Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon(Enough)

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my mom's coral floral quilted makeup bag. It was filled with pink plastic refillable Mary Kay eyeshadows and waxy eyeliners, hot pink tubes of mascara and soft swirly brushes that I recall my mom sweeping across my cheeks some mornings, no doubt with nothing on them.

On rare occasions, my mom would let me take this bag out onto the front porch of our house and I'd play with it, removing the items from the bag carefully, setting them up on the rough concrete step. I would unscrew the tubes of lipstick and line them up so that I could see the shades of bricks, peonies, roses that I could choose from.

The tweezers got ignored in favor of more colorful pots of powder. I would carefully sweep the shadows across my eyes, using the liner to trace my eyes appraising my own face, layering the liner until I looked like a seven year old blonde straggly, bruised-knee Cleopatra. My lips pursed in a pout, I used my superior skills gleaned from coloring books to follow the lines.

I'd look into the big swirly blue plastic handheld mirror trying it all on for size, trying to hasten the day that I'd be able to wear this stuff all the time. Then I'd usually return to my room, put the Grease soundtrack on the white leatherlike box turntable. I'd put on the closest thing I had to the outfits and reenact nearly the entire movie in my bedroom. I was an only child, this is how I passed time.

I remember a night around this time, I must have been maybe nine or ten tops. It was a sticky Wisconsin summer evening and my mom and I had gone to see a late movie. We would frequently pay for one, stay for two. We drove home in her car with the windows rolled down, the swirling air drying the perspiration, cooling our skin. Bored, I fished through my mother's purse, handling the sundry of objects. The tan crumpled pack of Winston lights that I would frequently take out and pantomime my best Marlene Dietrich or Faye Dunaway, her smudgy sunglasses sliding down my nose, Chapstick covered with stray tobacco and purse lint, pens, lighters, a stray tampon flinging itself free from the thin paper wrapper rendering itself useless in all but the most dire of emergencies.

I found the tube of lipstick and put it on, using the streetlights to see by. I sat on my knees in the passenger seat, no doubt without a seatbelt, to appear taller, and I looked out at the passing cars waiting to be looked at. I saw a truck with two men in it and I tilted my head so that my blonde hair was caught by the wind coming in and whipped around. I didn't look at them but pursed my lips out, angled my head and felt at some point that I was being looked at. I looked briefly and could see that they were smiling at me and angling to move into the lane closest to ours. My mom finally noticed them, the driver almost hanging out of the car trying to get our attention, as they got closer I watched the drivers face change to disbelief as he must have finally realized I was just a girl.

So what's the point of this trip down memory lane you ask. I don't remember how much early conditioning I had in the girly arts but my mom was not overly fixated on her appearance and while my grandmother had fun things like hat pins and long bright pink fingered gloved and hard lucite purses and hats with veils and leopard spotted coats, day to day, she mostly wore polyester pants, cheap shoes and tank tops and garden gloves. I think I was one very girly girl from pretty early on. You could have presented me a case full of shiny new hotwheels or some ratty silver platforms, cats eye glasses and a balding feather boa and I would have picked the accessories every single time.

I am a feminist. I believe in equal opportunities. I strive to give my children a common experience. In our household, everyone cooks, everyone cleans, everyone soothes, everyone cares for children. I am strong, feminine, I wear skirts frequently more out comfort than convention. I typically wear makeup when I leave the house and when my husband and I go out, you'll usually find me in heels although I admit they are uncomfortable and crippling. In spite of having three children and a fuck lot to do, I cannot seem to part with my long hair though occasionally I will longingly imagine a cute bob that air drys in ten minutes.

So I am okay with my daughters wanting to play dress up and enjoying my application of makeup whiskers to their Halloween kitty costumes. I am not concerned by my five year old's near insistence that she wear pink because she can also explain the basics of photosynthesis.

