“She looks like Malibu Barbie and sounds equally as dumb. Like she is the role model I want for my girls.”
I sat and listened to two women talk at a long, crowded Starbucks table as their young daughters played on an iPad. I tried to focus on my laptop screen, but considering our elbows were practically touching, it was difficult.
“She’s just wretched. And definitely not smart. A total media whore. I’m not sure how she got to where she is today, but I have a feeling it wasn’t always her brains. He probably just hired her because he thought she was pretty.”
I cringed and looked over to the young girls, one intently viewing the screen, the other quietly focused on the two women talking. I knew the discussion centered around Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, a woman I didn’t particularly care for either, but I felt increasingly uncomfortable with just how much centered on the successful woman’s hair color as opposed to her policy viewpoints.
I am a frequent visitor to coffee shops around my town. Most of my work is done alone in front of a computer screen, so I like to get out of the house sometimes and work remotely. If a latte comes with that, so be it.
My satellite office visits are often spent side by side with others working silently on their computers, but sometimes you just can’t help honing in on other’s conversations.
Like the time when two women with their children playing nicely at their feet called Hillary Clinton a hag and that they hoped she used her free time and all her money from speaking engagements to get a face lift.
Or the time a group of young women waiting in line to order their drinks discussed a female co-worker in their office who they were convinced was sleeping her way to the top. I was in line behind them, and two young teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms and knee socks stood directly in front of them.
Or the time a few years back when I sat at a round table with some girlfriends, and there was a lengthy, uncomfortable discussion about a mom at our school who decided to get a boob job, although it did not turn out well.
“I think she did it because that’s all she has. She’s not very smart, so she has to keep the looks up. And I don’t think she wants to go back to work, so it probably makes her husband happy.”
“Ixnay on the oobnay talk,” I remarked as our kids came downstairs to grab some snacks.
“Whatever,” our host replied. “It’s not like she doesn’t deserve it prancing around the way she does.”
The notion that women are caddy and petty to each other is nothing new, but I believe it has moved up a notch the last few months. In the past decade, women have advanced economically and educationally, seen improvements in sexual freedoms and access to health care, experienced political triumphs and increased business success; yet we still criticize individuals looks with such animosity.
And we do so in front of our girls.
We can blame the media for the disproportionate body commodification that occurs.
We can blame men who often respond to attractive women differently than those not fitting the beauty standard.
We can blame it on marketers who focus on appearances or a judicial system that favors males or a history when women were trophies and properties of men.
But really, we only have ourselves to blame. Because we talk about women in this way in front of our girls.
This does not mean that I think appearances are not important. If it interests us, we should care about fitness, beauty, and sexual appeal. These can enhance our being and life in general.
However, when a woman focuses on her appearance, we should not immediately discount her intelligence, her value, her worth. For women that do not care as much about fashion or glamor, we should not assume they are cold, unhappy or mean.
And we should never associate their appearance with the ability to get a job, be successful, or be taken seriously.
We live in a culture where appearances are important. This mere fact pits woman against woman. Most times, a good looking female is the poster child for a better life. Anything she receives –a promotion at work, securing a loan, an invitation to an exclusive event – is all done under suspicion it was because of her looks.
But in today’s world, we know that beauty does not always equate to happiness. There are gorgeous women stuck in abusive relationships, constant victims of sexual harassment or passed over because they are not taken seriously.
These are the real problems; these are the crimes against women – all women. We are still pioneers in a perceived world of gender equality. We are fighting for scraps left over by those already in power: sometimes in our jobs, sometimes in social settings, and sometimes even in our marriages.
Until we realize that our looks are an expression of ourselves instead of an indicator of our intelligence or abilities, we will continue to cannibalize ourselves, continue to hinder our success.
I like to imagine a future for my three daughters where there are so many women in power that we treat each other better and feel less threatened by their success. A world where we help each other more and talk about each other less. A world where we no longer question why a woman advanced to a certain position and instead celebrate that another sister achieved greatness.
But it starts here and now, with us. Because when women talk about women in front of our girls, the cycle continues.
And if we can’t lift each other up, perhaps we can disparage each other a little less.
“Oh, Mom. Seriously?” my daughter remarks. “Way more information than I needed to know.”
