We all want our daughters to grow up to be strong, independent women who can do anything they set their minds to. But many of the gender stereotypes that limit this are heavily ingrained in our day-to-day. Want to be the change? Here are a few simple things we must stop saying to our daughters… and why.
‘Pink is for girly girls’
Confessions up front. When I was a little girl I was besotted with my Barbie dolls. Passionate about pink. Devoted to Disney princesses. And yet somehow I managed to turn out just fine. In fact, I am a loud and proud feminist, parenting author and an educator of teen girls who has devoted my career to empowering young women.
It seems that raising healthy, well-adjusted girls has less to do with the toys they play with and the colour of the clothing they chose to wear and more to do with the values we instil in them.
However, that’s not to say marketers couldn’t do with joining us in the modern age. Despite all the work that’s been done on promoting gender equality, baby dolls and kitchen sets are still often pitched only at little girls, while toys that encourage children to build and explore are often plastered with pictures of little lads.
It is helpful to call into question such stereotypes for our daughters. But it’s not helpful to stigmatise those little girls who want to embrace their inner pink-glitter-ribbons-sparkly-trinkets self.
In her essay ‘Betraying Our Girlhood’, feminist and social commentator Clementine Ford argues:
The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly ‘girlie’ only furthers the stereotype that women who like ‘girlie’ things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional … I’m not ashamed of being a girl … I know that girls are every bit as complex and nuanced as boys, and they deserve to be treated as such regardless of which toys they played with as children, or if they think camping is a bit gross.
Rather than shutting pink down, we need to ensure girls’ toy boxes and their wardrobes include all the colours and all the range of possibilities.
By also teaching our children to think critically about cultural goods and equipping them with the skills they need to navigate complex cultural messages, we will be empowering them for life.
“Don’t be so bossy!”
While boys who take the lead are praised as leaders, girls who put themselves forward are often labelled as bossy.
When we tell a girl to stop being bossy we are often telling her to shrink; to talk less, put your hand up less and be less confident. No wonder that by the time our girls reach high school they experience a significant drop in their self-esteem and are less likely than boys to say they like taking the lead.
This doesn’t mean that girls (or boys) should be encouraged to dominate, intimidate or be overbearing, behaviours that are often rightly recognised as being inappropriate and ineffective. Truly effective leaders learn what works best to motivate their team and inspire others to follow them – not bully them into it.
The next time you see your daughter waving her finger in someone’s face and telling them to do something her way, rather than branding her as bossy (which really doesn’t provide any meaningful feedback on her leadership style), pull her aside and take the opportunity to redirect her. Talk to her about the differences between being passive, aggressive and assertive, and encourage her to become more aware of her body language. When I was a little girl and pointing at others and ordering them about, my wise grandmother who was very much the matriarch in our family would say to me, “Danni, you have your bossy finger out. They won’t listen if they see that. Go and try it again in a calm voice with your hands by your side and see if they get why your idea is great then!”
In fact, my grandmother, often unknowingly, showed me what a female leader looked like every day. We are all role models for our children, and as I so often say, girls cannot be what they cannot see. As mothers we can take pride in the leadership roles we take on and share what we enjoy about being out front, rather than feeling that corrosive mummy-guilt for spending time away from the home.
In our homes too, we can show that we value the contribution of female bosses by talking about those female leaders we admire and the skills they possess that impress us. In my house our ‘Hall of Fame’ has consisted of both the fictional and the real – women as diverse as Wonder Woman, Emma Watson, Hilary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai.
“That skirt is sending out the wrong message”
The policing of the way teen girls dress can be deeply problematic and dress codes almost always disproportionately target and shame girls. In fact, almost every teen girl I’ve spoken to has complained that at some stage they have been told things like ‘You’re asking for trouble wearing that!’ or ‘Your outfit is distracting the boys’.
This is the slippery slope that excuses the harassment of girls based on their clothing choice and ultimately may lead them to feel shame about their bodies.
Author, columnist and academic Dr Karen Brooks agrees:
I think what bothers me most about this whole uniform and clothing issue is that somehow female clothing has become a visual barometer used to measure a woman’s/girl’s morality and ethics. Our clothes are also simultaneously expected to be a tool used to control men’s morality and ethics; there is a false notion circulating that women can control men and keep ourselves safe by our clothing choices. What utter nonsense … Clothing is not the issue; society is. As long as we shift the blame for the harassment or the harm caused to women back on to women nothing will be resolved. Clothes do not maketh the woman, but actions maketh the man (and woman)!
Journalist Tracey Spicer believes it is also important for us to reflect honestly on how we dressed as young women. She says, “What I really hate are the casually sexist comments about how young women are dressed for a night on the town. All this ‘They look like hookers!’ and ‘They’re asking for it’ stuff. For goodness sake, I used to dress in revealing outfits at that age as I was discovering my sexuality. That doesn’t mean I was asking to be sexually assaulted.”
This is not to say that we shouldn’t talk to our daughters about which clothes might be most appropriate for an occasion, just as you might with your son, as ultimately we all have to adhere to dress codes at some point in our lives, but you should take the moral judgement out of the discussion.