What I am concerned about is the sexualization of girls. I am concerned about the images of girls and women portrayed in what are supposed to be children's shows. I am concerned when parents allow the imagery of Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears and others to take a strong enough hold that these created, manufactured images become what is aspired to. I am concerned that later, when these idolized girls do silly and not so silly things, parents allow these same girls who idolize these girls to watch programs where their mistakes or heedless actions are put on display, given attention to and of course, tacit approval. I am concerned that parents willingly purchase and allow into their home dolls and toys that encourage young girls to be provocative and precocious.

One of the things I remember that night the men in the truck mistook me for a woman was that beauty or the attention of men was it's own kind of power and powerlessness. It could be the thing a prospective employer looked at instead of your talent. It could be a message you got that how you look is more important than who you are. It could come in often unwanted jeers from strange men. It could erase thoughts of science and math and discovery and replace them with outfits and insecurities and attempts to be pleasing. For a woman it is an everyday double edge sword, for a girl, it is an albatross, a burden, an unfair responsibility, choppy waters that they are unprepared to navigate.

This is not what empowerment looks like.

Postscript: When I was searching online for an appropriate title, I came across this, a very thoughtful look at this very same subject.

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Rassles said... April 29, 2009 at 12:15 PM  

I just wrote about this, kinda.

~Mountain Lover~ said... April 29, 2009 at 12:18 PM  

My friend is always telling me that I need to learn how to flirt (which is true to a certain extent). So last weekend I watched her in action, with a guy who ALREADY likes her.

Her IQ dropped at least 50 points. She talked about how she doesn't have tan lines because she lays in a tanning bed. For 10 minutes. She talked about her breasts a lot, making it a point to grab herself and hoist them up to show off cleavage.

Overall, I just wasn't impressed and trying to do something like that literally makes every cell of my body recoil. I'm a feminist too- why do some of us revert to these tactics that make us objects? Sexuality is power. Use it powerfully (and when you're old enough- the 8 year old in a bikini made me sick).

(And incidentally, I asked a male friend, he said I was a damn good flirt-smart, sassy, sexy, strong. With friends. Just not men I'm attracted to, then I'm a shrinking violet).

Gwen said... April 29, 2009 at 1:01 PM  

Great post. I'm more concerned about the over-emphasis on thinness as a beauty imperative in our culture, especially for girls. Maybe the over-sexualization/thinness obsession go hand in hand. It's bizarre to me, because it feels like a paradox. While everything is being sexualized and girls are basically encouraged to explore that part of themselves early, they are also punished for it by being told they aren't attractive unless they look like a little girl . It's no wonder that I overhear young teens lamenting their lunches whilst wearing too much makeup and wearing a mini-skirt. It breaks my heart to hear that, and also my 9 year old niece worrying about calories and the size of her belly.

Rassles said... April 29, 2009 at 1:11 PM  

I'm back.

The only aspect of sex that should be involved in empowerment is promoting the fact that women want to have sex without being objectified.

It's not just subjection to beauty standards. It's the acceptance of humanity: there is nothing wrong with you, and there is nothing wrong with being a girl. And there really, truly are so few positive female roles on television, and that's like the main form of education for this country. I would say the internet is more important, but so much of the internet is about television...

Someday there will be a show about a woman who is strong-willed, plain-looking, single and not searching, achieving her goals. Just like there is about so many boys. We could even turn it around, and objectify men right back, in this hypothetical show I am creating in my brain.

One that doesn't end with a girl becoming beautiful, getting rescued, winning a competition, gaining a boyfriend, but ends with a girl accepting herself, and her faults, and being comfortable.


~Mountain Lover~ said... April 29, 2009 at 3:02 PM  

And society stifles a woman's true empowering sexual nature from the time they're children, while simultaneously sexually objectifying them. It's a double-edged sword. No matter what a woman looks like, we're all put through it whether we choose to or not. I tend to opt out. I don't want to put up with that B.S.

Gwen said... April 29, 2009 at 6:38 PM  

Rassles and Mountain Lover put into words so much more articulately than I could ever what I am feeling about this issue. I want my daughter to know that her sexuality is not a joke, is not about surrendering to another person's will, or disappearing altogether. When the time is right, I want her to embrace her sexuality. But I think if girls try to embrace it too soon they just get confused and overwhelmed. This is such an interesting topic to me. Maybe because I'm really messed up my own self about my body and my sexuality. Very interesting post and comments.

