THE BURDEN OF SHAME FOR TEEN GIRLS
I recently started to watch the Britney Spears documentary — ‘Framing Britney Spears’ — which provides an account of her early career and life as a young person navigating fame. I felt a deep sense of shock and sadness for what she endured in the early part of her career. The predatory behaviour of older adult males around her made me squirm. She was so often blamed and shamed for what she wore, who she dated or broke up with, even her mothering had the scrutiny of the media and the general public.
At the same time as I was watching this doco, my mind kept thinking about the current environment young women are being brought up in. I couldn’t help wondering if anything has changed at all in the last 20 years.
A few months ago I was interviewed by talk back radio for my opinion on the debarcle that had a young woman sent home to change her clothes because her clothing “put male teachers in a vulnerable position”. The internalised mysogyny within that statement had me despairing that we have not changed our position, nor influenced patriarchal expectations in all these decades of feminism. However, what caused me to stop nashing my teeth and pulling hair out in frustration were the comments made by the student at the centre of this storm, and her friends.
These young, articulate women spoke out about the “ingrained mysogyny” and challenged not only the school’s rules around dress codes for women but society’s focus on how girls and women dress. The young woman at the centre of this furore, Lauren Hardie (17) along with some of her fellow students clearly articulated what was problematic with how girls are chastised for what they choose to put on her body. They also beautifully articlated what they and other young women will likely encounter in different forms, their whole lives, remarking that “…for the rest of their lives what they [young women] are wearing is going to control how they are viewed in society, especially by people of authority.”
I am a mother of two biological girls, a daughter-in-law who is like my own daughter, and a small handful of girls I was lucky enough to have stay with us when my girls were teens. I would see so many of them with the scars of old wounds where they cut themselves, no doubt berating themselves for not being perfect enough. The internalised burden of shame and low self-worth were illuminated in the deep wounds that many of the wore on their bodies. It is this shame that I saw being forced on a young Britney Spears while she was marketed in a highly sexualised way, then shamed for it.
My research and my current work is with teen girls, working with them in schools, shining a spotlight on shame and self-esteem, encouraging girls to push back at these mediated images of perfection they are expected to present to the world. During our time with them we ask them to use their voice and agency to challenge those expectations and further, to work as a group (we call it a ‘sisterhood’) to support and have each other’s back. The example of this was the way other students stood with the young woman at the centre of the aforementioned high school’s ‘tanktop-gate’.
In my mind, having this conversation is important, so I send a congratulations to the Principal of the girls’ school who applauded the Year 13 girls for speaking up and challenging the order to go home and change clothes. She was willing to have a moment of mea culpa, having been schooled (mind the pun) by these intelligent, courageous girls that how we dress, how we talk, how we think, is not something that has to be moderated, especially not by adults in authority. I only wish Britney had the same group of young women (or parental figures) that could have helped her to navigate those pervasive taunts that, in my opinion, deeply affected her mental state. As author Jessica Valenti expressed in her book ‘The Purity Myth’, “…a woman’s worth lives in her ability — or her refusal — to be sexual…The sexual double standard is alive and well, and it’s irrecovably damaging young women.”
I am often asked, as I was during my interview, how parents can navigate that difficult conversation when a teen girl (note this is only applicable to girls) wants to leave the house wearing that pair of short shorts or seethrough top. My thinking is this — check your own reasons for wanting them to change. As parents we are, of course, highly motivated to protect our kids, especially our girls, from life’s dangers in general and, if we are honest, from the dangers of preditory men. I get that. However, it is not a burden we want our girls to carry on through their lives. Let them explore and experiment with what they are wearing, and have a conversation about being mindful that its their body and their choice what they do with it and put on it. It is not their burden to carry nor their responsibility to dress in a way that won’t attract the male gaze. Teach them to make choices based on their intuition to keep them from danger and most importantly teach them that, no matter what, their worth isn’t wrapped up in what they wear.
Vicky Pond Dunlop is the Director of Enlighten Education NZ, is a transformative coach and an advocate for teen girls.