Wednesday, February 03, 2010

I Fear This More than Anything.

More than anything in the whole world, I worry about how to help pilot my little girl, who I absolutely adore, through the pressures that attend adolescent young-womanhood. The gnawing fear is that there may be no right answer for how I can raise her such that she can get through it without hating her body, or her intellect, or something else about herself. Reading this made me more fearful, and more prescient that I simply DO NOT understand female subculture. I don't mean that in an "oh! women, eh?!" kind of way, I mean that when I read something like this it absolutely blows my mind how it can possibly be set up that way.

It feels like the problem as presented here is laden with pitfalls on either side. In my mind I'd want to go off and meditate on the problem in the wilderness like a zen master, sitting beneath a waterfall and eating one bowl of rice every day until suddenly it comes to me - yes! That's how I can raise her and what to say to her so she won't be caught by this monstrous thresher of self-confidence. I know the simple things: love her for who she is, tell her why I value her, teach her what kinds of people make friends that are worth having. But underneath, there is always the fear that when she begins to rebel, she will turn it all off and go dancing into the dark forest without once looking back to see me pointing out the dangers I can see but not prevent. I don't mean to be dramatic, but I am trying to be honest about how seriously I regard the matter and how very much I want her to be happy.

Mind you, there's some salty language - but I think it's worth reading.

via (title unknown) on 2/3/10

Maybe there’s a better writer working in the feminist blogosphere than Sady Doyle, but then again, maybe there isn’t. She’s best known for her acid wit, but some of her stuff shows that she has a reservoir of penetrating analysis to draw from, too.

Doyle just wrote something that cuts right to the heart of my fears as a parent. As a parent to a son, I feel like I know what to do. But as a parent to my daughter, I feel like there is a gauntlet of soul-destroying ugliness waiting for her that starts in middle school, and I have no idea how to prepare her for it.

Doyle set out to say, essentially, that Clay Shirkey’s piece, while poorly framed, missing the structural issue and raising hackles, puts its finger on the way women are hamstrung by the culturally mandated self-censorship and self-deprecation. I started this post by saying how good Sady is, but she can’t say it about herself, and she can’t even agree when her friends say it. She knows Shirkey well, and she summarized her conversations with him about her own abilities like this:

“I, Clay Shirky, believe you to be capable of more than you are doing right now! Allow me to offer you some advice on this particular front.”

“Oh, my goodness, NO! I believe you to be severely deluded as to my capabilities! Allow me to present you with a list of reasons why I would not be qualified for doing anything, ever, in the entire world.”


“And so, Clay, those are the reasons that I suck. I can provide you with further proofs of my sucking, drawn from personal history reaching back as far as kindergarten! But I think you have the basics. You see why you must rescind your advice and belief in me as a person, as clearly I would only bring shame upon you. I am but an idiot child, who spills things frequently upon my wretched frame. How did I even get dressed this morning? I don’t know! It is a fluke, clearly.”

“Um, okay. But I was trying to help…?”

“CEASE THIS FUTILE CRUSADE AT ONCE! I must go now, and mortify my flesh, perhaps with whippings. As I do so, I shall review my sub-standard grades from middle school, that I might never aspire above my due station. Thanks for coffee!”

How does this happen? Doyle draws the line back to childhood:

But I will say that I have, recently, been reading a book called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons. One passage in this, which grabbed me and blew my mind and suddenly made about a thousand troubling incidents way more easy to understand, was about how female bullies pick their victims. The author interviewed a whole bunch of girls about this, and she came up with a really good, really obvious answer. So, do you want to know how they pick their victims?

They pick the girl who seems the most confident.

