Girl Power, Self Image, and “Oh My God, Still?”

Last night, Little Bit (my six year-old daughter, who as some of you have pointed out is not so little anymore) snuggled up next to me on the couch. She said, “I’m gonna sing.”

I expected Kelly Clarkson tunes, or maybe Katy Perry. Instead, she burst out in a self-composed ditty:

Girls can do anything they want to do! 

Girls can be strong!

Girls can do anything they want to do!

Girls can run fast!

Girls can do anything they want to do!

Girls can shoot baskets!

Evidently, girls can also write songs that get their parents’ attention.

Jon and I immediately asked what had brought on this song. Little Bit said that she had been playing some “jock challenge” yesterday during recess.

“Mom, even though I did really well in all the competitions but jumping high, they said I was last because I was a girl. They said boys could be strong and girls couldn’t.”

Geez, guys, you keep saying this crap?

Girls and Self-Worth

While Little Bit’s story made me mad, it didn’t surprise me much. I’d grown up a tomboy and had heard much the same thing from the boys in the neighborhood. But despite everything, I’d hoped that years of seeing women in the workplace and in athletics would make the messages my daughter got from her peers a little less blatant.

After all, her male peers were all being raised by strong modern women who’d grown up under Title IX, right? They should know that girls can be successful in sports, academia, work or wherever they put their time and attention.

On the other hand, in January, a study was released finding that by AGE 6 girls start to lose confidence in their abilities, while boys don’t. While the study focused on the children’s beliefs in their intelligence, it’s all too believable that girls’ lack of self-confidence and the lack of confidence in girls’ abilities stretched into other areas as well.

My kid is six, and already the world is trying to put her and her friends in boxes. Girl. Nice, sweet, hard-working, well-behaved (I can hope!). Boy: brave, strong, confident.

And that difference in confidence slides into adulthood and into earning potential.  Women, far more than men, apply for jobs only when they meet 100% of the requirements.  Women are less likely to negotiate higher salaries during the hiring process, leaving them at lower starting levels that follow them as they move on in their careers. And women get 15% fewer promotions during their career, in part because they don’t aim as high.


Girl Power, Self Image, and "Oh my God, Still?"

Instilling a Little Girl Power

So what’s a parent to do when a little girl starts championing her own self-worth in response to others eroding it?

Jon, being the good dad he is, immediately said, “There are a lot of girls a lot stronger than I am.”

I, being more direct, said “Girls CAN do anything they want to do and work hard for.”

But I wonder if we did enough. After all, I’m still telling her it’s not her natural ability, but her effort, that makes the difference. She has to have both to succeed, but she needs confidence in those natural abilities that seemed so obvious in the boys and had to be proven in her case.

So we’ll work on the Girl Power messages. Little Bit got new t-shirts this weekend. She chose several with empowering messages: Never Underestimate the Power of a Girl, Grl Pwr, and Challenge Accepted. She watches cartoons with strong (if skimpily dressed) girls, like Monster High and MLP: Equestria Girls. We both idolize Hermione Granger from Harry Potter (and Emma Watson, too!)

Some day, I hope we’ll enjoy Buffy together.

But in the meantime, I worry about the messages she gets from pop culture, her peers, and even unthinking adults who act on gender biases. Will she lose her confidence in her abilities?

Keep singing, kiddo.

How would you counteract these messages and promote your daughter’s self-confidence and self-worth? Because, guys and gals, it’s a long haul, and I need all the advice I can get. 

21 thoughts on “Girl Power, Self Image, and “Oh My God, Still?”

  1. I’ve been reading the book, “With Winning in Mind”. One of the author’s (a Rifle Olympian) points is your self-image and performance are the same. If you believe you can do it, you will be able to do it. If you have negative self talk, it will be difficult to achieve your goals.

    When I’m with my sisters (ages 11,13,15, and 23), I try to stay positive and build them up. That’s all I can do 🙂
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    • Glad you’re trying to get your sisters oriented positively. You may do a much better job of reassuring them of their worth since you are more of a peer than a parent.

  2. Great that your daughter has that confidence and belief in herself, but awful that this kind of sexism is still rampant, even among kids. I feel like there had been a great deal of progress in evolving towards a culture of gender equality, but it stalled out. It does seem that the election has kicked feminism back into high gear, though. In highlighting the fact that sexism is still a major issue in America, maybe we’ve gotten enough people stirred up and active that we can fix this for the next generation.
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    • I think I’ve become a lot more feminist and aware of feminism in the last couple of months, Matt. I would never have characterized myself as feminist in my 30s (though I would have said, sure, equal pay for equal work and similar.) But between campaign rhetoric, raising a daughter, and the increasing amount of feminist posts on my Facebook feed, I’m a lot more blatantly proudly feminist.

