Girl talk

Contradictory media messaging encourages girls to behave one way then simultaneously judges them for that same behavior. This article traces controversies that have resulted from American Apparel’s politics and subtle messages about female sexuality.

I came across some notes I took awhile back with a diverse group of female middle school students, when we came together for the first time as a “girls group.” As a teacher of adolescents, I find that at various points throughout the year it can be very positive to group students by gender. I’ve done this successfully in advisory groups, novels studies, and girls clubs and boys clubs that met during lunch once a week.

In this group of girls, we began with a share out of *what’s awesome*  and *what stinks sometimes* about being a girl. I recorded their responses, which I think are worth a look.

Awesome:

  • having long hair
  • shopping
  • talking about cute boys
  • getting to wear dresses
  • more fashion options than boys
  • we are less judged in some ways—we can do guy stuff without being judged
  • fun with makeup and nails
  • we mature faster than boys—a big benefit
  • we are more free to be artistic and into design without being judged
  • we are usually more responsible, so get more privileges

Stinks sometimes:

  • we worry too much about body image
  • we care lots about what boys think
  • we are more stereotyped by society
  • we are considered weak sometimes and don’t get all the privileges guys get
  • getting into cat fights (hair ripping) is horrible
  • bra shopping sucks
  • get embarrassed shopping for feminine products
  • child birth hurts
  • contradictions: we get judged for the same things we are encouraged to do
  • less free to be more secure in our bodies now that we’re getting older
  • abuse: older guys/men more often see us as targets
  • we have to be careful not to get raped more than boys do
  • getting our periods—it’s a taboo subject making it more uncomfortable

I wonder what a similar list created by boys about boys would look like, since I’ve never done that activity with boys. Adolescence—i.e., coming of age—comes with significant burdens and concerns for both genders. These days girls seem to be outperforming boys in school. And boys, especially of color, are at greater risk in society than girls as they come of age.

From what the girls are voicing though, it seems that there is still a very significant psychological weight that comes with being female in a male-dominated society, especially around issues pertaining to sexuality and body image. One of the most interesting observations the students made—and I did not prompt any of these responses with questioning—was the contradictions they noticed where girls are encouraged to behave one way and simultaneously are judged for that same behavior.

The media messaging around female sexuality these days—especially that which is directed at teens—seems to be aggravating this contradiction. The popular clothing line, American Apparel, which can boast quality, reasonably priced clothing made entirely in the United States, advertises with huge billboards across the city showing very young-looking, very slim women/girls wearing very little. This article traces the various controversies that have resulted from American Apparel’s politics. This blog posted by students at a college course at Minnesota Twin Cities discusses the not-so-subtle messages about female sexuality these ads send and the effects this could have on girls. The commentaries are pretty disturbing (and not always proofread) but I believe they provide pretty accurate analysis of the campaigns our girls are seeing as they walk to and from school.

Girls are living in a world where women can enter just about any profession they choose and where many high offices of the state are occupied by women. Yet to get there or to earn the respect of others and even themselves they have to wade through a mess of deceptive advertising and faulty messaging about what it means to be a woman. Maybe this is how everything is. There is almost always more than enough truth and lies to go around. But maybe, it really doesn’t need to be like that for kids and adults should be sorting through a little more of it for them so their list of what *stinks sometimes* might be shorter than their list of things that are *awesome* about being girls.

***

Ironically, I could not find an even remotely appropriate image to use in this post, as I always do—neither on Google or Flickr. Searching anything with the word “girl” in it got me a host of lewd images. I ended up using wordle.net to create the above image from the text of this post. Interestingly, the word “boys” came up as big (which means as frequently in the text) as the word “girls” did.

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