I’ve been inordinately preoccupied lately with the subject of how girls mature in the modern world, seeing as how I have a 9-year-old daughter who seems to be maturing at a frightening rate. My own upbringing, along with cultural stereotypes, have primed me to see the teenage years as a minefield requiring an emotional flak jacket, forcing me to steel myself against having my daughter unwillingly ripped from my arms as she does everything in her power to separate herself from me using methods guaranteed to purposefully shock and horrify.
Pardon me while I attempt to rip this pair of shit-colored glasses from my face.
I know this is the most extreme version of adolescence possible, and it is generated by my fear that my daughter and I will have the same hate-filled relationship that my mother and I had. I do not trust my own bipolar-addled mind to react in a healthy way to the vagaries of her changing brain in the coming years, and I’m terrified of ruining the relatively happy relationship that we have now. I’ve also heard too many stories of mothers who have loving relationships with their daughters, only to have them turn sour once they become pre-teens and teenagers.
I’m also greatly disturbed by the cultural forces that are at work in my daughter’s life. She is 9, but the kids at her school are already listening to music filled with descriptions of sex and partying, even the occasional mention of S&M (!). I know she doesn’t understand most of what they’re talking about (she didn’t even know what the word “porn” meant), but I do, and it bothers me. A lot.
I would put my foot down and put an absolute ban on such music, but I’m wary of ostracizing her from her friends, which is just as damaging. And as a very wise friend pointed out, you can’t dictate someone’s musical choices to them. I’m also aware that every single generation of parents has thought that the music their children were listening to was going to send them to Hell or ruin their morals. I am equally aware that the things musicians have sung about really hasn’t changed, not in centuries. People think of decades earlier in the 20th century as being more innocent somehow, but they were singing about the exact same things they’re singing about now. Just not quite so blatantly.
There has to be a balance. I must allow her to be the person she is, but without exposing her to things earlier than she should be exposed to them. And that’s where the problem currently is. I don’t know how to do that without cutting her off from the the things and friends that help her express her identity. I know what it’s like to feel completely separate from everyone around you, and it’s terrible and will do just as much harm to her as not doing anything.
Music is just the tip of the iceberg. She’s only in the 4th grade. If there is a hell on earth, it must surely be middle school. What’s going to happen then, when the minefield really begins in earnest? Then there will be the clothing battles, and the battles over anything else that I feel oversexualizes her. I probably will put my foot down with those things. What about the other things I have to protect her from? Cyberstalkers? A culture that with one hand tells her that sex is bad but with the other that she must be a sexpot? Our culture’s horrible views on body image and health? Our culture’s twisted views on just about everything? I sometimes question the wisdom of having a child at this time in history, although I suspect that, as with the music, every generation has felt the same way.
All of these things have stirred together in my brain into a melange of terror that will undoubtedly do its own damage even if everything else is going just fine. I can barely sort my thoughts together.
I’m trying to turn to books for help, but cultural forces are changing so rapidly, what with the advent of Facebook and Twitter, that almost all of them are woefully out of date. Reviving Ophelia, written in 1994 and long held to be the gold standard of how to save our adolescent girls from the cultural forces at work in modern times, is grossly outdated (not to mention it views society through the lens of a psychologist who sees only troubled girls, and as such is extremely biased). Surviving Ophelia is a similarly biased and outdated work that I refused to read as I knew it would only feed the fires of my fear, as did Reviving Ophelia. I need something that will make me feel better, and empowered, not worse and powerless in the face of the forces I’m trying to battle.
There is one fight that only I have the power to help her win, and that is body image. It is well known that daughters look to their mothers for how to treat and view their bodies, and that terrifies me, because I hate my body with a passion. Hate it. I’ve never had any reason at all to love it. Why should I? It’s never brought me anything but grief. First in the form of negative attention from men and boys, and then in the form of an imbalanced endocrine system which has caused irregular, heavy periods my entire life. Then I gained weight as a result of trying to make myself unattractive in an effort to shun the attention I got from men.
There was one very brief period in my life when I lost weight and was happy with my body and the attention I got, but my own mental baggage betrayed me once again, and I went back to hating my body and being ashamed of it, wanting to be ugly once again. I’ve stayed that way ever since, even though I was really quite attractive, at least until I had a baby. My husband tells me I’m still beautiful, but I don’t believe him. I look in the mirror and am disgusted by what I see. I detest what pregnancy did to my body and know that what beauty I did have before I had a baby, and did not appreciate, is gone forever. I hate my hair. I hate my skin. I can’t think of a single thing about my body that I like. I know that attitude is going to poison my beautiful daughter’s attitude about her own body, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I know there are people who think the way out of this trap is to look in the mirror and tell myself every day that I’m beautiful, but I want to choke when I think of doing that. I can’t even imagine saying the words, let alone actually saying them. I can barely look at myself in the mirror. I don’t wear makeup: it just makes me feel like I have to go somewhere. All I wear is t-shirts that cover up my body. I wear my hair in a ponytail all the time. I don’t take care of myself the way I should because I don’t see what the point is. I don’t have a mental image in my head of what I looked like when I wasn’t fat, because I don’t think I ever actually looked at my whole body in the mirror. Ever. Certainly not on purpose with gladness. Maybe if I was trying on clothes, but that’s it. Even then, whatever I was trying on wasn’t for looks, it was for comfort and just to make sure it fit.
I don’t want to be this way. I want to be someone who gets up in the morning and is happy to see the face and body in the mirror and wants to take care of them, to make them look pretty because they (I) am worth the attention and energy. I want to be someone who makes the effort and time to go to the gym and to yoga and karate classes because they’re good for me and because they make my body look and feel better. Mostly, though, I want to be someone who loves themselves enough to think themselves worthy of the effort of all of these things. Because I don’t love myself. I think I’m a pretty mediocre excuse for a human being. Most days, all I can think of are all of the things I’ve ever done wrong and how I don’t measure up. I certainly don’t treat my daughter the same way: quite the opposite in fact. But I know the way I treat myself will seep into her psyche. Maybe not now, but someday.
Maybe the minefield I have to navigate isn’t hers: it’s mine.