Also keep in mind that just as we may now shudder at the memory of the huge shoulder pads and neon prints we wore in the ‘80s, so too may your daughter look back and cringe at some of her clothing choices when she is older. In the interim, don’t alienate her.
“Girls are so bitchy!”
There’s a popular belief that girls are almost genetically predisposed to gossip and be nasty to one another, whereas boys are simple creatures who sort disagreements out by throwing a few punches – the latter physical violence almost dismissed as being harmless.
In our current culture that mocks teen girl friendships and highlights the negative ‘mean girl’ stereotypes, it is easy for us to forget just how genuine and healing the bonds young women develop can be. When I talk to girls in schools, they tell me their girlfriends are the people they feel most understand them, support them and love them.
However, it is true that teen girl world can also be a place filled with cliques, secrets and gossip. But we mustn’t automatically assume all of that politicking is always destructive. There is plenty of research to show that close friendships – the sort developed largely through the sharing of hidden truths – also serve vital functions in promoting a sense of self-worth and belonging. Many researchers in fact believe gossip is an evolved psychological adaptation that enabled individuals to achieve social success in our ancestral environments.
In their Journal of Applied Social Psychology article ‘Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement’, researchers McAndrew, Bell and Garcia argue, “Gossip can be an efficient way to remind group members of the importance of the group’s norms and values; an effective deterrent to deviance; and a tool for punishing those who transgress.”
And it seems it’s not just young girls who are instinctively drawn to information sharing. In her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, Professor of Applied Psychology Niobe Way argues that boys relationships in early to middle adolescence rely too on sharing ‘deep secrets’. Way states, “Boys openly expressed to us their love for their friends and emphasized that sharing ‘deep’ secrets was the most important aspect of their closest male friendships … I realised that these patterns among boys have been ignored by the larger culture …”
Way goes on to explain that due to cultural pressures to become a ‘man’ during late adolescence (and thus be emotionally stoic and autonomous) boys begin to lose their closest male friendships, become more distrustful of their male peers, and in some cases, become less willing to express their emotions. “They start sounding, in other words, like gender stereotypes,” she says.
It seems secrets may well be timeless fundamental building blocks in building positive, strong friendships for both genders. Adolescents with close friendships have lower rates of depression, suicide, drug use and gang membership, and are more likely to stay at school. As it is in fact young men who seem to struggle most with feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging during late adolescence, could it be that we need to stop demonising the sharing of secrets and labelling this act as solely the domain of gossip girls?
We need to remind ourselves too that we often expect girls to know instinctively how to tend to relationships and sort things out when there is a falling out, when they may well have few skills to fall back on. Who shows girls how to navigate girl world respectfully? Where do they get taught how to handle their complex emerging friendships? Schools struggle with an already crowded curriculum and the pressure to prepare students for external exams, and the soap operas they may watch on television tend to be filled with drama and tumultuous interactions.
Providing solid friendships strategies (everything from how to make new friends to how to resolve conflict respectfully) and positive role modelling (we all know plenty of adults of both genders who use gossip in a destructive way too) is vital work for those who care for young women.
“One mistake and you’ll be ruined!”
We are in the midst of an overprotective parenting trend known as ‘cotton wool’ or ‘parachute’ parenting, in which adults try to protect their child from every conceivable danger or conflict. This trend is often particularly prevalent among the parents of girls for we have been culturally conditioned to see girls as more fragile and in need of support; more sugar, spice and everything nice than robust puppy dog tails!
The urge to protect our children is a natural one. However, even though our intentions may be good, when we overprotect we are taking away much-needed learning opportunities: to learn both from our mistakes and from the disappointments that every one of us must face in life.
Author, speaker and women’s advocate Nina Funnell warns too about the dangers in using fear-based education, which highlights the worst possible outcome, as a means of changing teen behaviour:
The most dangerous thing we can ever say to a young person is that there is no way forward, no light at the end of the tunnel, no possibility of recovery … If a young person has made a mistake, catastrophising the situation will only lead to catastrophic outcomes. Already we have seen one case in America where a teen took her life following a school seminar which reinforced the notion that she could never get a job or a university degree since she had already made an online mistake. Instead of this doom and gloom approach, we need to help teens develop resilience, the strength to overcome setbacks, and the insight to be able to put their mistakes into context.
We have known for some time now that, apart from anything else, invoking fear frankly just doesn’t work. When we present only examples of possible catastrophes, threats and dangers, we shut down learning.
How much more powerful it is to share with our girls our own stories of personal failures and setbacks, and to explain how we bounced back.
And when our teen girls do trip up? We must try not to say, “I told you so.” Even if we did tell them so!
Dannielle Miller is a highly experienced educator and the co-founder and CEO of Enlighten Education, Australia’s leading provider of in-school workshops for teen girls on body image, self-esteem and empowerment. She is the author or co-author of four books, including The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, about helping girls claim their power, and Loveability, a girl’s guide to dating and relationships. She writes for magazines, newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and popular opinion sites, and she is a regular social commentator on television and radio. Dannielle actively supports a number of causes and is on the board of The Sanctuary, a domestic violence shelter. She and her company have been recognised with numerous awards. Danni is a huge fan of Wonder Woman, friends who make a snorting sound when they laugh, and wearing ugg boots in winter. To find out more about Dannielle, go to www.danniellemiller.com.