I hope she doesn’t see the blush creeping up my cheeks.
“Well, you should know about this stuff. All of it,” I reply. I was in the middle of a play-by-play of what it was like to have your period, and I wasn’t sparing details.
“Mom, can’t I just read the book. And they told us most of this at school,” she begged.
“Nope. We need to be able to discuss this kind of thing and so much more. Wait until we start talking about S.E.X.”
And that was when my daughter’s head exploded.
Well, not really. But I think she was hoping it would.
This may not seem too big of a deal for you. If you have openly been talking about penises and vaginas since your child’s first bath, then I salute you.
For me, talking about this sort of stuff is painful. It makes me want to stick pins in my eyes. I feel like I may die of embarrassment.
But I do it anyway. Because I know it may make the difference in my daughters’ lives.
You see, I had an awesome relationship with my mom growing up. We often went shopping or to lunch. We ate dinner together as a family regularly. We were pals.
Except when I first menstruated I didn’t tell her because I was embarrassed. We didn’t talk about that much and I thank Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret for giving me the skinny on periods.
I didn’t talk to her when most of my friends started having sex with their boyfriends, and I started pushing boundaries myself. I would be ashamed if she knew I was even considering having sex.
And I literally almost cried with relief when at 17 my doctor said, “Your blood test shows you are anemic, so I’m going to put you on a birth control pill to help regulate you a bit.”
My mom shook her head up and down while she sat beside me while I thanked God that I did not have to talk to her about the possibility I wanted contraception.
I was lucky. My mom was strict and by good fortune I did not put myself in too many precarious situations. I often wonder what would have happened if I had a more serious boyfriend in high school. Would I be brave enough to ensure I used protection every time? Would I have walked into a Planned Parenthood to obtain birth control?
I am not sure of the answer, but I know both are more likely than me going to talk to my parents about it. Anything but that.
It’s not that my mom told me never to bring difficult topics up. It’s quite the opposite in fact. She always said I could come talk to her about anything. But between her not bringing it up and me feeling abashed, it was easier to avoid it.
I don’t think it’s my mom’s fault. She is from a different era, and married at 18. She did not grow up in the same world that I did, and certainly not the ones of my kids where every media outlet is sexually charged.
But now with three daughters of my own, I know I must have these conversations — these painful, excruciatingly embarrassing conversations — with my girls, because their futures may depend upon it.
So, I continued to educate my daughter on tampons and cramps and what happens when you take a shower and you have your period. We talked about the menstruation process from beginning to end…well, at least everything I knew about it.
And she even asked me a shy question or two. I looked her in the eyes. I didn’t mince words. I was direct.
When I felt like there was nothing left to go over, my almost 11-year old daughter walked into the room. “Whatcha guys talking about?”
I waited for her older sister to shout: “Run for your life! Mom is talking about disgusting stuff.”
But instead, she casually stated, “You know, just about getting your period and stuff.”
I sat in shock. The girl who turned crimson when I even said the word menstruation took it all in stride.
“I’m outta here,” my youngest said, grabbing an apple and turning on her heel.
“Wait,” I called out. “Listen. I don’t love talking about this stuff either, but the more we talk about it, the less embarrassing it gets. And we need to be able to talk about it. I don’t ever want you not coming to me because you are embarrassed. About anything.”
I had their attention.
“So, we’re going to keep having these conversations. More and more. Because I want you to know you can come to me about anything. Even when you’re embarrassed. Especially when you’re embarrassed. And if we all talk about it, sometimes you can even go to each other if you’re not ready to come to me.”
I looked deeply into their eyes, looking for affirmation, a connection not their before.
“Yeah, mom. You can talk to us about periods and sex, and Dad can talk to us about soccer and farts. We’ll totally be covered.”
They turned and hurried up the stairs before I could even think of a response.
But I felt like I won. My prude, Pollyanna self got through an embarrassing conversation and I didn’t die.
I’ll take that as a win.
The small-framed tween girl slides to a stop in her sock-clad feet directly in front of me.
“Ta-da,” she sings, using jazz hands as her chocolate eyes dance with excitement.
“You can’t wear that to school,” I respond too quickly.
“Why not? I think I look awesome.”
