Raising Shameless Girls
“Mama, I love your stripes. Where did you get them?” My three-year-old daughter traces my stretch marks with her tiny finger during our yoga session.
“They showed up when my belly stretched to hold a baby.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to have mama stripes too! But, I will not have a husband. I want to take care of my babies all by myself,” Tiny Human is emphatic.
I used to hate my stretch marks. They are the worst I’ve seen on any woman. They travel from above my navel down to mid-thigh, turning my abdomen into a tiger’s flank. I’ve since learned that I have a connective tissue disorder that is responsible both for the fact that I can bend myself into a pretzel and my stretch marks.
In the years before my daughter was born I’d hide those stretch marks at all times. I took to wearing swim dresses at the beach to cover them all. When I saw woman who dared to show theirs I felt something like rage brew inside me. How dare they!
Then, I had a daughter who not only loves my stretch marks but wants some of her own.
My daughter watches me with a keen eye for detail. Her bright blue eyes take in information and her brain catalogs it in a file for how women behave, what women are, and what women can be. It’s my job as a mother to make sure her catalog is full of positive notions about embracing the power of ourselves, and kindness to others.
The danger of shame for girls
Shame is a deadly force. Shame is feeling like there is something inherently wrong with you because you aren’t pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, or just enough. Living with shame causes women to make themselves smaller, to hide parts of themselves away because they fear that if anyone sees their true self they won’t be loved. Shame kills what makes us unique and valuable and turns women against each other.
Living with shame leads to alcohol and drug abuse, limits your potential, and hinders your ability to form meaningful connections with others. Shame is also the cause of the judgment and hate women spew towards each other. If left unchecked those habits will make you sick. If we don’t teach our daughters to live without shame, we are teaching them to make themselves sick.
Where does shame come from?
In addition to the messages they get from watching the women around them, our girls are bombarded by messages from society about how they should look, act, and be. Maaost of those messages are garbage. Sure, some companies include models that look like normal women sans airbrushed thighs, but it’s far from the norm and even these depictions lack the diversity that exists in real life. It’s also not enough.
Toy stores still segregate toys into sections by gender, all the dolls are packaged in pink, and the STEM toys feature boys on the front. These subtle images send a clear message: dolls are for girls and engineering kits are for boys. (By the way, this message is equally troubling for boys who prefer art and dolls to blocks and trucks.)
When women grow up thinking that there is one ideal way to be a woman they feel shame when they don’t meet those expectations. That insecurity causes them to shame others who don’t live up to gender perfection. If a woman is insecure about the size of her own thighs, she’s more likely to tell other women to cover theirs up.
The power in the words we use
Tiny human tells me and anyone else who will listen that there’s no wrong way to be a girl. This sentence from her mouth didn’t form organically. It’s a common refrain that I use when we read about women in books, or when we watch movies together where a princess saves her people. The words we use with our children become their internal dialogue.
I want my daughters to have an internal dialogue of strength, resilience, endless choices, and abundant love so, I’m careful about the words I use with them.
When my daughter struggles to lift a gallon of milk that is bigger than her head I don’t tell her she’s too little to lift it. I remind her that she is strong, but that strong people sometimes need help and ask if she wants me to assist.
I use those words for three reasons (yes, it sounds a bit hokey coming out of my mouth, but I’ don’t care. Kids thrive on repetitive language, just ask the creators of Dora The Explorer).
- I’m reminding her of her strength and letting her know I think she is capable of hard things.
- I’m removing the shame surrounding needing help.
- I’m giving her a choice about accepting help while requiring that she ask for that help.
Reminding our children of their strength is especially important for young girls. Our societal gender norms often take power away from some, so we have to work diligently to ensure that our girls are reminded of their potential for greatness.
Asking for permission before rushing in to help is a reminder that she is an autonomous person with the ability to make choices for herself. Sometimes, Tiny Human accepts my help. Other times she takes a deep breath, shakes her head, and lifts that gallon of milk herself. Either way, she’s confident in her ability to make choices for herself and persevere.
It’s not just what you say to girls that matters
Young girls study their mothers for clues about how women should be, how they should look, and how they should act. They catalog each of these pieces of information away in a file titled “How To Be a Woman” and pull it out as they grow.
Your self-talk matters more than you think. When your daughter hears you complain about the shape of your body, she catalogs that in her body image file. When she hears you refuse to take photos because of your appearance, she remembers that too.
But, even if all you do is think it, she sees the change in your demeanor, the way your gaze falls to the floor as you shake your head, and the way you starve yourself to lose those five pounds. She sees you avoid the swimming pool or beach, not wanting to wear a swimsuit. She will pull those things out of her file as she grows.
When you take her shopping, she notices that the toy aisle is separated into sections and, if you only take her to the pink section, she notices that too. She’ll miss out on building kits, and STEM toys, remote control monster trucks, and nerf toys. Imagine how many potential scientists were lost to the Barbie aisle! Provide these toys for her so she grows up knowing those things are for her too.
Stores such as Target have heard the cry for removing gender stereotyping from their toy aisles and online shopping makes ignoring segregated aisles easy. Even if your girl likes her princesses and dolls encourage play with them that challenges society’s notion of gender roles. In our house, Princess Elsa rides on monster trucks, and Kristoff makes dinner for everyone.
Removing shame reinforces kindness
If you find yourself throwing shade on another woman for her clothing choices, the size of her thighs, or the way she chooses to live her romantic relationships, chances are you feel shame about those areas of your own life.
I know because that used to be me. I grew up thinking that I didn’t get along with women. I said it often. It was a lie. I kept women at arm's length because I was insecure about myself — because I didn’t love myself enough to be vulnerable with my competition.
Yup, if you’re judging other women, you see them as competition. They aren’t. It’s time to get over your own shame so you can start building your fellow women up instead of tearing them down.
If you teach your children the importance of being kind to others but then whisper about the mom who came to the school pickup line wearing a miniskirt, or her pajamas you are a hypocrite. There’s no way to sugar coat that. Your children need you to deal with your shame triggers so you can teach them how to be good humans. Those kids are growing fast, so you better get to work.
Mothers have the power to change how society views women
Women are bombarded with messages about what women should be, do, and how they should look from an early age. However, there’s no influence more powerful in a girl’s life than that of her mother. This can have a profoundly positive or a profoundly negative impact on her life.
If you’ve built your daughter’s ideas about womanhood so that she understands her power, her potential, and her worth then she will have a filter to run society’s female archetypes against. If you don’t, she’ll fall prey to the idea that she is weaker and less than her male counterparts. She’ll see other women as competition instead of as resources, friends, and confidants.
We may not be able to block all the messages that society sends, but we can certainly help our daughters create a solid catalog of positive ideas about their potential so that they can call bullshit when they see it. When we give our girls that power, they will grow into women who change the archetype that women of the past have had to battle against. Removing our own shame is the first step toward making that happen.
Maria Chapman is a parent of five, a personal coach, and a chronic illness warrior. Follow her newsletter, Lies We Tell Ourselves here.
©Maria Chapman 2021