Anonymous said... April 29, 2009 at 6:49 PM  

That was an incredibly insightful, well written post.

A Free Man said... April 29, 2009 at 7:50 PM  

Wow, nice. And those pictures are scary. And I'm rethinking my wish to have a girl with #2. Boys are easier to deal with growing up.

Your 5 year old can explain photosynthesis? Seriously? Because I've taught second and third year university students who can't.

Rassles said... April 29, 2009 at 8:56 PM  

I would like to add, for the record, that this post was amazing, FF, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I wasn't trying to be contrary or's just something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

and SCENE.

formerly fun said... April 29, 2009 at 9:54 PM  

Rassles-Yes I liked it too, I think the big goal of feminism should be to be the woman you are and be ok with that. The hard thing for me is how much of what I think I want do I even want. I like to look pretty and put together but when I'm home alone with the bebe, it's not like I pull it all together--so clearly I do it because I've been conditioned to seek approval for how I look. We are conditioned so early and so often, many of us become afflicted with a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts. It's all so very complicated.

IQ dropped 50 points--love it. I too was a giant charming flirt with men I had no interest in but had a more difficult time when I actually liked someone. I stillhave a ton of conventions of the whole female beaty myth/machine. What I can say has evolved twentyfold is my taste and view of men. My husband encourages me to be myself to aspire high. He adores my geeky, brainy pushy side and tells me weekly how he could never be with someone who wasn't whip smart. I wish I had known definitively in my twenties that guys like him were out there, I would have wasted less time with men who made me feel like I had to be a different person for them.

Is this not so totally complicatated? You know I'm not a giant fan of the Bratz dolls but even those in the right context are not going to sexualize a girl. My point in talking about my makeup obsession and evendesire to be looked at by men is natural(ish) but today's girls are positively bombarded with imagery that cannot be healthy. While I was checking out some realted material, I ran across a study that determined that when girls(older than our daughters) look at fashion magazines and some other media sources, they reported far lower body satisfaction. One of my hopes is that as parents, we will use our critical thinking skills to evaluate how some of these messages may translate to a girl forming her sense of self. Like I said, it's complicated and I certainly am not the last word on this but boy do we need to be talking about it.

You are so right about the happily ever afters--I've read my daughters a great book called the Paperbag Princess, in the end she ditches the Prince and handles stuff on her own. BTW, I am completely pro-sex and want my girls to be able to enjoy partnership minus the other stuff that gets piled on.

ML-I totally agree, I feel like our sexuality becomes chattel no different than virginity as currency of days past. I wish I had valued my sexuality as something for me and not something to give away. It's been a hard won respect for my sexuality as my own, my gift to me, my comfort in my own skin.

Gwen- Exactly, it's like asking a seven year old to drive a car. We sexualize girls before they even have the emotional tools to deal with the aftereffects. It is, like I said, so complicated that it gets overwhelming but I think us talking about it is so important.

Thank you, I adore my daughters and want them, like every mom I'm sure, to be better and more whole and better equipped to deal with life. I want them to be themselves, whatever that is.

Yeah, my 5 year old is wicked smart and super silly and girly girl and oh does she like the boys. I just want her to be well rounded. The kid thing is hard because I think we all just want to do it right but I don't always know what that is.

Rassles- I love you and I love that you charge forward to be yourself, even though it goes against so many of the messages that are thrown at us--it is brave and I mean that. I also identify with your at times,confusion about what you want. Again I refer to the Stockholm Syndrome, I often wonder do I want this because I want this or because i have been conditioned to think I want it. Likewise I do the double fake out and wonder if my feminist ideals are clouding my female nature. Again, so complicated--I think if there was less of this manufactured imagery re: women, we would all have a lot more room to breathe and discover what will really make us happy.

Anonymous said... April 29, 2009 at 10:23 PM  

I'm in posession of a girly girl, myself. Have no idea where she came from, cause I'm not. The only thing I've successfully mangaed to do (so far) is get her to point at Bratz dolls, stick her tongue out, and say "hoochie!"

