It's a war on our daughters.
I knew it was coming. I knew it was going to happen. They all told me. Hell, it happened to me. Somehow I never thought it would happen to my girl, my confident, loud, intense, will-not-be-silenced daughter. She danced on tables, sang in restaurants, threw her head back when she laughed, wore sequence berets, tutus with footy socks as gloves, accessorized with an eye patch. To first grade. I assumed my kid would leap right over the "girl box," that silencing, stifiling, self-esteem-annihilating cultural massacre that occurs with stunning predictability to most girls staring down the barrel of puberty.
There was no way it was happening to my girl. I thought I had vaccinated her, inoculated her, with the sheer force of my own will and good intentions. (Of course, we all know where the good-intentions road leads, don't we?)
And then it started happening. With a vengeance.
My daughter has always been advanced. Her stunningly docile and heartbreaking entry into the "girl box" is no exception. She is only 8.
In case anybody out there still doesn't get that fat is indeed the most feminist of issues, the first sign of her self-worth going down the tubes was that searing question: Am I fat?
The second round fired came in the form of social wounds inflicted (wittingly and uwittingly) by other girls, festering wounds that refused to heal. The brutality of BFF's gone awry. Next there was talk of a social hierarchy where there once was a playground. There are those who are "popular" and those who are not. Despite excellent reports by teachers and friends and everyone else, she now doubts her playground status. She used to fling herself around the bars, over and over, flying fearlessly up and over. Now, if somebody says something unwelcoming, she flees.
There are worries. So many worries. Worries and wounds and personal affronts and cloaks and daggers where there were swings and slides. Who sits with whom at lunch now merits Kremlin-like analysis. There is endless reading of friendship tea leaves. I was invited to her birthday, but she never asks me for a playdate. Ah, the playdate roulette. Who's going home with whom is the source of relentless speculation and deep pain.
Class issues have erupted. Who has a "mansion," the latest technology, a trampoline, her own bathroom.....All roads lead to who doesn't. My beautiful girl. Now, rather suddenly, she is not enough. Her life is not enough. Her self worth, our net worth, it's all in question, not enough.
In third grade now, she panics in class about the work. She is a vibrant reader who just recently told a teacher she can't really read. (Every single Judy Blume book she's ever read notwithstanding, apparently.) She thinks in numbers, ages, projections, patterns, but says she's "horrible at math." On and on.
How did this happen?
Look, I knew we were standing at the abyss. Somehow I thought we were fully protected. We talk about all of it all the time. She thinks about bodies as healthy or athletic, not fat or thin. I have been hyper-vigilantly confident in my own skin. I have been supremely disciplined in staying out of her relationship with food. I have never once, not once EVER said an unkind thing about myself in front of her, and I have studiously avoided empty praise or focus on her external self (although she is indeed smart, talented, athletic, wise, insightful, well liked, and quite beautiful.)
She has a loving, excellent father. Their bond is stable, strong, dependable and deep. All the research says that's key!
And yet. And yet. This.
We were standing together, at the precipice. I thought we were a team, holding hands, beating back the demons of culturally imposed self-loathing, when before I could gather my wits about me she leapt. She just dove off, without me. All by herself.
It's like in the Catcher in the Rye. I picture millions of 8, 9, 10 and 12-year-old girls, all formerly strong and brave and free, just gasping for air, leaping off this cliff. The moms are all standing there, at the edge, screaming, wailing, some leaping in after them, some falling to their knees. What have we done?
What can we do? Therapy? Check. Positive messages in school curriculum? Check. Avoid most commercial television? Check. Maternal modeling of good self esteem and healthy body image? Check. Surrounding her with positive role models? Check. Plenty of healthy athletic activities? Check. Preventive discussions supported by well-researched books, movies, girl-power magazines? Check. Check and Check.
Is it just inevitable? Is there some genetically-driven magnetic force pulling American girls borne ceaselessly toward the abyss?
According to Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, in "Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development," it seems necessarily so.
"For over a century the edge of adolescence has been identified as a a time of heightened psychological risk for girls. Girls at this time have been observed to lose their vitality, their resilience, their immunity to depression, their sense of themselves and their character," they wrote, in their 1992 groundbreaking book.
The Harvard University Press website describes the research this way:
"On the way to womanhood, what does a girl give up? For five years, Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, asking this question, listened to one hundred girls who were negotiating the rough terrain of adolescence. This book invites us to listen, too, and to hear in these girls' voices what is rarely spoken, often ignored, and generally misunderstood: how the passage out of girlhood is a journey into silence, disconnection, and dissembling, a troubled crossing that our culture has plotted with dead ends and detours."
I'll post some resources I've found helpful in my next entry - and hope to get suggestions from the rest of you warriors out there, battling the War on Our Daughters' Self Esteem.