of sexual assault and violence against women as natural. We don’t accept future eating disorders and self-esteem issues as their destiny. I hope we’re doing a better job parenting an entire community of girls as a result.”
I regularly wonder about the “job” I’m doing, and the art of choosing my battles is key a lot of the time. Just this summer, my fiancé and I relented after negotiations with both our daughters about one-piece swimsuits and rash guards, and allowed their favored bikinis some wear on the beach. From our chairs in the sand, we watched them skip toward the cold, New England water. Tacky blue nail polish on their fingers, flaxen heads of hair, bodies covered in mosquito welts, and purple-pink Target bikinis bolting down to the water’s edge. Without hesitation, they dove like porpoises into the sea. They swam far out, ducking into waves way too big for them, and riding them to shore, over and over again. Screaming with delight and fear, holding onto each other, they were spit out of the waves with their shining heads and wild smiles of missing teeth. They were so strong and amazed at what their own bodies could do. They looked like warriors, confident and fierce.
Then, just as quickly, they came back to us again, laughing and running up the beach to the safety of our laps so we could wrap their small, shivering bodies in towels and dry them off and hold them tight.
This essay first appeared on the South Brooklyn Post on November 14, 2013.