“It doesn’t look right,” I declare. The words spew out of my mouth like bullets, and I instantly want to siphon them back in as I watch my daughter flinch. “I mean, you are not supposed to wear it that way.”
A six foot, purple, zebra-print scarf wrapped loosely around her tiny head. Rather than looking like a headband, it looked more like a mis-wrapped bandage for a head wound.
I stared at the beautiful creature in front of me who was valiantly holding back the tears building in her eyes.
I wanted to shout, “Wait, I was wrong! It looks beautiful! You are beautiful!” But the truth was, she looked ridiculous.
It was not our first fashion standoff. Gone are the days where I select her daily wardrobe — the adorable dress with matching hair bow and color coordinated socks or a trendy, leopard print sweatsuit with an accompanying hat. I try with moderate success to sideline my control issues and continuously tell myself that I am fostering her independence, her creativity, by allowing her to wear what she wants. I did not say a word the time she went to school wearing more beads than Madonna in the eighties. I kept my mouth shut when her outfit comprised of leopard print on the bottom and stripes on the top. I even smiled brightly when she attempted a make-shift bump-it hairstyle she saw on Youtube.
I will not be the one to diminish her self-esteem, her self-worth, by commenting negatively about her appearance.
But I just did. Or did I?
Raising confident, courageous daughters is hard. Women face an onslaught of images every day telling us we are inadequate, and Photoshop changes our perception of “normal.” It is easy to feel our teeth are not white enough, our boobs are too small, our waist is too big, and our makeup is wrong.
Given enough power, these messages can break our spirits and increase the desire to conform, instead of love the things that make us different.
As the parent of three girls, I watch my words carefully and meticulously focus on the positive; I know the words I say aloud become the voices they hear in their heads later on in life. I go over-the-top with compliments and and shun others when they mention anything negative about weight, appearance or intellect.
But in this moment with her, I ask myself if I confused promoting self-esteem and self-worth with only saying what I think my girls want to hear?
It is a tight-rope I walk with my daughters. I want them to feel empowered, beautiful and accepted as they are, but I know that self-confidence is more than receiving compliments. Learning to accept and manage criticism, whether constructive or malicious, is an important life skill, yet I feel crushed between the desire for honesty and the motherly instinct to protect them from pain, whether from me or someone else.
I strive to find balance, promoting positivity in all aspects of their lives without creating gigantic egos. Can I be their biggest cheerleader and lead critic at the same time?
The defiant statement, “Well, I like it,” zips out of her mouth and I sense she is struggling to hold back a foot stomp. I know my next words are important, so I choose them carefully.
“Listen, sweetheart,” I begin. “There is a secret code women have called the girlfriend rule. You only use it in extreme circumstances. It states that when your girlfriend is wearing something so bad that she may embarrass herself, you tell her. You tell her because you love her, not because you want to hurt her. That scarf, well, this is one of those times.”
“But, I really thought it looked good,” she muttered, casting her eyes downward.
“I know you did,” I reply softly, pulling her close to my side. “But I think it would look even better over your shirt. Do you want me to show you how to tie it? And how about I get that new headband from Christmas. Do you think that would complete your look?”
“Yeah, I know where it is,” she squirms out of my grasp and heads back to her room.
When she returns a few minutes later, she is smiling in a sea of shades of purple that would make Prince proud. It’s not what I would have selected, but it suits her perfectly, and her confidence is exuding out of her pint-sized body like an exploding star.
“I changed my hair, and I think I like this look even more,” she casually states while moving her braid in order to place her backpack over her narrow frame.
“I love it,” I emphatically state, catching her eyes before she heads through the door.
I reach for my keys as I follow her, heaving a sigh of relief knowing I won this battle of self-esteem. If only the war wasn’t so damn long.
This post originally appeared on Mamalode.
My senior year of high school, I sat in a hot tub drinking Bud Lights with two boys from my class. The conversation took an unexpected turn when the gentlemen discovered they shared a notch in their belt buckles. Both young men had slept with a girl in our class, who also was a friend of mine.
It was innocent at first. I felt awkward listening to them talk about this girl, hearing the intimate details of their escapades; yet I didn’t speak up. I rolled my eyes and softly protested, but I let them get it out of their system, figuring eventually we’d move on to something else. As the beer continued to go down, the tone of the conversation turned sour.
