I recently read a scholarly article titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Un/Defining the ‘Girl’.” These words alone give a sense of urgency–nobody likes to be between rocks and hard places (or between walls and swords, as they say in Spanish)–as well as a sense of This or That, Either Or, option A or option B. Take this dichotomized urgency, and now couple it with the notion that we perhaps have been defining Who is Girl incorrectly all along, and must return to our premises and “undefine” her. Phew! – and we’ve only just unpacked the title…
But it’s enough. Enough for you to wonder –
So what? you ask. I’m curious, you say, about how this affects me, affects the kids I work with. You, the counselor on the night shift; you, the day care provider; you, the outdoor leader; you, the special education teacher. How does the discussion on who is female and what is girl have anything to do with you? How does this change your experience of your kiddos – be they girls or boys or any other option of their choosing – and the everyday, lived situations in which you find yourselves, interacting together?
And, fair enough, maybe it doesn’t. Just yet. But it will, I think. Because as definitions change, the hope is that they morph into something that is closer to reality than what existed before. And that these new knowledges give you more appropriate tools to better understand the young humans who walk through your door, are brought in by their parents, and go on your trips. In short: understanding the context, you will be able to better understand the kid.
Are you sold? Well, keep with me for a bit – let’s talk about girls, and power, and beauty, for just a minute. I think this will give us a starting point for understanding why this is important to all of us, and not just the theoretically-inclined.
In the article I mentioned above, Shauna Pomerantz looks at two ways we have defined the “Girl.” First, as Objects. In this definition, girls are a disempowered group with little to no agency of their own. They – as a collective – experience a definable “dip” in adolescence, during which time their self-esteem and well-being plummets, and is under threat of being demolished. They are attacked by media, by peers, by societal norms, and desperately need help managing this difficult life stage. Sounds serious, right?
However, while it may well be true that some girls experience some element of adolescent angst, there is no wholesale experience of girls to justify the notion that they are all floundering in the middle of their teenage turmoil, needing an outside agent to pull them from the mires.
Objects are acted upon: they need saving.
I haven’t talked to many people (read: nobody) who are surprised by the idea that women – old and young and even younger – are scrutinized for our appearance–and have been, for quite some time. (Check out this youtube video that has attempted to capture female beauty standards throughout time.) Our bodies are given value based on a standard of beauty that, increasingly, is absolutely and impossibly in nobody’s (no body’s) ability to reach. Somehow, the arbitrary fact of a gap between a girl’s thighs is believed to have some impact on her worth, and any middle schooler could tell you about it. It’s not even just that, though – the truth is that there is no “set” ideal; the ideal is a constantly moving target, and girls will constantly fall on one side or the other of it (because pssst: it doesn’t exist). Pomerantz talks about this as the “trap” that girls are in – they are “too something and not something enough” (Pomerantz, 149).
Now, though, a new angle to the problem has shown up. As folks are looking into the ways that external pressures on women to Be Beautiful might be affecting young girls and, simultaneously, seeking ways to “save” girls from the negative side affects of such a culture, a new voice has been showing up on the scene. The Beauty Empowerment Campaign voice. This is the voice that tells young women that they are beautiful just the way they are, and also wear this stuff on your face. Your body doesn’t need to be photoshopped, so buy this bra and panty set. Every body is different and beautiful in its own way, and here is the shampoo/pair of jeans/lotion/etc. to make you really “own” yours.
The conversation is the same: it’s still all about Beauty.
In an earlier post and its subsequent comments, I even touted some of these very campaigns. They’re furthering the conversation, right? But are they? I’m not so sure anymore. Turns out, a lot of people aren’t so sure anymore.
Because how is this not objectifying girls in the same way as before? Sure, the words may be different, but the message is just the same. The conversation is the same: it’s still all about Beauty. Even in terms of Empowerment, we are only “empowering” based on beauty. (And somehow, even this “empowerment” shows primarily one kind of beauty, and rarely includes women with disabilities, or racialized women who aren’t being exoticized.) So, in our efforts to “save” girls during this precarious time of their lives, we are instead reinforcing the very same beliefs that are binding them. What’s with that?