Yes, that’s really it! In the particular seething cauldron of insecurity, unhappiness, and fear that is female adolescence, girls tend to feel shitty about themselves for about a million reasons, and to think that they need outside approval – from friends, from boys, from the culture at large – in order to be worthwhile. But if a girl seems not reliant enough on outside approval – if she doesn’t hate her body enough, if she’s too successful at getting guys to like her, if she’s not interested enough in getting guys to like her, if she thinks she’s smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty (or if she just is smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty, and it’s pronounced enough for the people around her to take notice) – then the wolves start circling. Because they’ve all been bullied, too; they’ve all been undermined; they’ve all made the mistake of standing out, at one point or another, and they’ve been punished for it. And now, because they feel like shit about themselves, you have to feel like shit, too. A girl who doesn’t feel like shit is a threat to the entire social order, the extensively complicated and crappy system whereby women have to earn their way into a pretense of self-esteem by getting enough approval from other girls or from other outside sources in general.

What girls learn to do, in order to survive in this particular dynamic, is to race each other to the bottom. It lasts for a lifetime. They maneuver, hiding the urge to matter and succeed under an appropriately self-loathing demeanor, so that they can get ahead and climb up without ever appearing to do it.

For example: have you ever gotten the Complinsult? It is a wondrous and immensely complicated thing, the Complinsult. Here’s one of the best I have ever received, which I keep close to my heart: “Your outfit is amazing! I think it’s so great that you can wear that out in public. I’d never have the nerve.” The words are saying “I suck and you are awesome,” and yet? That is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what it means…

Or: the Fat Talk. You know about the Fat Talk, right? Lots of people have written about the Fat Talk already… the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady.

The weird thing is that, in this scenario, it seems not to ultimately matter whether you get the cheeseburger or the nachos or whatever: what matters is the extensive ritual of saying bad things about yourself, and contradicting other ladies about the bad things they have said about themselves, and giving each other permission to order the nachos, before they’re ordered. And if you don’t get permission to order the nachos, if you’re the one girl at the table who doesn’t get contradicted when she says she’s fat and shouldn’t be allowed to eat what she wants, then you know something is up. You know someone at the table, or maybe everyone at the table, has a problem with you. Which is why you don’t place your order without doing it: for a long time, I thought I was just demonstrating my good body image by ordering a cheeseburger and not participating in the Fat Talk, and then I sort of figured out that I was straight-up declaring that I was so hot I got to do whatever I wanted and was too insensitive to appease the body insecurities of my friends, who were (my actions declared) less hot than myself. I still think the Fat Talk is destructive and body-hating and stupid, and I don’t want to do it, but the way I get around it is to talk with the girls I have lunch with about why I think it’s destructive and body-hating. Not to just bypass it. Because that’s how self-esteem, and self-promotion, and social status, tend to work with girls: it’s a series of very subtle interactions in which you say you’re not good enough so that other girls can tell you that you are.

[Emphasis supplied.]

I’ve got this little girl to raise. She’s smart and loving, she’s strong and physical, she’s brave, and she is gifted with the relentless tenacity of her mother. She’s a whole, wonderful person. And I wonder if she will be when the evil vortex of middle school gets through with her.

I wish it were as simple as, “well, if we teach her to recognize it, it will go away.” But it won’t. As Doyle writes, just refusing to do it is itself a way to start trouble. Refusing to ritually self-insult is to insult the group.

If it were easy, the dynamic would not be evident among women who were more aware of it, or who were more confident. Yet Doyle uses quotes like this one to illustrate that even among feminist women there is plenty of tendency to trash anyone who rises to prominence:

I have been watching for years with increasing dismay as the Movement consciously destroys anyone within it who stands out in any way. I had long hoped that this self-destructive tendency would wither away with time and experience. Thus I sympathized with, supported, but did not speak out about, the many women whose talents have been lost to the Movement because their attempts to use them had been met with hostility.

If I do everything in my power to raise a smart, confident daughter, will the social world around her work just that much harder to tear her down? That’s the prospect that ruins my sleep. Will I make her a target just by teaching her to be brave and love herself?