      Some of my concern is not just for my daughter, though. How damaging could it be for boys to get the message that they have to be stronger than girls and they happen not to be? These stereotypes are damaging for both sides of the gender equation.

  3. Moms of girls have their work cut out for them. Things have not progressed quite as much as we’d have hoped. When I was your daughter’s age I had a shirt that said “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” Not even sure how kitschy it was at the time, but the fact that little girls still need that shirt is disappointing. The only answer is parents who instill those important ideas, as you are. From the start.
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    • It’s important for parents to instill the “girls can” message, whether they have boys or girls. Most of the “Girls can’t do that” messages that we know about are coming from Little Bit’s male peers (and I know at least one has sisters, yikes!) And some are coming from other girls (double yikes!) We try to reassure, and for now Little Bit seems more outraged at (or at least rebelling against) the “girls can’t” message than undermined by it.

  4. I agree, instilling confidence in daughters is still tough but you’ve also got to be honest with them. You can’t pretend the average girl will be as muscular as the average guy, physiology exists. But who cares, this is a modern world and almost nobody succeeds in life due to physical prowess. It’s the mental arena that matters. I was small and slow as a boy, so I focused on academics, tennis and distance running and I was pretty good at those because size and muscle mass didn’t matter as much as putting in the hours and the miles. My wife runs off and leaves me every time we take a morning run, she’s just faster, and that’s great. Instilling confidence means finding gifts and building on those. Trying to build on weak points by improving them is a marginal strategy at best. I tried to stress academics to my two daughters because, like me, they weren’t gifted athletically. And they have four useful degrees between them. No student loan debt and great jobs. Are they as confident in life as their brother? Probably not, so I guess I don’t really have an answer for that.

    • Sounds like you did a good job with your girls, Steve, and probably your son as well.

      LOL, I admit I’m not sure that Little Bit did as well as she says in the Jock Challenge…she’s not the most athletic kid as far as speed and agility go, though she’s pretty strong for her size. She’s much better at storytelling and academics, and I hope she’ll play to her strengths as well. (although she’s young enough that I don’t want her too focused yet. )

  5. I have two daughters and I encourage them on a daily basis. As a parent, I BELIEVE in them, the same thing my dad did – he believed that I would do well. It meant volumes to me.

    I often tell my kiddos that I believe in them and expect great things from them.

    Secondly, if my daughter comes back and tells me something like that, I would respond like this – “That is just a bunch of nonsense. Do you believe that crap?”

    As parents, our bonding with our kiddos are strong. As long as our bonds are thick, our kiddos have more ears and faith to believe what we say than what the world has to say.
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  6. Boys do less well in school than girls. Boys also have more behavorial problems, have higher rates of suicide and incarceration, and graduate from college less often. Perhaps confidence isn`t all that great. Or perhaps what researchers are labeling confidence is really maturity and girls have a better grasp of reality.

    • There’s that, too. School, especially elementary school, is really not designed for active children, and boys tend to be more physical. A lot of academic success is behavioral, though, and doesn’t necessarily translate well into the work world.

  7. “No, I didn’t win. Winning is for losers. I crushed, I obliterated, I annihilated it.” – Erin Reagan from Blue Bloods.

    I have no idea how I’m going to do it with the next generation, but that quote seems apt for this post. That’s how I am generally about my abilities where I’m confident in them. It doesn’t cover those abilities where I could use work or don’t excel, for that, my attitude is: I have more to learn, if I want to. It’s not that I never suffered from minor confidence shake-ups, but I have a hard time remembering any that truly upset my foundation. So I can comment on how my parents did it, at least, if that’s any help.

    I grew up in a relatively feminist household insofar as my culture is concerned where the norm STILL is that boys are worth more, and daughters are a horrible surprise after pregnancy. No joke, kids younger than me growing up in similar culture-backgrounds would come to me saying that their parents said they weren’t worth taking any effort for because they were girls, essentially that they’re worthless unless they make up for that MASSIVE deficit that comes with being born female instead of male.