We are so hung up on beauty, that we can’t even bring our conversation out of that realm. And the leaders of this empowerment? More often than not, the women and girls used in these campaigns have bodies and faces that still fall within the conventional standards of beauty. Aerie may not be using supermodels to sell their clothes anymore, but the “average girls” they’ve found to replace them still bear a certain resemblance to a certain standard. Now, girls are taking in these images with the added weight of comparing their own bodies to the “average,” as opposed to the “ideal.” How intimidating!
Next: girls as subjects and, conveniently, agents in the marketplace.
The other “box” girls are placed in, according to Pomerantz, is that of Subject. This is the go-get-’em, kick butt, flower power, girls rule & boys drool paradigm. It’s a good one, and let’s pause to remember our own time spent with Lisa Frank stickers and lunch boxes. At the same time, this is another imposed definition on who girls are, and how we relate to them. In fact, the line drawn between these two (girl as object, and girl as subject), in media at least, is getting blurrier and blurrier. It’s a fine line between: the #realyou is sexy (so buy our underwear), and Blair Waldorf’s heralded views on shopping, and happiness, and that the two ultimately equal each other.
The really unfortunate part is that Corporate Beauty Companies have managed to commandeer both “boxes” that Pomerantz identifies. They have learned that collective anger toward conventional beauty standards will drive girls and women in droves to the beauty aisles of the drug store. This is another article for another time, but let me just say: capitalism has managed to appropriate both the empowerment of women, as well as the “girl power” rhetoric. It is “powerful” to own certain things, to be a consumer of certain items and in certain ways. (Do I need to remind you of Lisa Frank’s impact on the purchasing power of young girls in the 1980s and 1990s?)
And the real kicker? Some of these ads that aspire to redefine what bodies we view as beautiful are actually photoshopping those very bodies.
Companies tell young girls that girls with power and agency are those that buy their products… sick, right? Capitalism has stepped right in and helped us muddle up our perspective of who girls are: buyers of beauty products and clothing, because… they deserve it. (Go ahead, splurge.)
[And let me take a moment to be honest about something. I don’t hate them all. Like this Ram commercial, I really like the message. Do I know that they are using feminism to sell trucks? Sure. Do I still like the image it shows of women? Yes. Cue dilemma, and discuss.]
So how does this relate to you? Well. Pomerantz’s article goes on to call for work to be done to find a third – or fourth or fifth or Nth – space in which girls may be understood. To move away from seeking to find a singular way to define girls, and instead blow up the notions that girls must be any one thing, and find place space for girls to just “be.”
This is where you come in.
It is our job, as youth workers, to create this space for girls to find their own definition, beyond the trap of the “shoulds” and the “too’s” and the not “enoughs.” Or, at the minimum, to cultivate an environment in which girls can create this space for themselves. Where they can be part of the male-centric term Youth, and can just Be.
Think of the girls you work with. Think of the many ways in their lives that they experience being objectified, being subjectified. Now. How can you, as someone with a given position of power, ease their role as object and as subject? What can you do to move the conversation from Object or Subject, to something else? Can we give girls the space they need to define themselves? As youth workers, what is our role to ensuring that girls aren’t placed in the same boxes as ever, and given new spaces in which they can form identities that feel true to them?
Can we give girls the space they need to define themselves?
For me, I see taking the conversation away from Beauty entirely will help. “Empowering” girls doesn’t mean telling them they are beautiful just the way they are; maybe it means asking them Why Beauty? and How Does Your Body Help You do the Activities you Like to do? and What Books Have you Been Reading Lately? and Hey Did You Get to Look at the Blood Moon Through a Telescope?
I really like this TEDtalk by Sarah Kay (this is just the beginning – check out her whole talk, too!), a spoken word artist. As a young woman, she is beginning to think of the world her future daughter may enter. Her words go beyond “you’re beautiful no matter what” and enter into the realm of “let’s learn the universe.”
Let’s learn the universe, girls.
Pomerantz, S. (2009). Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Un/Defining the” Girl”. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 1(2), 147-158.