“I wonder if we got her drunk if she’d do it again? Ha! Maybe both of us in the same night?”
“Yeah, she totally can’t hold her alcohol. She’s not like you,” my friend nodded his head in my direction. “Give her a couple of wine coolers and she’s gone.”
“I’ll have to remember that. I think she wants me. Maybe we should try to see what she’s doing tonight….Hey, where you going,” a deep voice said to me.
Without even thinking, I rose up out of the hot tub and grabbed a towel. “I have to pee,” I called over my shoulder, than grabbed my flip flops and walked the mile to my house and took a shower.
Later that night, one of the boys called me to make sure I was okay. I told him the truth. “Sorry, I felt sick all of a sudden and didn’t want to hurl in front of you.”
“Oh, bummer. No kissing for you this weekend,” he replied and then hung up the phone.
They were just words, but they had a physical effect on me. I felt upset by what they said about this young girl, fearful for what could happen to her. She was the prey, and I just sat in a jacuzzi with the predators.
I hoped the conversation was for shock value only, but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy around them from that point forward. The conversation changed me.
A few years later, I danced at a night club at 3 a.m with my sorority sisters. A large hand grabbed my scantily clad bottom and I felt hot breath in my ears. “Nice ass.” he shouted.
I whipped around to come face to chest with a man-child who weighed at least 250 pounds. “I’m a football player,” he stated matter of factly.
“I don’t really care,” I countered. “Don’t touch me.”
“No need to be a bitch about it,” He said calmly, putting his hand around my arm. “But if I really wanted to touch you though, I would.”
His eyes blazed into mine, and I stood there frozen, looking up at him.
“Let go of her,” I heard a girlfriend say, pulling me back towards our group.
It was just an exchange of words on a dance floor, but I felt fear and uneasy. I didn’t sleep well that night, and became more aware of men who had too much to drink, and men drunk on power.
A few years after that, I picked up two executives at the San Francisco airport to assist with their company’s product launch at a trade show. The men sat in the back of the town car, while I rode up front with the driver, making calls to confirm appointments.
“Did you see the tits on that stewardess? What a piece of ass!” I heard from the back seat.
“Seriously. I think she wanted me. She didn’t charge me for my wine. Damn, I should have tried for her number while we were in town.”
The banter went on, making me increasingly uncomfortable, but since I worked for them, I kept my mouth shut. Later, as we sat at the hotel bar before a reception, the lewd comments continued.
“How much do you charge to be our wingman?” one asked. “Like maybe you can get one of your PR friends over here. One of the good looking ones.”
“Yeah, maybe we can double date,” he joking replied.
“Um, I don’t think that’s in our contract,” I laughed uncomfortably. I kept telling myself it was just jokes, but the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up straight. It felt like more than just words.
A few months ago, my daughter and I rode our bikes to get frozen yogurt. Her brain is eleven, but her lanky limbs and lithe body look much older. A group of young boys driving in what must have been their father’s convertible BMW yelled out some catcalls while flying by us.
“Marry me!” the young men shouted.
“Mom, what are they doing? Why did they say that when they don’t even know us?” my daughter asked me.
“Sometimes I think men believe their words don’t matter. They think women like to hear those things, even though they make us uncomfortable.”
“It made me feel weird,” she remarked.
“I know,” I reply. “They’re just words, though. They can’t hurt you.”
But they’re not just words. Not even close.
They are threats and barbs and put downs and intimidation tactics and insults. They made me feel frightened and nervous and panicky and anxious and uneasy.
Should I be tougher? Should I ensure my daughter is tough enough to handle these itty bitty little words?
Words are a double-edged sword. We want them to be meaningful when shared intimately or spoken from a podium. We want them to inspire and motivate and convey how we feel; however, when words are said as a “joke” or off the cuff, we diminish their power. When they are said privately, we want them rendered unimportant.
But if these little utterances — said behind women’s backs in locker rooms, to our faces at parties, yelled out the windows from automobiles, whispered in elevators, stated in boardrooms — if these words don’t matter, why are they still being said?
Edgar Allen Poe said, “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
The horrors these words spark for most women include rape, sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, among others. I know they did for me.
