I was in the seventh grade when I got my first negative message about body image. I was lucky to be spared that long. Then walking home from school one fine, blissful day I heard my name shouted out by a cute boy with floppy brown hair on whom I had a little crush and who lived a couple streets from my house. Leaning over his front porch with two other boys, he shouted out, “Hey, Suzi.”
Flattered to be singled out, I cooed back, “Yes?”
“Do you know why you’re like a pirate,” he asked.
“No,” I chirped, never expecting a trap.
“Because you have a sunken chest,” he bleated. And the other boys chorused, “Haw, haw, haw.”
From then on I avoided the cute boy and his street and felt pretty self conscious about my arrested development. I would like to report that years later I dazzled him with my amazing cleavage and he fell to his knees and begged my forgiveness. But he moved away and I grew enough to like myself, especially during the braless period when small was an asset. Now, of course, I am simply grateful for a clear mammogram. Touch wood.
A Hillary Clinton joke made the rounds at a GOP conference in California this summer. Some of the old boys, real buffoons, taunted her not for her politics, but her body parts, employing the strategy that you can counter a woman’s power by saying “haw, haw” about her looks. She’s used to it. In fact, it wasn’t even a new smear but an old one used when Hillary first gave the big boys hives as First Lady.
I doubt these things cause her much anguish, although it would be fun to sit with her and come up with the best retorts for boobs who make fun of women’s breasts.
It’s easier when you’re older. But for girls, it’s still tough to buck a culture that cares too much about image. That’s why we keep having to come up with new efforts to remind girls that they are beautiful in many ways.
In New York City there’s a public health campaign to do just that with posters in subways and buses picturing girls of all sizes, looks and talent. The campaign is aimed at girls ages seven to 12, a vulnerable time when bad self image can take over and lead to eating disorders, bullying, sexual abuse and suicide.
I wonder what the wonderful Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, thinks about our problem with girls’ self esteem. Malala was targeted by the Taliban for declaring that girls should be educated. They tried to kill her for it. Now she’s an international icon, charming everyone from Jon Stewart to the UN with her courage and young wisdom.
American girls can get all the education they want. So why is it that lucky American girls are still in terrible danger of losing or wasting their lives because someone makes them fear their nose is big and their breasts are small? It shouldn’t be such a hard sell, to convince girls there’s more to life than looks.
This Halloween there’s been a small empowering campaign to offer costume ideas to girls that have nothing to do with princesses or fairies. Photos on the internet show how to turn your daughter into Amelia Earhart, Jane Goodall, Coco Chanel and the like.
If any of those girls come trick or treating tell her she looks clever and strong. And if she dresses up like a woman who might become president one day or a girl who defies terrorists, give her an extra Luna bar.