“She's so quiet. She's so nice. She never causes any trouble,” the adults in my family said about me. I learned at an early age that the approval of others means everything. A “C” on my report card was unthinkable and likely to land me in hot water. I fetched coffee for my mother from the kitchen whenever she ran out. I asked to play games with my father and was anxious for my older sister and her friends to invite me to play. Like me, my whole countenance seemed to scream. Please, please, like me! I was desperate to be who they wanted me to be.
Sounds sad and a little pathetic, yes? Well, believe it or not, that experience is very common, especially in young girls. Females in childhood generally put more stock in the labels placed on them by other people than their male counterparts, likely because female and male children are at different stages of emotional development, even if they are the same chronological age. The result is that young girls pour themselves into the labels. What other people see them as becomes what they decide they are, while their true selves are locked up.
This angst doesn't end in the early stages of childhood. As they get older cliques begin to form. Girls desperately try to align themselves with the right groups so they are seen as the right kind of person. Even if they find a group they identify with and are comfortable in, their inner monologue and self-checking to make sure they are possessing the right labels doesn't end. In fact, a new worrisome trend is for girls to post “Am I Ugly?” videos on YouTube in hopes to win the all-important beauty approval from strangers. Sometimes YouTube users give polite comments, but the internet being what it is, there are also trolls and bullies that advise the poster that they are so ugly they shouldn't continue with their life.
As the young girls become young women and start considering sexual aspects, their reliance on labels doesn't shrink any. When I was young, it was Barbie this and Barbie that, and every girl wanted to be like Barbie. It had parents and teachers worried. By the time I was in high school, there was a new doll on the block that parents were worried about: Bratz. These dolls were known for their hyper-sexualized look, along with clothing that real girls could wear to be just like their doll. Many parents were mortified with the overt sexuality of young children through toys, and with good reason. It's been reported that girls as young as 6 viewed their sexuality as extremely important due to the labels and cultural messages they were receiving, whether the adults in charge of them realized they were receiving those messages or not.
The end result of all this internalization of labels is that as the girls turn into women, it becomes second nature to ignore their own feelings. Instead, they can focus almost exclusively on the way others see them. As they reach sexual maturity and begin to choose sexual partners, females that had not been over sexualized and have, up until that point, considered themselves to be “good girls” can experience a surge of guilt for engaging in any sexual acts, and turn back into a good girl when the act is over, as if it's a light switch. “Now I'm a good girl, now I'm a bad girl, now I'm a good girl again, and I hope no one ever finds out that I was a bad girl.” Jill P. Weber, Ph.D., puts it this way in her article, The Makings of a Good Girl: “Moving between these poles causes an inordinate amount of anxiety and tension and, perhaps even more troubling serves to keep women in the dark about how they might get more from their romantic experiences.”
Now, as modern parents who want to raise our little girls with a solid sense of self, what are we to do? The best advice I've ever heard about parenting is, “Raise children in the way they are bent.” See who they are and where they need to go. I remember as a middle school student all the art classes were full, mostly with the popular children. The school administration was absolutely forbidden to change schedules and place children into any other classes than they already were in. My guidance counselor called me into his office one day, stared at my schedule on the computer screen, and said, “You don't have art on your schedule.”
“It was full,” I said.
He looked at me for a few seconds, then typed something into the computer. “You need your art,” he said.
“You're giving me back art?” I nearly leaped out of my chair.
He put a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he said.
In that moment, in that office, that man saw me. He was right. I needed my art, and he knew it. He sneaked me back in so that I could feed who I really was inside, not what label I was being forced into.
What if we all did that? What if we didn't push labels on our children? What if we didn't allow them to be taught that the more sexual you are, the better? What if, just for a little while, we truly saw who they are and where they needed to go? We don't know until we actually do it, but I'll tell you what I think would happen. We'd stop having girls having sex before they are emotionally ready because they are seeking the approval of their partner or their peers. We'd stop having girls ashamed because they are still a virgin. We'd stop having elementary school children beg parents for tiny leather skirts because their favorite doll-turned-tv character wears it. We'd have well-rounded individuals that recognize not only the feelings of others, but understand the importance of being true to who they are.