I’ve been thinking about middle school girls and I’ve been thinking about middle school boys and what a mess it all is to be 12 or 13 and trying to figure this whole thing out, this boy/girl thing and this masculinity/femininity thing. (My youngest just started middle school and the social life of middle schoolers has become the center of our dinner table conversation.) It’s not that those issues aren’t always pressing and aren’t always confusing but it seems like middle school is this outlandish, cartoonish landscape where the cultural expectations are out-sized and ridiculous. The discussion doesn’t stop in middle school but it becomes visible to parental eyes somewhere around there and sometimes it gets stuck there.
The middle school kids I know in my personal and professional life are doing their best to navigate who they are and who they want to be and the expectations of being grown, which are confusing. They are vulnerable, these kids, as they’re looking all around them trying to figure out how to manage gender roles and relationships, which means that media messages in particular hit them hard. Sometimes they make a mess of it. They think they are more sophisticated than they are. They think we can’t possibly understand.
Sometimes when I’m sitting with a young woman in my office who is really hurting I think about the drumbeat that ran in my own head at that age, “If a girl falls in the forest and there’s no one there to see, is she still pretty?”
In a culture that places tremendous value not just on looks but on sex appeal, getting sexual attention can seem both empowering and demoralizing. When I was about 13 I remember this one lipstick commercial where a woman gets out of the car and men are literally bowled over by her beauty. The valet opening her door falls down, the valet standing by the booth falls down and some random passing guy falls down because she is so beautiful and I wanted to be that beautiful, too.
My friend T and I would sometimes meet at the corner between our two houses. We lived in the suburbs but this particular corner was busy and when we’d meet there we noticed that sometimes guys would honk at us. That felt really good. The next best thing to men actually falling at our feet seemed like men compelled to honk and holler at us. We were socialized to think that a performative demonstration of our appeal was the only kind that mattered so no, a girl who falls alone in the forest would NOT be pretty but if there was a guy there to catch her and then to gaze lovestruck into her (perfectly made up) eyes then she would be.
We were not sophisticated enough to know (and no one had told us) that cat calling is attention but it’s not good or safe attention. I mean, random men who drive by and honk at girls (clearly) barely into their teens are not winners but we’d internalized the message that without male attention we didn’t actually exist. Not that this was necessarily the kind of male attention we wanted because in the commercial the super handsome bystander gets up and takes the woman’s hand and presumably falls in love and the guys who honked at us just kept driving, leering out the window as they passed.
We’d stand there and see how many honks we could get before one of us had to head home for dinner and the attention felt good but it also felt yucky so it was this mish-mash of feelings, which I hear from the kids in my office, too. This mish-mash of wanting to be pretty but wanting to be valued for ourselves, too, and feeling guilty and discouraged and defensive about it all.
I titled this post the way I did because I think we need to support girls in caring less about what boys think, sure, but I also think we need to humanize boys when we talk about them since I think often we set girls up with a “who cares what boys think!” message when the truth is, they may actually care what boys think. So then we need to start building expectations that help them understand that boys are people and what they’re thinking at that age is also generally a mess of insecurity and worry and longing.
I know there are boys out there who only want “one thing” but I don’t think that’s all boys or even most boys. I think the cultural narrative they’re getting is just as ugly and complicated and as hard to navigate as what girls are getting. And girls need to know that, that the rigid gender expectation are no good for anyone and that there are a lot of boys who feel trapped in hyper masculinity the way that girls feel trapped in hyper femininity. (See this.)
We can also normalize that want for attention that many girls have. If a girl came to my office and said, “I like to stand on the corner and see how many honks I can get” I’d want to acknowledge that need to feel seen before I start criticizing her behavior. I’m not gong to get anywhere if I lead with criticism so I start by saying I understand. Only when I know she trusts me are we going to be able to talk to her about being safe.
Because that’s the biggest concern here, right? How do we help our girls stay safe? How do we help them understand that wanting attention does not mean she has it coming to her if she ends up getting hurt?
We do this by letting her know that we understand her want to be attractive and to have that attractiveness acknowledged. Well meaning feminist moms sometimes come so hard with the “Looks don’t matter” message that we send that conversation underground, which is a lost opportunity to have a discussion that’s more complex and nuanced.
This is not an easy fix and for many women, it’s a lifelong process to unpack our relationship to the male gaze for many reasons both cultural and individual. No wonder then that so many of us struggle in how we talk to our daughters. My advice? Listen first, listen long, have patience and compassion. Adolescence is a tough time to be a kid but it’s also a tough time to be a parent so give yourself that same patience and compassion.
Want to talk further? Hit me up.
As a bonus, I couldn’t find the commercial I’m remembering but this one has the same gist.