This whole business of raising a girl child - I'm scared, but at least I'm aware.

SSG said... April 30, 2009 at 1:10 AM  

This post is good in so many ways. I like Rassles idea of a TV show, i don't think i could name any that are just about a girl being herself, and not about her getting pretty or finding a boyfriend. I'm trying to think of books with the same. Watching stupid TV shows, reading stupid magazines, they all make me feel bad. I compare myself to others all the time and feel inadequate. My boyfriend is a very confident person, and confident in himself, so he doesn't get this at all. He doesn't tell me things like I am pretty or I'm clever, unless I ask, as I think he feels I should know these things and not need to be told. i guess I'm pretty needy, huh. Hmmm, some days things like this make me sad, I wish there was no pressure, and some days I wish someone told me earlier, so i could have got my teeth fixed and eaten no food and be beautiful and then people would love me. I am such an idiot it hurts sometimes.

Loved your post, dont know if you can make any sense of my brain dump above, hope you don't mind.


Lo said... April 30, 2009 at 8:15 AM  

'bc innocence is sexier than you think'???????????????????????

my. god. i am extremely 'girly', aka feminine, i am proud to be female. there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful, to feel attractive......

this? ugh. vomit.

Rassles said... April 30, 2009 at 8:24 AM  

Sorry, I can't let this go.

I think one of my all-time favorite, favorite, favorite movies, pro-feminism, beautifully made, child appropriate, is Spirited Away. Every single time I watch it I'm more impressed.

Gypsy said... April 30, 2009 at 9:26 AM  

I loved this so much. I was that little girl, too: the one fascinated by all the female accoutrement.

And those images of "female empowerment"? I couldn't agree more.

Except the ones of Miley Cyrus. Because she took those herself. I know that had I lived in today's world of digital cameras, there's no doubt I would have tried to be all kinds of sexy. For myself, you know? Just trying it on, seeing how I looked. Now, the fact that those got out there in the world -- and I don't know how they did -- that's unsettling. But taking the pictures? I can understand that.

formerly fun said... April 30, 2009 at 9:55 AM  

Praying to Darwin-
Hootchie, love it. My niece taught my five year old(then four) the "dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me" song and she came home singing it. My husband appealed to her desire to be right and said you're singing it worng, it's "doncha wish your girlfriend was SMART like me"--she bought it, for awhile anyhow.

It's sad when even the genetically blessed women I know feel shitty about the way they look. But that's what we are taught, that it's never wenough, you can always be skinnier, prettier more perfect. I think it's all a big centuries old bit of trickery to keep women down. Seriously we run around buying clothes and makeup and trying to be prettier and fretting about our boobs and asses and teeth and freckles and pimles and on and on. It makes it a lot harder to get important things done.

Lo-while advertisers cannot be as overt with the messages these days, this is still the message that is sent, the sexy child. My husband and I have a kind of funny rule about what our girls wear, if I put on the same outfit and it looks like fetish wear, it's inappropriate. I see girls at my son's school all the time with things that are wildly inappropriate. The boy? Wisely they are dressed for movement and comfort.

Netflixed that for the kids a while back and they loved it.

I too would have done the same thing. First time I got a palm pilot with camera, I can't even tell you the pictures I took. My big problem is when we allow these girls to be the models for our children. Then they go out and do stupid stuff,like girls can, and usually even more inappropriate b/c of their forced maturity and position and then our girls want to emulate it. I am not the prude freak mom but I don't let the kids watch the Hanna Montana's and things like that for that very reason. I knwo I can't control it forever but right now I can filter the media messages that tell them who they should be. I want my daughters(and son for that matter) to absorb the values and priorities of my husband and I. It's an uphill battle but I think a little effort now can at least minimize the impact of all this stuff.

Bluestreak said... April 30, 2009 at 10:40 AM  

Wow. Formerly Fun, I think this is one of my favorite posts of yours of all time.