The commenters add a lot to this piece. Fnord Prefect wrote:

Oh lordisa. My response to Shirky’s article can be summed up as, briefly, “This is news?” for exactly the reasons you state. I have been doing this experiment wherein I no longer apologize for things that are not my fault, and you will not be surprised to hear that I am more frequently addressed as “difficult” (to put it euphamistically) than in the halcyon days when I acquiesced and ate a little piece of my own liver every day. It is amazing how fast the hammer comes down on a lady who dares to not apologize, for all the girl-power(tm) Beatrix Kiddos in pop culture. All of this is basically to say, I agree. Thanks for saying it better and at greater length.

[Emphasis supplied.]

Patriarchy has always been about no-win situations for women. They can self-sabotage, or they can be attacked for refusing. The real answer is that change has to affect the whole culture, but that systemic answer neither gives me comfort nor guidance. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that my spouse and I have discussed homeschooling her through the middle school years to keep her out of the toxic cauldron.

She’s still in pull-ups (there’s that stubborn streak!), so we’ve got time to think about it.

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Filed under: electric youth Tagged: Parenting

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Shells said...

I worry about it too. Much of the article sounds so familiar, but I have also been in groups of women and girls who do not follow that ritualistic self loathing. I think playing competitive sports was my antidote to this dilemma, because we were good and had success. We recognized our strengths just as much as our weaknesses. And I think that really helped me develop a healthy self esteem.

Just Katy said...

I'm with Shells. I think playing competitive team sports offers an escape route into a decent meritocracy and that can have an incredibly positive effect.

I also think that one good friend can make ALL the difference. I had two or three very close, very smart friends that were a great buffer to all the rest of what was going on. My adolescence was no parent's dream for their daughter. It was pretty Ghost World. But I had a good enough time, survived, and to this day can't stand that self deprecating crap other women pull. It's pure BS and I won't be in the same room with it.

But overall, I really think a lot of "girl behavior" originates from nurture not nature so a parenting approach can make a big difference. I believe there IS a difference between boys and girls but the way that people treat girls compared to boys is huge. I saw a study recently that showed that from day one parents talk to their newborns differently - softer and more coos for the girls. And how many times do we compliment little girls on their looks compared to complimenting little boys on what they are doing? I catch myself doing it with nieces/ nephews and it really takes an effort to correct myself. I'm not saying it's evil or necessarily wrong, it just has consequences.

It does seem to take a concentrated effort of parenting if you want something different for your kid. And if you do make your kid different then are you just setting them up to get beat down like the article said? Eesh. What a nightmare. If I ever have a daughter my best idea so far is to read her Antigone for bedtime. Oh she's doomed...

Disco Mom said...

Lame! Not you guys - I just posted a super long comment on the article's site and I thought I was posting it here! But I shall not self-deprecate for it. I'm pasting it here below anyway after my regular comments.

I've believed for a lot of my adult life I definitely wanted my girls in team sports. I wasn't in them but I always wished I was - I think it's one of the healthiest ways, in so many ways, to get through those years.

To Katy's thing about looks, YES and I am appalled to admit it. Whenever I catch myself complimenting my girls on being cute or pretty I try really hard to add "smart" or "good problem solver" or something in the same breath and make it seamless. And when I think of it I try to list all their positive personality traits, with examples. A person can never ever hear too much of that from their parents.

I also think love of books/reading/learning, much like sports and faith, give a girl/person something else to care about besides what other girls are saying about her.

My other comment:
Disco Mom Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
February 4, 2010 at 9:13 am

Huh. I understand the worry; I have it too for my three daughters, especially as I already begin to see patterns of social motivation in their personalities. I didn’t read every single comment here but probably share CollegeBookworm’s point of view most.

The article was freaky. Seething cauldron of toxic self-loathing and all that? It’s not how I remember middle school. I’d call it a confusing time for sure, full of changes and questions and insecurity. But I don’t remember a lot of cruelty or bullying. Was I just ignorant? Or have things changed since then? Or did I just get lucky with my school, or my friends? Though I will admit to lifelong body issues – I wouldn’t even know how to trace them back to their sources.

