By Kim McCabe
She’s three and she sticks her tummy out proudly.
She’s thirteen and she sucks her tummy in shamefully.
What went wrong?
She climbs a tree to play at being a spy.
She sits in her room posting selfies to be liked.
What went wrong?
She says, “No! Stop it!” to the little boy who snatches her toy.
She says nothing to the teenage boyfriend who takes it a bit far.
What went wrong?
In my early twenties, I counseled distressed teenagers. One girl couldn’t stop eating as she tried to numb the grief of losing her mother to cancer. Another arrived each week with yet another piercing or tattoo, until she turned to repeatedly cutting the word ‘alone’ into the skin on her arm. There was a sixteen-year-old who told me of one sexual encounter after another, none of which she enjoyed, as she tried to make sense of the advances her uncle had made when she was ten. They all hated themselves, were crippled by anxiety and found life impossible to live. Barely out of my teens and nursing my own eating disorder, I wondered how to prevent all this suffering. I vowed to look for a way.
Thirty years later, I am a mother of three teenagers. I founded Rites for Girls, which includes Girls Journeying Together, a program to support groups of preteen girls to prepare for adolescence and be guided safely through their teens. Yet, thirty years on, girls are still suffering. If anything, things are worse. Social media, reality television and the smartphone culture are creating serious mental health issues for teenage girls, as they allow and almost compel them to compare themselves daily with their peers and with unrealistic role models, contributing to a constant feeling that they are not good enough, pretty enough, popular enough, and that everyone else is having a much better time than they are.
We surround our girls with images of idealized female perfection. Just as they become more curvaceous and hair is growing in new places, they are also contending with spots, greasy hair, mood swings and self-consciousness. And, as if that isn’t enough, they are bombarded with messages that they must work hard to get their bodies looking a certain way. Hair must be removed, colored, straightened, styled. Skin must be clear, tanned, soft. Tummies flat, hips narrow, waist trim, legs long. With images now digitally altered, girls strive for a type of female beauty that is impossible to attain.
Who’s responsible for all this? We are. Women are. If not us, then who? We can make the lives of girls that bit easier, kinder, safer and better supported. We can do this by noticing them, chatting to them, reaching out to them. We also help by how we live our lives.
We can show girls the way. It’s not easy because they need to see us liking ourselves, liking our bodies, and liking our lives. That’s no small thing. It’s women’s warrior work and when we do it, our girls can too.
Our third child was a little girl. As I held her in my arms, I felt this huge upsurge of anger for what she was going to encounter. That’s when I wrote the poem ‘What’s gone wrong’. I didn’t want her to be underestimated, overlooked, objectified, paid less, patronized and expected to care take; I didn’t want what happened to me to happen to her. Up rose this fierce protective mother fury. I knew I couldn’t stop some of these things happening to her, but I would figure out how to equip her better. At that time, I had no idea how I would do that though, I just knew that I had to find a way.
Over the past thirteen years I’ve discovered that how I treat her is key. And I didn’t expect this, but how I treat myself is also crucial. This was not something I wanted to have to face; I’d a lifetime of concern over what others thought, trying to cope alone, and worrying about my weight. But if I didn’t want these things for her, I had to sort them out for myself first. And actually, when I sort them out for me, I’m happier. Now I can honestly say that I’m the kind of woman that my thirteen-year old girl would have liked to meet. And my work is being that woman in the lives of many other preteen and teenage girls. I’m fulfilling that promise I made to myself all those years ago and the girls are showing me how.
Kim McCabe is the author of ‘From Daughter to Woman, parenting girls safely through their teens’ published by Robinson. She is founder and director of Rites for Girls which, since 2011, has offered year-long Girls Journeying Together groups, support for mothers and training for women wanting to support girls. Kim’s vision is that every girl grows up expecting guidance as she matures and knowing that there’s a Girls Journeying Together group near to where she lives.