Dear Daughter: And all the girls I know

There have been many letters, rebuttals, and conversations resulting from one sarcastic and conservative woman’s public blog to address teenage girls and warn them that she would defriend them from her sons’ pages if they posted “selfies.” This comes in the wake of messages I see from cosplayers who are frustrated by the Heroes of Cosplay depiction of cosplayers as obsessed with the idea of cosplaying to your body type–something very difficult to do when most anime and video game characters are built like skinny, leggy 14-year-old-girls. In addition, I see all of these articles swirling the web about women being shut out of video gaming, being accused of being fake geeks. In fact, this comic perfectly sums up all of the harassment being brought to the light from its scummy hiding place in plain sight.

And so there comes a time for the mother and the big sister in me to answer. This letter is for my daughter, but it’s also for every woman I know, and for every teenage girl that I know, and for the ten year old girl who looks forward to bursting forth into teenagerhood, and for the five year old girl who already knows what boys like because at that age they tell her. Let us be clear. My daughter is just two. She doesn’t see or understand any harassment greater than a kid not sharing the toy trains at Barnes and Noble. And she is not a sexual creature–she is TWO. She won’t be a sexual creature at three, at five. With any luck, it won’t hit until she’s at least twelve… But before that time she’ll know the sting of “well-meaning” strangers telling her what she must do to be eligible for male attention–like my neighbor who told her 9-year-old that if she got “too tall” she would “never get a boyfriend.” My daughter doesn’t care about the connotations of music–in fact, right now this is her favorite song. But what she is learning matters to me.

And so this letter, to my beloved daughter, who will be a public figure because of the evolution of public webspace, who is empathetic and strong and ambitious and beautiful and has her whole world in front of her.

My dearest, lots of people will tell you that your appearance doesn’t matter. They tell you that because reaction is a pendulum. Much like some waves of historical feminism, they believe the only way to reach equilibrium is to swing the pendulum in the complete opposite direction. So when people whisper behind your back or even tell you to your face that you have to wear makeup, dress just like all the other girls, act sweet and innocent, and basically be the maiden waiting to be plucked–well, the reaction is strong. “Be whoever you are and never let anyone tell you differently,” they will say.  “Body type doesn’t matter, it’s what’s on the inside,” they will say. And “Wear whatever you want, it’s their fault for judging you,” they will say.
There are two parts to this argument. One part is very true–it is never your job to take responsibility for the thoughts of other people. If a boy or girl, man or woman finds you attractive, desires you, thinks good or bad thoughts about you, those thoughts are NOT your fault. If a woman-or a man- is raped, the rape is not their fault, and not their responsibility. It is never the fault of the victim that they were damaged–however, what IS their responsibility is to rise above the victimization and grow.

And that part is where I disagree about wearing “whatever you want” and being “whoever you are.” Because if you start chanting that mantra at 12 years old, I expect that you may well develop a very strong external loci of control. That means that rather than taking responsibility for change in your life, you just go with the flow and let “fate” or “destiny” or “the universe” or “god” or whatever force you choose have its way with your life. You are a powerful force, a beautiful and intelligent girl with natural talents and developing skills. But it’s up to you to decide what skills to further harness, and to get further in life you will have to follow some universal rules, like dressing up for interviews. I can tell you from personal experience that you don’t have to wear a skirt or makeup to interview, but you must look sharp. Tshirts and torn up jeans won’t cut it, unless you want to work for minimum wage. Even if you become an author and a public speaker, you will need to dress the part. Learning to dress for your intentions is a skill and an art that transcends gender–although the feminine side of the coin learned it as second nature because it was expected of them from toddlerhood, and the masculine side is usually left to figure it out from their peers.

The same goes for your physical body type. Yes, our standards for size are very different than they were in bygone eras. But our world is also filled with dangerous, addictive foods and bad habits. And so I urge you to never buy a scale. Don’t worry about your weight, but rather about your fitness. Aspire to challenge yourself physically, and if a physical challenge that you desire to accomplish is too hard because of your current body structure, then start running. Start training. Build muscle. Focus on your own body as an instrument of power. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you might get “too muscular,” because that’s a genetic function anyway (unless you take steroids, and don’t you dare). Of course you won’t find a lot of good information about that, outside of a health psychology textbook, but here’s a good explanation of why being fit does not mean being bulky. What I am trying to tell you is that you should be working out for yourself, for your own abilities. You may not lose weight–muscle weighs more but is more compact than fat. But you will feel better, and it will have a side effect of being attractive to others. Your health and life will be extended. If the boys would learn to work out and get stronger for themselves, instead of for their peers and the sex appeal, maybe they wouldn’t be so angry in sports locker rooms.