    The foundation rests on the stories that Dad told about Mom as a young woman. About how Mom was unabashedly tough, intolerant of sexist BS, utterly belligerent in the face of sexual harassment, and she made the bullies pay. It was considered, for that time and place, unbelievable that she was willing to have the reputation for not suffering fools gladly, because that meant she was difficult, she was undesirable, etc.

    What stood out to me was that it never bothered her. It was very clear that they knew she was right, and she wasn’t about to just accept the horrible treatment doled out to young girls and women. Dad’s retelling the stories, with admiration, humor, and love meant that I saw these acts of rebellion as good, normal, and to be emulated. When it was my turn to be bullied, or when I got into hobbies that were predominantly male, I didn’t have a minute of doubt about how to defend myself or that I was eminently worthy of being defended. That extended, then, to the taunts of “girls are weaker than boys” because to be honest, those evaporated like dewdrops under the desert sun when they pushed me, and I pushed back harder. Verbally and physically. At no point did I doubt that if they started it, I could finish it, and my parents would back me up.

    Like Little Bit, I was always more outraged by the suggestion that being a girl was in any way a detriment than I was undermined by it. Don’t ever try me with that “[verb] like a girl” nonsense. I’m an adult now so I won’t punch you but it’ll still feel like a ton of bricks fell on your head.

    I won’t denigrate boys and paint them all with the same brush, so it’s far past time that society did us the courtesy of not doing that to our girls. Because let’s be honest, the patriarchy that does that to our girls is also hamstringing our boys. The next generation deserves to be better than we were, to grow up a little less stereotyped.
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    • Beautiful comment. I love the stories about your Mom, and the fact that your Dad told them with such pride.

      And yeah, the problems seem just as bad for the boys as the girls. The “boy” image can be hard to live up to, and not every boy will fit the mold. However, society is much kinder to girls who try to break out of gender stereotypes than boys who try.

  8. I was watching a short video a couple of days ago, there was this mom and her daughter (I’d assumed she was about 9 or 10 or so) who decided to do this experiment with their children’s books.

    I don’t remember the very precise details, but basically they took out of their library shelves all books with no female characters, then all books with female characters who don’t have a voice in the story, then those with female characters that don’t pursue any ambitious goals.

    The result was their library was left almost empty, because it turns our most children’s books are about how brave male characters are and how helpless female characters are portrayed.

    However, I think by offering little girls the right education and help them adopt the right mindset early on, they’ll learn to know exactly what they can or cannot do. Messages from peers, media and the likes will just be background noise 🙂
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    • My daughter just started watching Annedroids on Prime, and she said she really liked the main character because “she’s not stupid or in the background like most girls on TV.” I cringed, but Little Bit’s 6. She’s already noted the Bechdel test and how few shows/movies pass it. Girls need their strong female role models in all media (as do boys).

      In the meantime, I guess I’ll keep encouraging Little Bit to be confident in her abilities (and maybe create the stories she can’t find in the library or on TV.)

  9. There’s a tv programme on in the UK called the secret life of 5 years olds, that your article has just reminded me of. Basically, a group of 5 years olds are filmed (obviously with parental consent) playing together, on their own, in different scenarios.

    There was a little boy and a little girl. The little boy’s view was that girls were weaker and less intelligent than boys. The little girl earned his respect by teaching him karate. In response to saying girls couldn’t be scientists, she told him how she’d extracted DNA from a banana.

    There’s less incentive for parents of boys to make them realise that girls and boys are equal (not to say that all parents won’t, but many perhaps won’t think of its importance) so I think it’s for parents of girls to help their daughters realise that they need to educate boys (and other girls) just how amazing they are.
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  10. That really stinks that your daughter had to encounter that especially so young. I would continue to encourage her to do her best in everything. I know I loved getting praise as a kid so I think if she continues to hear that positive affirmation that over time it should sink in 🙂
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    • I don’t know that it’s had a huge effect on her self-confidence yet, in part because we tell her the guys who say girls can’t play sports, etc are full of it. I showed her pictures of the olympics, and all the sports women compete in. BUt, yep, we do what we can to keep her confident.

    • And it should. Girls who participate in sports get a lot of benefits: exercise, teamwork, learning to handle success and failure. Not to mention its fun. It may have given you something to bond over, had he accepted your interest.

      I hope you’ve been able to enjoy soccer anyway. It’s a great sport both to watch and play.

  11. A lil girl power is needed in 2017, i strongly agree to Girls can do anything they want to do! 🙂

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