Strange too, because I was thinking about this stuff today and was getting ready to write about it too. We´re right in the middle of Feria (April Fair) here and all the women come out with their beautiful feminine flamenco dresses and I look at them and want to wear those things too and something inside me tells me it hurts my feminism to want those things. And then I feel ashamed for thinking that, cause that can´t be, right?

This is something I have a hard time reconciling. I have mixed feelings about femininity vs. feminism, the whole ´embracing your femininity´ school of thought that I don´t usually buy into. The fact is, most women stop thinking about photosynthesis and obsess over shoes, myself included. I know what I like and what I think is sexy and good and sometimes I wonder why I like it and what it means and my own realizations scare me to pieces because I´m not the feminist I want to be.

I would love to be able to reconcile it all in my mind, but I can´t at all.

well read hostess said... April 30, 2009 at 11:46 AM  

Please submit this somewhere for the New York Times.

Anonymous said... May 1, 2009 at 6:38 AM  

Great post.

I have two daughters. One (11) could care less about her appearance. She's clean, beautiful, smart as hell, and doesn't give a shit what you think.

The other, (8) is much more "girlie". She loves Hannah. Wants to dress up like Hannah for Halloween and points in between. And yet, she seems to understand that Hannah is just a show, a person on the TV, and she hasn't gone overboard.

Much to think about . . .

Elan Morgan said... May 1, 2009 at 7:07 AM  

You are being featured on Five Star Friday!

Gwen said... May 2, 2009 at 7:57 AM  

Ok. I have a few more things to say. I'm reading all these insightful comments and loving the fact that this discussion is being had in the first place. Because you are so right, Formerly Fun, in that we need to start the dialogue about these complicated issues.

I know my feeling about Bratz dolls is unpopular. I hear the vitriol from mothers everywhere about them. And while I understand the feelings, part of me feels like saying a doll (or by extension a woman) is "hoochie" because she is dressed a certain way is the exact opposite of what we really want or need. I guess my point is that my daughter plays with Bratz dolls and some of the dolls have outfits that are cute and appropriate, like the jeans and boots I took a picture of and put in one of blogs. I don't buy my daughter the Bratz dolls that have too short skirts. I guess I just don't see how a freaky looking doll in trendy clothes = hoochie, over-sexualized. Am I making sense here? I don't want my daughter to grow up thinking that girls who wear too much make-up or mini-skirts are the ideal, but I don't want her to grow up thinking those types of girls are "hoochies" either. We have all types of women...some dress conservative, some dress trendy, some dress sexy. I think all of those choices are OK. The point I want to make to my daughter is that it's okay for her to be herself, to embrace her sexuality (when it's time), and not feel like she has to fit some sort of pre-made mold, or be ashamed of herself or her desires. Like I said, I respect that people don't like Bratz dolls. I guess I just don't get the extreme hatred for these dolls that people seem to have. It's very telling to me, actually, that people feel so strongly about them. I'm much more concerned about my daughter looking up to real people, like Miley Cyrus for instance. The fact that she is involved in an inappropriate relationship (dating a 20 something guy) is far more disturbing to me than a Bratz Doll.

Anonymous said... May 4, 2009 at 10:36 PM  

Here's the difference, for me.

Barbie looks like an adult. Maybe in her 20's, but most definitely an adult.

The Bratz dolls, with their large foreheads, exaggerated eyes and chubby cheeks, look to me like they were designed to look like children. But overtly sexualized children. With drag queen eyelashes. And (with the exception of a few, very tasteful ensembles) they're dressed in a way that makes me want to cry.

I'm not (generally) a prude. But when it comes to mixing sex and childhood, I've got issues.

Arizaphale said... May 22, 2009 at 6:07 PM  

Late as usual.

The Miley Cyrus pix are a case in themselves. You see photos like this all over MSN, MySpace and Youtube. My own daughter takes photos of herself that leave me vaguely disquieted. I think it is part of growing up and directly related to the age you go through puberty. Like Gypsy, I am pretty sure if I'd had access to the technology....

