raising girls

Posted on January 8, 2013


Steve Biddulph’s warmth, common sense and easy style has turned him into one of the world’s most popular parenting gurus. Raising Boys has sold more than 4 million copies and been translated into over 30 languages. So it was perhaps only a question of time before he would turn his attention to girls. Raising Girls is published next week.

       He is right when he says that girls are under more pressure than ever before. Young girls have become a soft target for big business. Wider cultural messages through television and advertising have tended to accentuate female sexualised imagery and their bodies rather than their brains. Consequently ‘everywhere she goes she sees messages that make her feel that she is not good enough’ says Biddulph on a youtube video promoting his talks in Australia. Spot on Steve.

      The distress of young girls is clearly visible in the rising rates of mental health problems, binge drinking, eating disorders and the rampant growth of bitch bullying in our schools. Girls are now expected to be all things  – attractive, thin, good, successful, happy, kind, loving, self sufficient – perfect in other words within an imperfect world which still does not give women the equal status they deserve.

       His advice is full of common sense. Avoid toys which tell a girl that it’s all about looks and clothes. Dress young girls in outfits which are practical rather than too girly, advice curiously placed in last Sunday’s serialisation of the book next to a picture of a woman and a young girl modelling clothes (which are for sale and prohibitively expensive) with the mother in very high heels and the little girl in a flouncy Dolce and Gabbana skirt. Encourage her interests whatever they are. Help her to find her ‘spark’. Give her as much time and attention as you can to make her feel secure and content with who she is. Surround your daughter with other adults, aunts or friends who she can talk to when she cannot talk to you, for the mother daughter relationship can be notoriously difficult at times. Good counsel which could be equally well applied to boys.  

        What worries me is thatst worries me is that the wider context appears to be missing, where girls are still socialised to be good and enabling of others rather than competitive and capable of achieving their own dreams. Most girls lack a grasp of basic feminism to help them understand that many of their experiences are the result of growing up in a profoundly unequal world and therefore not their own fault. Parents can only do so much. I am the mother of two daughters aged 23 and 19. I am probably better equipped than most to cope, with two decades of research into family life and adolescence, several published books on the subject and an upbringing steeped in feminism. Yet I still find it hard. My daughters are intelligent, capable, beautiful, ambitious and kind people and I couldn’t be more proud of them. But I also see how they cannot help but internalise the message that they are not attractive, thin or sexy enough, and need regular, repeated reassurances that they are in fact, utterly stunning.

          I see how hard it is for young women of their generation to be honest about who they are and what they want from life, to confront others and say what they think rather what they feel they ought to say just to be liked. I see how girls are still socialised to be selfless, stepping back from opportunities with the presumption that she doesn’t deserve it, or isn’t up to it, whereas young men never think twice about their right to do so. And I see how so many young women still assume that their needs come behind those of the boys they form relationships with, absorbing the message that they are lucky to have been chosen at all, when they are the ones who should be doing the choosing.

          I spent a year listening to teenage girls talking about the bitch bullying culture in our schools for a book. I was so shocked by what I found that I then spent another year touring schools on a voluntary basis to run workshops on why this behaviour has mushroomed and how to cope with it. I have no doubt that countless young girls are growing up profoundly confused by the conflicting messages they are given. Take sex for instance. On the one hand they are as entitled to sexual exploration and fulfilment as the boys. They feel sexy and are understandably interested in sex. They are encouraged by the boys to reveal body parts which can be instant messaged from phone to phone. But the prevailing ethos is still that ‘good’ girls ‘don’t’. ‘Slag’ is the number one insult hurled at girls by both sexes and rumours almost always trash another girl’s sexual reputation. Boys are never tarnished in the same way.

           Girls know they have to succeed too, on their own merits. Girls are on the whole doing better than boys at school according to exam results. But then the whole ‘sex’ thing gets in the way again, confusing things. Without a strong constitution, and a heavily academic ambition with a few healthy middle class female role models who are also mothers thrown in for good measure, girls easily succumb to the notion that it is only the sexier and more attractive women who thrive. Jordan can embrace fame and success because of her breasts; Pippa because of her bottom. If you can’t make it because of your brain then your body will have to do all of the work, provided it’s good enough, and what girl believes that these days?

           Girls are human beings so they get just as angry as the boys but they are not allowed to express it. Research on siblings shows that girls fight just as much as boys when they are within the safety of their own homes. But when they get out into the wider world, girls fight half as much. So they bitch bully, knowing how to wound each other exactly where it will hurt the most because they cannot express their rage and their impotence in any other way without compromising their reputations as ‘good’ or ‘nice’. Girls pull each other back when they strive to achieve, or in girl talk, ‘get too up themselves.’

            Raising girls and boys in a world which is still so profoundly unequal when it comes to its treatment of men and women requires a very particular kind of parenting. We do have to work harder to help both our sons and our daughters understand how we are socialised to behave in certain ways according to our gender. Because it is only when we find the strength as individuals to chip away at those pernicious stereotypes that we can hope to change them.

            Countless women have written about the need to provide a healthier ballast against the onslaught of al these new pressures girls struggle with at the most vulnerable time of their lives. Natasha Walter’s LIVING DOLLS, Caitlin Moran’s HOW TO BE A WOMAN and Vogue Editor Alexandra Schulman’s campaign against size 0 seems to have struck a chord with my daughters, nieces and their friends. Funny how it might only be once a man starts talking about these issues that their importance moves centre stage, if sales of Biddulph’s previous books are repeated. But if that’s what it takes then go Steve, go. In the end every girl is somebody’s sister, mother or wife.

THE BIG FAT BITCH BOOK by Kate Figes is published by Virago at £9.99

Posted in: raising girls