I think a strong home life cannot be underestimated. Like CollegeBookworm said, be who you are (real-person awesome role models) and love who she is. Honestly, a quick mental review of my adolescent years highlights that I experienced more pain feeling unaccepted and unloved at home than from anything that happened at school or social settings. In fact, I sometimes felt admired and validated in those settings but couldn’t totally believe it because I wasn’t getting it from where it mattered most.

I don’t think it’s been mentioned here yet, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the role of strong personal faith. Good friends and leaders at church/school are a bonus, but even if they’re all weird or lame, which sometimes they are, having a personal relationship with God goes a long way in navigating tough social waters. Plus, just like a strong home life, it gives you something else that matters, and matters more, than just the social atmosphere at school. It can help to naturally put things in perspective.

jeans said...

I also agree with Shells and Katy, that there are some girl cultures which manage to shepherd girls better than others (sports, Girl Scouts, the arts, brainy academics) - and I'd emphasize that having a mom like Shells and a deeply enlightened dad like you and having a foundation of unconditional love and honest conversation - well, that's such a major head start in the war-with-toxic-culture that I think and hope your fears may never come to pass.

Carol Younce said...

You have strengths you have not yet begun to tap into. Don't let the hang-ups of others become your own. So why did they write the books in the first place? Money? Misery loves company? Self-fulfilling prophecy of self-deprecation? Warn the world? There are a lot of messed up women out there and they are not your problem nor your child. Your child is on the right track and when the problems come to your door you will find the answers you seek. You have what the messed up women never had: the power of the Holy Ghost to guide you, stewardship over a family which grants you the right to inspiration as to how to guide them, and Priesthood power to give a blessing when needed to strengthen against a threatening evil in your family. Look at your child's mother for what you need- a stronger, more positive woman I have never met. You have women in your family who, as Katy shows us, don't take that crap from anyone. Your daughter will learn to build her life well and you will know how to help her day by day. Your love for her is a powerful force which is missing in the lives of many other children growing up at the same time. Being aware of the dangers out there is a start, but don't let them become a monster. Instead of trying to fight against this problem, fight for something you can define in your family life. Yes, it is a long term fight, but you and she will emerge victorious.
Now go and cut something up with your new knife skills. I love you and think you are amazing.

Matthew said...

I have no insight, but I share these fears. Yikes! Look to me for comisseration whenever necessary and I'll let you know if I figure it all out.

Maren said...

Valid concerns are raised in your post. I've often thought that homeschooling through middle school is a great idea. I would look into it more except that I have gotten glowing reports from trusted sources about the forward-thinking style of our local MS in VT. Plus, for a large fee, there's a tiny, tiny (fewer than 15 kids?) accredited private middle school that's a good back-up.

The importance and consequences of self-confidence cannot be overstated. Yes, it's true that it can be a bully-magnet. I've been there and it's not nice. But it's most damaging to a girl whose confidence is only just enough to attract that kind of attention and not enough to ward it off as well.

Parenting, sports, brainy clubs, and girl scouts are all good kid-builders, but DiscoMom has the real key: a meaningful relationship with and faith in God can help a person weather all sorts of nastiness. Yes, it creates a bright confidence that makes a girl stand out. It also creates a bright shield for her to use.

That said, I marvel at the self-depreciating female culture in my in-law family, despite their strong religious faith. It's passed on subtly from generation to generation and appalls me. I don't take part in it, but have to tread lightly sometimes. So pointless and damaging!

Eric Cooper said...

Thanks for posting this, Youncey, and thanks to those who commented here, who had more useful things to say than those with the original article. I happen to be working on a lesson for the fifth and sixth grade girls at my school on this subject. The original articles made my head spin; the comments here tied things together.