But it's the technology that's the problem isn't it? It makes it hard as a parent to filter what your preteens and teens are exposed to without appearing controlling. (who? Me?) I know some of my daughter's first brushes with delicate topics came through magazines such as 'Girlfriend', which she bought at the Show (Fair?) in a Showbag (sample bag). At the end of the day, you can't be everywhere and protect them from everything. All you can do is discuss those images/ideas with them and call commonly accepted stereotypes into question. Great post and discussion.

Michelle said... May 31, 2009 at 4:00 AM  

How much of this is because there isn't a definition of what women SHOULD be? The imagery of yesteryear painted women as stay-at home wife and mother. The imagery of today is the sexually empowered. It was easier for boys dolls; superheroes, soldiers, etc.

It sounds like we need a range of dolls that promote women in society. Forget Barbie with her pink car, how about a policewoman with a partol car. Forget Barbie with the malibu cottage or whatever, how about Judge Judie with all-action court room, sending a slovenly Ken down the steel stairs for rape. Teacher and classroom, complete with education books that teach the kids as they play with them.

We've had a female Prime Minister over here, but you haven't had a female President yet. There is still a long way to go.

But then, Matel wouldn't go for that ... I wonder how many women are on its executive board?

Anonymous said... August 1, 2009 at 4:56 PM  

It often seems odd to me how much children are sexualized but also how grown women attempt to look like prepubescent girls. I still haven't figured out what is so awful about body hair and why I should be hairless like a child to be attractive. It seems very strange.

indigosound said... August 1, 2009 at 5:30 PM  

i didn't read every post so this might have been mentioned, but a movie with a strong female lead is "phoebe in wonderland." it doesn't deal at all with sex or boys or body image, but when i watched it with my daughters (8yo twins) afterward it turned into a discussion about accepting yourself, and i brought up a little of the boy/body image thing, and both of my girls saw the movie as an allegory for sexuality and body image. (yes, i've taught them about allegories).

and i think that while the "role models" for out children today are doing a horrible job of it, everything can be turned into a lesson. the "youngest" of my daughters was a hannah montana fan for a while, until she realized that hannah monatna and miley cirus were the same person. after a week of her being mortified and crying that "hannah montana" would lie to her, the situation became a discussion about why people would want to put a different image out there than who they really are.

i'm mostly adrift in the ocean that is raising girls in today's society when i was raised by a mom who grew up in the fourties, but i've found that turning any moment into a teaching moment seems to work. (and not just about body image. my girls can also explain photosynthesis, and why water stays in a bucket when they spin in a circl)

most importantly, i think that giving them praise and telling them how proud i am of them all the time seems to have the most lasting effect. when they come into the house covered in mud and laughing about the romp they just had, part of me wants to be upset at how dirty they are, but a stronger part of me takes them upstairs and turns the bathroom into the worlds largest water-fight.

Anonymous said... August 1, 2009 at 8:52 PM  

One thing u do have to realize tho is sex sells. Every need in a community need to to be filled some women are not smart, witty, strong, fast, or really anything but beautiful. People use what they have to make it out there. Sex is a way of life for some people who dont really have anything else. I think you should maybe try insed of judging some of these women as bad role models or influnces. They get payed to do a job like everyone else. It is not there fault about who watchs what the fault is the parent. Who need to take responibility for there kids and no what is up. sorry i know that this post will probable will not be the most popular but these are a few things you all should think about.

Anonymous said... August 1, 2009 at 9:21 PM  

I completely agree with what you wrote, but you said you danced around to Grease? That is not a movie with good messages for little girls either. I think negative images have always been around but with all the new mediums to see them, they are more of a problem. I think the job of screening falls on the parents to decide what is acceptable and to set a positive example.

Anonymous said... August 3, 2009 at 9:20 AM  

I agree with the sentiments about Spirited Away. Miyazaki movies always feature strong willed and independent female children (see: Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service). I find any of those movies to carry a strong positive to my daughter....but I don't let her watch his film Pocco Rosso, 'cause the lead heroine/mechanic spends way too much time saying "What?!? You'll hire me even though I'm a GIRL!?"

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