Another 19-year-old woman walked through the doors of the Women’s Resource Center recently, baby in arms, toddler by her side, and a look of desperation on her face.
She had dropped out of high school to live with her boyfriend. Kids followed. Only he never became the Prince Charming she had hoped. Instead, he left, and now, with no financial resources or skills to support herself, she faced eviction.
Because of the sexualized messages that bombard women and girls in today’s society, too many females spend their lives using their sexuality to seek popularity and approval from others; they place a priority on finding a partner rather than educating themselves to become economically self-sufficient, and they give up their individual power to be “cared for” by another.
When their partners leave, they wind up in our offices without the education, skills or resilience they need to take care of themselves and their families.
The roots of the behaviors we observe in our clients reflect what the American Psychological Association defines in a 2008 report as the increasing problem of “early sexualization of girls.” Girls as young as 6 years old believe it’s more important to be sexy than smart because they see and hear an overwhelming number of cultural messages that tell them “a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.”
Consider this: Toy manufacturers make dolls dressed in black-leather mini-skirts, thigh-high boots, and skin-tight T-shirts cut short to display belly flesh. And, if you’re really “hip,” your mom can dress you in a matching outfit, exposed belly button and all.
Now pick up a teen-zine with its stories about dieting, make-up tricks and how to dress to attract a boy.
And don’t forget television shows and movies that portray a world that’s overwhelmingly male, female characters are provocatively dressed as background decoration, or worse yet, are victims of violent crime.
The Media Literacy Clearinghouse reports that girls between the ages of 11 and 14 see an average of 500 ads a day, most of which promote a specific product or service to improve a woman’s looks or her chances to land a partner.
The effect on girls and women is profound.
The APA report cites research that found that “chronic attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources for mental and physical activities,” thus leading to diminished academic achievement. It also causes young girls to adopt the perspectives of the world they see: a world of powerlessness, one in which women are dependent upon others for their self-worth and their survival.
Girls in the fourth and fifth grades are particularly vulnerable to these messages, because they’re beginning to define their personal identities and explore possible careers at the same time they’re turning to media and peers for information.
Get Your Girl Power!
Their vulnerability is why the Women’s Resource Center, in collaboration with the Girl Scouts of Southwest Colorado, will offer the first-ever “Get Your Girl Power” Conference for fourth- and fifth-grade girls in La Plata County on Feb. 9 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Modeled after our successful “Girls to Women, Women to Girls” Program established in 2000 with a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, the conference will offer workshops that focus on self-esteem and self-confidence building, how to recognize and intervene when someone is bullied, how girls and women are portrayed in the media and how that portrayal works against girls and women in society.
We also will offer an afternoon session for parents with a panel of experts who will address issues such as phone and Internet use, bullying, sexuality and other topics that may affect their maturing daughters.
The conference is free and will include lunch, thanks to a grant from the White Elephant Foundation. Registration will be limited to 60 girls.
The deadline to register is 1 p.m. Friday.
Ultimately, we wish to support our school communities in their efforts to increase high-school-graduation rates among La Plata County girls and increase their enrollment in post-secondary education programs so they become economically self-sufficient women who can take care of themselves.
We will do so by arming young girls with the critical-thinking skills to assess and overcome the societal messages that seek to undermine their self confidence, that will allow them to embrace their “smartness,” and will encourage them to pursue their career goals and dreams without the imperative to be sexy and popular at too young an age.
For more information about the Get Your Girl Power Conference, call the Women’s Resource Center at 247-1242 or read more online at wrcdurango.org.
Liz Mora is the executive director of the Women’s Resource Center. This was also signed by Christy Schaerer, the programs director, and Deborah Uroda, its marketing and fund-development director.
Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald