I need feminism because my gender should not stop me from doing anything that I could possibly want to do or become.
My gender should not stop me from becoming the CEO of a company or from becoming anything and everything I ever wished and dreamed of being. As my high school feminism class classmate, Dylan, stated: “the world needs a [serious] makeover,” starting first with how half of the world’s population is portrayed in society.
Society keeps sending me messages about how girls and women should be instead of accepting who we are as individuals.
From a very early age, society transmits messages to young girls about how they should fit into society and who they should become or aspire to be. There are expectations for how females should look, act, and relate to others. These messages create a tremendous amount of pressure to conform to stereotypes and narrow the range of possibilities that young girls can envision for themselves.
As a result, girls at a very young age are inhibited not just from becoming all that they might want or dream of, but from even imagining possibilities for how they can develop their identities.
Thirteen year-old girls are most affected because, at that age, they are beginning the process of making the transition from little girl to young woman. It is at this age, that they enter the realm of social media. For this reason, it is crucial to send them messages that make them feel empowered rather than belittled.
It is at this age, that girls begin to pay attention to the messages that society sends about what it means to be female and what expectations there are. Young girls internalize these messages and begin to become self-conscious about who they are in relation to the expectations and ideals that society imposes.
I learned from the film, Miss Representation, that “53% of 13 year old girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number increases to 78% by the age of 17.” This often leads to girls feeling, as Cherríe Moraga writes, an “internalized [sexism]… where the object of oppression is not only someone outside [their] skin, but someone inside.”
The reason that this happens in the first place is because our sexist society has created ridiculous standards for women. But women play a role in this because we play into the separation of genders when we don’t support changing the system.
From the time we are born, girls and women are bombarded with images of how we should look and act. It is nearly impossible to ignore this barrage of messages and stay true to one’s own dreams or form one’s own identity. For many girls at thirteen, they experience a terrible crisis when they suddenly feel inadequate and hopeless about the possibility that they can live up to the ideals that society has set for them.
According to Miss Representation, “65% of women and girls have eating disorders. 17% of teens engage in cutting and self-harm.” It is at just this time when girls start having romantic or sexual feelings, especially because the media sends them messages that it is now when they should be falling in love and having their first boyfriends. In addition, “more than 20% of teens have sex before the age of 14,” the film notes. For many girls, this is far too soon to be entertaining these feelings and emotions. Nevertheless, internalizing these messages often results in a need to act and look older to please others.
At this age, girls desire to no longer be children, and “thinking [they’re] invincible, engag[e] in risky behavior . . . particularly with older men” and become “enamored with money and consumer goods,” which according to Rachel Lloyd, author of Girls Like Us and founder of GEMS, “are all a part of most American adolescents experience.”
This is the internal struggle that is associated with changes from childhood to adulthood. As Lloyd says, “the mix of hormones, wanting to belong, confusing messages about love and sex, and a desire to be independent,” makes young women and girls key targets for brainwashing through the media and by potential pimps. In this vulnerable time of inner questioning, it becomes easy “to lure an otherwise well-adjusted [teen girl] into a meeting, into a car, into a bed.” As a result, the “median age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the U.S. is between 12 and 14.”
In this way, girl’s lives are hijacked into becoming sexual objects rather than into realizing their true dreams. When society intrudes into the development of young girls, invading their psyches in this way, the avenues for self-exploration and the realization of aspirations and dreams are closed off. Girls who once wanted to be professionals, world leaders in science, economics, the humanities, the arts or politics, can no longer envision themselves having fulfilling successful lives because they have been bombarded with unrealistic expectations.
It is at this time that girls often become vulnerable to depression, eating disorders, and or other methods of self-harm. Their lives become derailed because their development has been interrupted. They are literally overwhelmed and taken over by expectations for how they should look and feel. The tragic thing about this is that most girls have absolutely no preparation for this crisis. Even little girls who were once happy and secure, feeling good about themselves, dreaming of becoming President, believing they have super heroic powers, and that they are beautiful and well loved, are all vulnerable to this catastrophic experience when they reach thirteen. Suddenly, their self-esteem is shattered and they no longer believe in their inherent goodness and power. They seek approval from others and constantly measure themselves against other girls and women.
The clearest personal connection that I have to this experience is observing my cousin who is about to turn fourteen. She spends hours in the morning applying makeup for a family outing and constantly asks me how she looks. She controls her eating, vocally debating weather to have the mac and cheese she wants or the salad she feels she “should” have because she wants to lose weight. She asks me to invite her to parties or if I know any boys my age who would go out with her. However, what I find most horrifying is that she physically and mentally compares herself to me even though I am four years older than she, and have four more years of physical and emotional growth as well as a progressive education.
Since adolescent girls are constantly seeking approval, this experience often alienates females from one another as they are pitted against each other in an unending contest to achieve unrealistic ideals of beauty set by the media. They end up measuring themselves to impossible standards because of Photoshop. Earlier and earlier, girls want to achieve these unrealistic standards. As a result, men judge real women more harshly based on those standards.
Jean Killbourne mentions these unrealistic ideals in her film Killing Us Softly 4:
Worse still, society creates an atmosphere in which young girls are in great danger. The question becomes not just whether they will realize their professional and personal aspirations, but whether they will survive their teenage years and make a safe passage into adulthood. So many young girls fall prey to life threatening psychological illnesses or dangerous relationships that the question of what they will achieve and accomplish as independent women never even comes into play. This is a tragic and inexcusable state of affairs and must be changed.
The only way of changing this is to change the way that society views women and the messages that are sent, through the media, to women, and especially to young girls.The makeover that is needed is not “to women,” but to society itself.