When I first started my teen girls’ group, I had to come up with an overarching theme. Apparently “let’s get together to chat and eat cheese” was insufficient. My co-leader and I came up with self-esteem. In some way, everything we wanted to cover–dating, body image, relationships with parents, peer pressure–could be incorporated into this.
Saying I run a “self-esteem group” is kind of embarrassing. It just sounds so Stuart Smalley. The term gets thrown around and degraded so much. My
fantasy happy hour guest and Twitter follower personal hero Jessica Valenti wrote about this recently. I thought about it a lot, due to my group and my respect for Ms. Valenti.
Still, I can’t just say “fuck self esteem.” Because it is important. It encompasses so much of what our girls are dealing with. They’re shoplifting because they have to have what everyone else does, and also because their friends are doing it. They’re having sex, at times, to maintain a partner’s interest. They’re getting in fights constantly because they can’t let even the littles comment slide. So what’s the problem?
Self-esteem has gotten kind of weird. Primarily because it is far too tied up in physical appearance, as evidenced by the idea that plastic surgery is going to improve a young woman’s self-esteem. I got teased for being flat-chested when I was in junior high. Fortunately, my parents didn’t start saving up for a boob job for their twelve year old.
“You’re all beautiful in your own way” is remarkably similar to “everyone gets a trophy.” I had a shitload of trophies as a kid, because I participated in a shitload of activities. I sucked at most of them, so I knew those trophies were meaningless. If everyone is beautiful, what’s the point? Not everyone has to think you’re hot. There are standards of beauty in our society. (Impossible, stupid standards, says my brown hair and tummy.) Not everyone conforms to them, even if they want to. Pretending that away doesn’t work, and it puts the focus on the wrong place.
Valenti points out that not growing into your looks until a bit later in life can be beneficial. Hell yeah, it can. You don’t learn to be funny if people are fawning all over your looks. Why bother? If I had known how to brush my hair properly and didn’t wear my brother’s hand-me-downs in junior high, I wouldn’t have had all that time to watch entirely inappropriate stand-up on Comedy Central. Or to finish The Diary of Anne Frank while eating lunch alone. (Oh yes, it was bad.) A friend of mine will sometimes tell others, “you are so beautiful right now” if they tell a joke that falls flat. Just about everyone who is successful in a creative industry will talk about how they were an awkward loser at some point in school. Except the models who talk about how they were way too skinny and couldn’t get a date until they were fourteen. They don’t count.
I’m often told that it is great for my girls’ self-esteem that they are all black or Latina. You know, because their culture, and their men, like “bigger” women. Because there is nothing to make you feel worse than being overweight, everyone is heterosexual, and defining your self worth by men’s attraction to you is a rockin’ idea.
It reminds me of a vintage advertisement that was making the rounds on Facebook recently. It featured an image of a skinny woman and a curvier woman, and implored women to take some snake oil type treatment so they could pack on some pounds to look sexy at the beach. Everyone tagged it with, “How times have changed!” And because I’m obnoxious, I had to keep commenting, “Eighty years ago, people were still telling us we weren’t good enough, so…no, times haven’t changed that much.”
My girls want to be thin, but they don’t want to be skinny. Skinny is a bad word. The constant refrain is “I don’t want to look like a crackhead!” This might be indicative of the devastation that crack cocaine wrought on our inner-cities, or something. Of course, my
fantasy therapist and woman who could totally call me to baby-sit
All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine year old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.
Women and girls are held to very high standards. You have to look a certain way, and you’re not supposed to work at it. Don’t starve yourself, that’s stupid! Just be really skinny! But have boobs, don’t be gross about it. Don’t wear too much make up, it looks fake and gross. A natural, minimal, blemish free perfectly smooth complexion is preferable. Be tall, but not too tall. Dress sexy, but not slutty. (As there are no clear guidelines on this, you will just have to wear what you think is best and then listen when others criticize you. Fun!)
When I ask my girls in group what I like about themselves, they start listing off physical attributes. “My hair,” “my eyes,” “my titties,” (seriously.) It isn’t because they’re shallow, or think that’s all they have to offer. It’s because they think that’s what I mean. I have to press them for what they’re good at, what it is others admire in them.
I try to focus on getting my girls to notice double standards between what’s expected of them and boys, to question why certain things are considered “slutty” or indicative of a “lack of self-respect,” and to get them a little pissed off about these things. I’m not under the impression that pointing out that they are undervalued by society will make them feel good.
But it does make them think about where that poor self-esteem is coming from. It takes some pressure off them to live up to those standards, and spend some more time questioning where they’re coming from and why they feel bad about themselves. It lets them know that they’re not alone in the inequality they notice (believe me, they notice), that gaining or losing five pounds or waxing their eyebrows isn’t the answer to what they’re feeling, and that there are more important things to think about. Being a part of something and connecting with other girls makes them feel pretty good about themselves, and about being a girl.
And things like this come out.
14 y/o: “It’s so much harder to be a girl. We have to get periods.”
Entire group: “Ugh, periods!”
13 y/o #1: “And we have to have babies and decide whether or not to have an abortion.”
13y/o #2: “Yeah, and guys can just leave if they don’t want to take care of the kid.”
14 y/o: “And men say nasty things to us on the street when we’re just trying to walk.”
12 y/o: “Yeah, but our moms teach us to take care of ourselves. One day a boy is going to tell me to cook for him or do his laundry and I’m going to tell him he should have learned when I did!”
It’s a start.