Now let’s talk about peer pressure. Peer pressure is a terrifying power over you, even if you don’t know it. From practically birth I was surrounded by conflicting messages, and I dressed like a weird conservative Goodwill reject and talked like an angry pre-adolescent boy in response to it. Adults forget about peer pressure because we no longer have mentors and friends warning us about the dangers of being influenced by people around them with lower ambitions than themselves. You are likely to be an average of your five closest friends–especially when you are an adult and earning an income. You need to learn now that you can be friends with lots of people, but you should have friends who are capable of teaching you something to improve yourself, and friends you spend less time with.

At the same time, I want you to be that friend that everyone else wants to be around because you are going somewhere and you will take them with you. If they work hard enough. That means that you will have to learn to act on the things that other people say that bother you.

And it isn’t just the people around you. When songs like “Blurred Lines” encourage the listener to believe that saying “no” really means “give it to me.” When I’m listening to the radio and I realize you’re singing along to a song about sex–even one where you are just humming–I quickly have to change the channel when I realize it’s a song by Kanye singing to stick a dick in your mouth to shut you up. Yes, music matters, because those songs are not written for us. They are written for the boys who will grow up and put us down.

When I was growing up–don’t roll your eyes, daughter, it wasn’t back in the stone age–subtle cues from the people around me insisted that it was a girl’s responsibility to keep men from looking at her, that skirts are women’s clothing and pants are men’s clothing, that the only sport girls can play is volleyball, that the highest accomplishment a girl can obtain is to be a teacher. I carried those 1950s concepts forward with me into my career, and a chip on my shoulder formed. So I didn’t speak up when the guys at the office called me a “dyke” behind my back, or the “straightest lesbian” they had ever met. Why did they say those things? They thought they were being funny, but they were consciously or subconsciously robbing me of my right to wear what I wanted to wear without harassment. They were robbing me of my ability to consider myself an equal to them, as well as criticizing me for being a lesbian before I was out or willing to admit that I was a lesbian.

They were undermining me as a strong and intelligent woman–based on my appearance and the fact that I was very straightforward–by telling me that I could never be attractive to men as I was then. They even made me afraid of the word “feminist.” And I let them get away with it. You see, my daughter, it is not your responsibility to control or change the minds of anyone else. You can’t change peoples’ thoughts, and only law and physical consequences will change some peoples’ behavior unless they want to change. The only thing you can do–but this is a powerful thing–is stand up for yourself. Why didn’t I go to HR and report those people? Why didn’t I make it a bigger issue? Why didn’t I confront them? We are fortunate that this country has laws that claim to support the equality of women–it is our responsibility as women to respect the hard-won rights our mothers and grandmothers fought for. To vote. To be strong and smart and successful. But most importantly, to speak out when someone behaves badly. If a male or female degrades the female half of the species with their attitudes and behavior, peer pressure is the only thing that can mold them into a more decent human being–and that will only happen if someone turns on the light so the bitter bigoted cockroaches can go skittering back into the depths of the cabinets.

That is not to say that I want you to shout at a random stranger who followed you into a dark alley and tell them they must respect you–although maybe that approach is a good way to get him to back off, I recommend utilizing whatever fighting skills you have at that point. But I am telling you to Stand Your Ground. It’s hard to do this, because being the kind of office gossip who dresses like the other girls and flirts with the men because they expect it will get you by, at least according to some experts. That’s why peer pressure is important to you too, because you will need to find a mentor, another woman or several women who are strong too, and who will help you fuel up for the long road ahead. But you can’t let anyone trample you, especially not as a woman.

Some of these things may not help you if you are reading this story at twelve, or fourteen. But you should know that the world on the other side of high school is much, much bigger than the world on this side of high school. The friends you respect now may not be around by the time you get to college. What will remain will be your code of honor, your self respect. Who you are and who you want to be. If you want to dress like a Lolita and take selfies–fine. I’m more of a timer and tripod sort myself, and you’d know that because how could you miss your mom being a photographer?  Just remember that Facebook has a delete button, so if you regret it later you can take it down–believe me, I’ve posted enough embarrassing photos of you to have us both covered. But if you post a picture that makes you feel beautiful, don’t let anyone tear you down. Facebook isn’t a forum. You don’t have to let trolls rip into you. That’s what the real world is for. Delete their comments. Don’t take it personally. Report them for trolling. I have confidence that, as my daughter and as the next generation, you probably can do all of those filtering things without working hard at it.
But Stand Your Ground, because if someone trolls your photo or your post or whatever, you have to know that trolling and bullying aren’t about you, and they aren’t your fault. They’re about the insecurity of the person attacking you, because they need to feel better about themselves and don’t know how.