I believe some men think their words don’t matter because these males aren’t talking about people; they are talking about women as objects, things on display or available for their use and pleasure.
It has become customary and normal, and passed down from generation to generation. My daughter already experienced the power of men’s words, and the deep emotions they can illicit.
Is it her fault for feeling “weird” because young men were yelling words at her? Is it my fault for feeling fear when men use these words — the same ones they use behind closed doors —in common conversations?
They say words are just words until we give them the power to affect us, yet women are expected to be aware of all the potential dangers in the world and handle ourselves accordingly. How can we not let them impact us? How can we not hear these words and anticipate risks, as signals to peril?
To the men who say they’re just words — you may be right.
But it’s the user, the intention and the context of those words in which I’ll judge you.
Words reveal who we are and what we believe. The ones we use collectively are a reflection of where we stand as a society and what we find acceptable.
There is a reason why we say we give someone our “word” when we make a promise. It’s an assurance of who we are as an individual.
I hear you, men who say they’re just words. And I’ll believe you when you say them.
I was in eighth grade when I overheard a group of boys discussing their female classmates in the library. I sat frozen in a cubby desk hidden from their view. I attempted to finish a make-up vocabulary test, but my focus disappeared as I listened to their words.
“The new girl is cute, but a little chubby. Sometimes she is pretty, but other days, I don’t know.”
I felt the young man’s words cut through my skin and consume my thoughts. I looked down at my thighs and noticed their roundness. I put my hand on my stomach, soft to the touch. My other hand embraced a lock of my hair, reminding me again that it was a mistake to try a new haircut.
I was the new girl, and apparently ugly and fat.
I don’t remember much of my eighth-grade year, yet I’ve kept those words with me. I hear them when I look into the mirror and don’t like what I see. I think about them when my skinny jeans don’t zip up or when my hair is a mess. Every time my face breaks out or I slip my legs into a bathing suit, I am in eighth grade again.
Those words shouldn’t define me, shouldn’t have the effect they had. I grew up in a house with parents who showered me with love and positive affection about my looks and abilities. I married a man who is devoted and loving. I have friends who encourage and support. I am successful and happy with the person I became, the one I am still becoming.
Yet, those words often come back to haunt me. These are the words I keep in the desk drawer of my mind, the ones that startle me when they reappear. The ones I often shove into the back but can never throw out.
And now that I have girls of my own approaching eighth grade, I wonder what words will they choose to keep, what innocuous statements will stain their souls?
Although I like to think I can relate to my daughters, the world they live in is much different than the one I knew.
The pressure on young people today is tremendous. From looks and grades to social media presence and athletics, the burden to be the best weighs heavy on our most impressionable minds. This also creates a culture of envy and unconfident youth who do not know how to step away from the stories they create in their minds of their peers’ perfect lives. Individuality is admonished and childhood ends sooner.
The result is a generation of teenage girls searching for ways to cope. Eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, self-harming, body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide are just some of the ways young girls deal with these external pressures.
So, I wonder, when my daughter looks in the mirror, will she hear my voice saying she is beautiful on the inside and out, or will she choose to purge her last meal? When a young girl ostracizes her on social media, will her father’s words ring in her ears, reminding her of her strength, or will she choose to cut her skin to deal with the pain? When a boy pressures her to move forward too quickly, will she remember her worth or succumb to peer pressure?
What words will she choose to keep?
Words are powerful. They can motivate groups and cripple young minds.
But words can be vague and open to misinterpretation. Eighth grade me didn’t realize this. Forty-something me wants to change it for my girls.
No longer do I compliment my daughters with generalities. I want them to possess mantras — words to live by and provide comfort in times of stress and confusion.
When we feel bad about our appearance, we say, ““I am enough, exactly as I am at this moment. Remember who you are.”
When someone treats us poorly, we say, “What others say is a reflection of them, not me.”
When we are troubled and don’t know what to do, we say, “Kindness is the best form of communication. Love always wins.”
And when the world brings us down, we say, “It will be okay, because I am loved.”
I am not naive enough to think that simple phrases will protect my girls from the evils of the world, but saying these mantras with them, believing these words, and trying to live it, is a powerful exercise.
It’s the way I start shredding the notes from my past and writing new ones for my daughters.
And living through eighth grade once is enough for anyone.