Feminism begins at home

Those who fought before us ...
Those who fought before us ... 

Girls' anxieties turn to healthy anger when they see they are part of a wider cause, writes Steve Biddulph.

This year, on a multi-country speaking tour for my new book Raising Girls, I talked to thousands of parents of girls. It was an eye-opening experience. For 25 years I’d worked primarily on the challenges of boys. The predominant emotion in that work was sorrow - at how damaged the masculine condition was - how the wars and traumas of the twentieth century had left a generation of men shut down, remote and awkward around their children.  It was not unusual to see men and women in those audiences weeping at the damage they had sustained from fathers who were unable to convey their love.  

The gatherings with parents of girls, though, have a very different emotional tone. Parents of girls are angry. They see very plainly the exploitation, anxiety creation, and uncaring assaults on young girls both by sexist males, still celebrated in the media, music and sport, and  by the corporate world, which by its own admission targetted pre-teen girls deliberately from the mid 1990’s, to sell them products they neither want nor need. The objectification of girls and women was at the heart of the womens’ movement in the 1960’s, and this is no less the case today. Sexism is staging a comeback, media driven and commercially motivated, and it's the kids who are being hurt the worst. 

Researchers such as Richard Eckersley have noted deteriorating mental health among girls worldwide, predominantly anxiety conditions, but manifesting in everything from eating disorders to binge drinking. A shocking one in five girls now suffers a mental health disorder during her growing up years. While most girls are still doing fine, few parents have not heard their daughter say “I hate my body”, or “I hate my life”. The boundaries around our children are down. Home is no longer a haven, the adults are too busy to talk, and advertizing blares from TV’s in every room. Social media holds out the promise of friendship but often delivers cruelty and judgementalness.

Its a paradox that this is happening at a time when girls have never had more scope. They easily outdo boys educationally, and are far more employable. Girls today see that a woman can be a prime minister, but also they see the horrifically sexist way that woman is treated. 

Anger is a healthy emotion because it leads to action. There are many things we can do. Our daughters need to know that they are part of a long, and successful struggle, and one which they have to participate in because its gains could so easily be lost. Perhaps the cure for the narcissism of fashion, for paralyzing anxiety over body issues and pleasing boys, might lie in lifting one’s gaze and seeing that this is victimhood, and should not be tolerated. That their problems are linked to those of girls and women right across the globe.

Last month, while the world was discussing Miley Cyrus’s dance routines, an eight year old girl in Yemen died of from internal injuries caused by sexual intercourse on her wedding night. Let me repeat that - an eight year old girl. Its a seamless flow from the poverty that leads from child brides, into child prostitution and trafficking, to abusive pornography, and on to spotty  boys in your shopping mall wearing t-shirts with images of women bound and gagged. Its all the same struggle and we can fight it from here. 

There needs to be a real uprising in the west against the extraordinary rates of sexual assault, workplace exploitation, and lack of educational opportunity that still characterizes girls lives in the developing world, and is far from defeated at home. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryll Wudunn in their book Half the Sky, document  a hundred thousand girls being trafficked into brothels each year in China. Across Asia and Africa, the deliberate neglect of baby girls has led to a gender imbalance, representing the loss of a hundred million lives. In Dubai, a woman will be jailed for BEING raped. 

It all starts at home. We have to be wide awake, or we can end up being the vehicles of harm to our own daughters. Three generations of domination by the visual media of television and now the internet have created massive overfocus on how people LOOK. If we talk endlessly about diets, weight and food, we can’t expect our daughters not to catch this disease. In my talks I ask a question of the audience. “Put up your hand if you are unhappy with your own body”. In auditoriums of five hundred people, only two or three don’t put up their hands. “You see”, I tell them “the trouble we are already in?”  

How fathers treat daughters is also critical. Showing respect, asking her views, supporting her interests and vocations with generous amounts of your time, simply enjoying her company, sends a message that she has profound worth. Fathers are the first opposite gender relationship a girl has, and set a benchmark which can immunize her from manipulation or misuse by boys.   

But most of all, if we can show our girls that they are part of something larger, they soon become activated. A movement is an outbreak of common sense. Of course slavery was wrong. Of course we have to protect the environment. Of course women should be equal. But movements require lots of work, personal and political. Getting involved is in itself liberating, for the fight itself links us together and brings us fully alive. Our daughters need feminism, and it needs them. There’s a world at stake.  

Steve Biddulph is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology, and author of Raising Girls, Raising Boys and The New Manhood.