If you decide that you want to follow in your mom’s footsteps and be a geek–I won’t blame you, it’s easy to be a geek these days. But you need to know that there is no such thing as a “fake geek girl.” There are girls–and guys–who pretend to like sports because lots of the boys playing sports are attractive and seem desirable and popular in school. But geeks have come a long way from being completely ridiculed, and even in school most of them are still experiencing a bit of oppression. Being in that club just isn’t worth faking it.  They feel, even at a young age if their fathers were geeks, entitled to the definition of a geek. The TV Series Glee actually does a good job of describing this transition from unpopular to popular–although for the Gleeks it was success at Nationals that gained them teetering respect from the Jocks and the Cheerleaders. In Glee it took a single semester. In real life, geeks have been struggling to gain a foothold in pop culture since before I was born.

I suppose I can understand their suddenly vocal desire to be acknowledged. This is the Age of the Geek. Giants like Joss Whedon, George R.R. Martin, J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins and even Stephanie Meyer have gained raging success. Super Hero movies are popular. The largest companies in the world (perceptually speaking) are run by technogeeks. Of course the geeks feel entitled to their newfound awesome. The difference between those greats (minus perhaps Meyer) and the geeks you run into on the internet is that those giants understand that women are more than just objects. We are real, we are people. We have rights and feelings and abilities and talents and we are just as good as anybody else. In many cases you are better, because you’re my daughter and I’m supposed to think you’re a rock star. Don’t let them think they can take it from you. You love costumes and electronics and video games. Enjoy them.

Your greatest adversary will not be a boy. That will be the hardest part for you to face. Throughout many centuries of “chivalry” training and behavior passed down from generation to generation, the boys have still remained clinging to their patriarchal desire to oppress someone–the nonwhites, the women, those who do not fit within the heterosexual “norm.” But the hardest battle for you will be that we women have bought into the hype. Moms, hoping to make it easier for their daughters, will instruct them to behave in ways that will make it “easier” for them to catch a mate who fits into the desirability categories set by their moms. Even the sports they encourage their daughters to play are supposed to mold who they are. The boys grow up getting away with abusing women because women like Mrs. Hall teach them that they are superior in some way. That they are the stronger sex. It is their responsibility to change their behavior, but it is our responsibility as women not to help them keep being oppressive. And other women will not like that you are strong, because when they reflect inward they will wonder how you are so strong and they are not. Mean girls bully for the same reasons mean boys do–to fill a void in their own self esteem. It will be harder to stand up to the girls, because you want them to be your friends. And they can be–but even your friends can tear you down. My dearest daughter, take what they say with a grain of salt. The most important thing for you is where you want to go and who you want to be. That’s not blind ambition–it’s reality. If your friends in school want to drag you down or hold you back, they won’t be around when you’re an adult and struggling to move forward.

I want you to understand these important points, because I would’ve given anything to know these things before I made it to college.

Being successful or strong willed does not make you a bitch.
Wearing clothes for functionality and comfort rather than allure does not make you a dyke. (I hope this conversation doesn’t get removed)
Skipping makeup does not make you ugly.
Refusing to go out with a guy, saying “No,” does not make you a cocktease or a bitch or any other bad word they can throw at you.
It is not your responsibility as a woman to give anyone else anything. Not your number, not a smile, not your body, anything.
Flowers and chocolate do not “earn” sex. Neither does dinner and a movie. No matter what he says!
Yes, he can help himself.
There are no such things as fake geek girls.

I want you to know that there are wonderful people out there setting standards and being amazing role models. There are lots of women and girls being completely amazing in the face of adversity–both real people and characters on TV. Women who are tough without being “men with boobs” as it were. Characters like Kate Beckett, Maura Isles, Princess Merida, Black Widow, Asuna, Katherine Janeway, Commander Susan IvanovaBuffy, Xena, Hermione.
Real life people like Samantha Swords, Angela Merkel, Jane Goodall, J.K. Rowling, Liu Yang, Missy Franklin, Severn Suzuki, Indra Nooyi, Temple Grandin, and me of course, because I want to be the kind of mom that you can look up to even when you’re embarrassed to be my kid. There are so many amazing women out there, and more growing up around you. Reach out. Find mentors. All of these women have had to stand their ground against the naysayers, the men and women in their lives. They have also worried about their image–but they overcame that pressure to be what the media feels is a “real” woman.

Most importantly, you are talented, beautiful and strong–but it’s your job to keep improving your skills. Read, write, speak, learn, love, build, be. But be “all in.” Never do anything halfway or halfheartedly because you’re afraid some boy or girl will think less of you for being good at it–whether that’s chess or basketball or math or swimming or karate or cooking or nuclear physics. If they really think less of you, then that boy or girl is not for you anyway–they’re still stuck in the 1950s. Leave them living in their oppressed world. I want you to be a trendsetter, a role model. And you will be, because other people are watching you already. You’re young now, but you will go far. You have places to go, things to see, mountains to move and earth to shake. You will go far, my daughter.

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