The current North American political and social climate has increased the internal pressure I feel to raise my children, especially my daughters, strategically. Advancements in gender equality are visible but so is evidence that girls are still standing on the same uneven rocky ground of our generation. Furthermore it now seems that they may need to fight some of the battles their grandmothers took on.
We as women and men, mothers and fathers, are fired up to make change, wanting to ensure our girls a successful adult life, but keeping up with their quickly evolving world can feel a lot like teaching yourself to ride a bicycle downhill while holding the manual. We tell our daughters that they can be anything, but will they ever feel equal? How do they achieve greatness without breaking from the pressure?
I struggle with female sexuality in the media. Is it feminism or objectification? Is Nikki Minaj’s bouncing backside a symbol of liberation? Is she merely the current hip-shaking Elvis that I am just too stodgy to appreciate? The dress code issues also make me crazy. Telling girls what to wear sends a terrible message yet I am not ready to release anyone from this house wearing Daisy Dukes and a tube top.
Lucky for me, Girl Positive, a new book by Tatiana Fraser and Caia Hagel* recently arrived in the mail providing answers to my questions, revolutionary new ideas and permission to take a deep breath.
Combining their professional knowledge and research about girls living many realities, with their our own experiences of being mothers to both girls and boys, Fraser and Hagel have created a unique handbook for all of us trying to do the best for those we adore.
In the words of the authors, “We knew that the popular narratives we hear about girls don’t line up with girls’ lived realities and that this is harmful for girls, sells girls short and misinforms a public that is increasingly interested in girls. So we set out to re-frame this conversation. But our goal really is to re-frame the conversation about girls in a way that includes all girls, and includes them viscerally in their own voices - and that also understands the complexity and diversity of girls’ experiences, and shines light on change and ways forward from these perspectives. ... It is also an activist manual, to arm all girls, and to celebrate and support them as they realize their destinies and take up their pivotal roles at the most promising horizons of the twenty-first century.”
Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, a longtime supporter of girl empowerment, gives Girl Positive the following endorsement, “This is a call to action. Words matter. Actions speak louder. Lets get moving.”
To conduct research for Girl Positive, Fraser and Hagel travelled North America, listening to hundreds of girls share their realities. Additional information was obtained with academics, teachers and parents, who were consulted along the way, and with an online survey for girls who answered anonymously.
Each chapter includes the personal stories of real girls; well-organized information on the most current issues affecting young women, and ends with a priceless “Survival Kit” listing tips and resources for each topic.
I enjoyed every minute of my chat with the authors and they were kind enough to address some of my more persistent concerns. Warning, it got a bit ‘touchy’
Mom Interrupted: Social media is such a huge part of girl life. I love how the book discusses the pressure on girls to have an online and offline presence. I always worry about the impact social media could have on self-esteem and the potential for online bullying. However, there are parts of social media, like staying close with friends and family that I really like. I also loved the idea in Girl Positive that social media can be an excellent way to connect girls from around the world and for young women to actually create culture. My new daily question to ask at dinner, thanks to you, is ‘What did you see on the internet today?’ Can you think of any important messages regarding the safe use of social media other than my personal favourite, ‘Don't take pictures of your bits.’?
Authors: Girls can use privacy settings, have set time limits and boundaries around the kinds of things they share, and can be coached in the practice of forming safe online spaces with groups of like-minded people, which is often a lot more interesting. One way to do this is to focus with them as to why they are online. Is it to promote themselves? If yes, why? Is there a way to move the focus from the self to a hobby or passion? Like, ‘I exist online because I love rugby or comic books or art or coding and I want to connect with others like me who share that passion…’
Mom Interrupted: I was relieved to hear that girls are not having sex at an earlier age but bothered to read that sexual harassment is still commonplace. I must confess that when it comes to discussing sexuality with my kids, I feel like such a fraud. I could protest on a street corner for hours wearing a uterus-shaped sandwich board but mention masturbation and I feel the strong urge to run yelling, ‘You’ll go blind and grow hair on your palms!’
I really like the idea of being ‘Sex Positive’ and discussing the pleasurable aspects of sex to empower girls and actually help them to understand the true meaning of consent. I wish I wasn’t such a prude. My friend Jay offered to help by teaching me his drunken high school dance routine to I Touch Myself by The Divinyls?
Authors: It’s ok to feel awkward, and we encourage parents to face their fears. We don’t think it should be ‘a one time talk’ or ‘the sex talk’, because this frames it as if it’s like going to the dentist, which keeps these important conversations lurking under an aura of discomfort and shame. Even when they’re too young to totally understand, kids are curious and will ask questions about their bodies and about sex. We can follow their lead by responding to their curiosities and then drop in the info that we want them to know in a casual way that feels, and actually is, responsive and natural.
Mom Interrupted: If we wanted to see pornography in my day we had to steal a poorly hidden magazine or sneak to the library stacks for a glimpse of Judy Blume’s Forever. Now it seems that viewing pornography is almost normal for teens. And I foolishly didn't realize that video games included so much sexual violence too. It is likely impossible to hide these images from our teens. What messages can we give them about pornography?
Authors: Teens do watch pornography and take cues from it. Both boys and girls told us that they feel pressure to perform and even to change their bodies because of what they see and ‘learn’ from porn. So it's important to have a dialogue about it and ideally before they are watching it with their friends. It’s important to inform kids that pornography isn't real, that people make money doing it, that most porn revolves around male pleasure, and portrays unrealistic sex. We have a great ‘Porn Literacy 101’ section in our survival kit and we recommend that parents read it and try some of what we suggest.
Mom Interrupted: Mental health struggles and acts of self-harm, like cutting, are realities for many young women. More than ever girls feel pressured to be perfect in every way. At the same time we are told to encourage them to compete and work hard to achieve their dreams. How do we help our girls to become successful without causing damage?
Authors: We do more for our kids in just listening to them and asking what they think and feel - to help them find their smarts, their powers and their expertise in their own lives – than any manual or perfect answer could do, especially in a techy world where they are way ahead. What a relief that they need us to just ‘be’ a lot more and that we can learn a lot from them too!
We can also encourage girls to explore their self-expression and identity, avoid projecting perfectionism, and frame making mistakes as learning opportunities. We can support girls to practice self-care, to explore their passions, to listen to their instincts and wise voice, and to be autonomous and have agency in their choices and lives. It’s important that girls have role models that encourage them to imagine and dream about what’s possible for their futures.
Mom Interrupted: Society tells us that our kids are always watching us. I find this both creepy and stressful. I think parenting is also extra hard as we really only get one chance to get it right. How can we make ourselves better role models for our daughters?
Authors: We can be honest with our daughters and ourselves. Understand that the pressures we feel to perform ‘Supermom’ are connected to the pressures girls feel to perform ‘Supergirl’. If we practice self-care, and are more gentle and less critical of ourselves, we give our daughters permission to be human, to explore their own identities and to make mistakes and learn from them.
It’s also important to role model female friendship and support. Internalized sexism pits women in competition against other women; leading to judgment, criticism, and cattiness. When we reject these social norms and own our power and support other women’s power, we are taking small steps to change the world.
Although raising a daughter in 2017 is daunting, there are many things we can relax and feel good about. It seems as though parents aren’t required to have all of the answers and should feel comfortable just being who they are.
Mercifully, it also appears beneficial to take a break from lecturing to let our daughters teach us because “Girls are the experts in their own lives.”
Listening, mentoring, sports, talking, reading, laughing and dissecting media together are now proven ways to make change and give young women just what they need.
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About the Authors
Tatiana Fraser is a mother, writer, speaker, activist, social innovator and co-founder of Girls Action Foundation.
Caia Hagel is a mother, writer, speaker, co-founder/director of GuerillaPop Media and co-founder/editor-in-chief of SOFA magazine
Photo Credits: Reynard Li