Like most feminists, I can rattle off the names of my own inspirations at the drop of a hat — the likes of Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Susan B. Anthony, Maya Angelou, and Hillary Clinton have all influenced me in different ways during various phases of my life. But the one person who has consistently been my feminist inspiration is my mom. If I could teach a young girl half of what my mom taught me, I'd consider myself successful. But I'm not interested in having kids right now, and I may never be a parent. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to be a feminist influence to the young girls in your life even if you're not a parent — and I learned this firsthand from my parents' amazing group of friends.
Whether you have nieces, younger cousins, or close friends with daughters, leading by example can make a huge difference. Although my mom is the most important person in my life, my parents have an amazing circle of friends who influenced my feminism in a variety of ways. They include teachers, stay-at-home moms, and highly successful lawyers — but the one thing they have in common is that whenever we were together at the many gatherings my parents' had, they encouraged me to be strong, unique, and to follow my dreams. My first niece was born earlier this year, and I hope to impart these qualities to her.
So, even if we're not parents, there are still ways we can help the girls we know have faith in their strength, their intelligence, and themselves. Here are six ways to be a positive feminist influence on the young girls in our lives.
1. Ask Them About Their Hobbies & Interests
When you're chatting with your niece or your friend's daughter, ask thoughtful questions about her favorite subjects in school and her hobbies. Whether she loves drawing, soccer, writing, or dance, talk to her about the things she loves and the qualities that define her. If she likes to read, recommend some of your favorite childhood books that feature strong female protagonists.
Once I hit seventh grade or so, I found that a lot of people quickly defaulted to asking me if I had a boyfriend or if there was a "special guy" I liked. It made me feel uncomfortable because I had no interest in middle school dating and I didn't want to be defined by my relationship to a guy. I was working incredibly hard as a student and ballet dancer, and I loved to read and write — I could have talked about those topics all day, but being asked about guys made me uncomfortable.
Of course, if there's a teen girl in your life who has a boyfriend or girlfriend, the topic doesn't need to be ignored altogether — he or she is a part of her life, and there's certainly nothing anti-feminist about having a relationship and being excited and happy about it. We should take an interest in all aspects of a young girl's life that are important to her. But it still shouldn't be the focus of every conversation — whether she's single or in a couple, she has a lot to offer the world and she has an identity totally separate from her partner, so help her re-affirm it.
2. Be Body Positive
Kids are like sponges and even if you're not speaking directly to them, they absorb a whole lot of what we say. So, while I don't think any of us would talk to a third-grader about weight, be mindful of what you say when they're around. In an ideal world, none of us would talk about "feeling fat" or express obligatory guilt when we reach for dessert. But many women (including me) struggle with body image and sometimes we do need to talk with our friends about it.
But I'd urge you to make an effort not to do so in the presence of the young girls in your life — they're going to hear a whole lot of it from their peers starting at a certain age, so don't instill the idea that it's an interesting or worthwhile topic of conversation.
3. Be Respectful Of Their Boundaries
Consent starts early and it can be taught in many ways. As much as some of us love to hug and snuggle the little ones in our lives, not all kids feel comfortable with a lot of physical contact. If they don't want to hug you or don't like a kiss on the cheek, don't force it — no means no in every aspect of life and we should respect kids' boundaries in every way. It'll help instill in them that when they say "no" and a person doesn't listen, something is very wrong.
4. Compliment Their Personalities, Not Their Appearances
Of course there's no harm in telling your niece or cousin that she looks beautiful if she's dressed up for a special occasion — and, of course, if she's in a phase of her life where she expresses insecurity about her body, a compliment can go a long way.
But, in general, try to focus your praise on a girl's personality traits and accomplishments, rather than greeting her with lines like, "All the boys at school must be clamoring for your attention!" Compliment her for being intelligent, assertive, hard-working, and compassionate. Be engaged about her milestones at school and in her extracurriculars, so you can be sure to tell her how proud you are of her and her hard work.
5. Take Them On Interesting Outings
If you're close with a young girl in your life, you'll have the opportunity to take her on outings and spend one-on-one time together. Be thoughtful about how you spend this time — rather than defaulting to a mall trip or taking her to see a movie that may objectify a woman, think of an activity that may inspire her. If she plays a sport, take her to see a women's college or pro game. If she loves art, find a class you can take together or go to an art museum (ideally one with a good collection of work by both male and female artists). Finding something that both suits her interests and gives her an opportunity to experience something new will be invaluable.
6. Encourage Them To See Other Girls As Allies, Not Enemies
Again, it starts with leading by example — when the young girls in your life are around, you probably aren't inclined to vent to them about that woman at work who you can't stand because she's just the worst and she got a promotion she didn't deserve. But if she overhears you saying these things to her parent, she may absorb the message that women are to be seen as enemies and competitors, rather than one another's allies. Make a point of talking to them about the women in your life who have been allies to you — friends, coworkers, bosses. If her parent is someone who has empowered you or been supportive of you, it's great to point that out. When I was around 11 or 12, one of my mom's best friends chatted with me about how my mom had inspired her in college due to her work ethic and her commitment to social justice and activism, and it meant the world to me.
Girls can become competitive at an early age, especially if they're perfectionists. So, if the young girl in your life talks to you about feeling jealous about being the second smartest girl in school, encourage her to cultivate friendships with everyone who's kind and has common interests — even if they do have a slightly higher GPA. Point out that we all have different strengths, and that surrounding herself with hard-working friends can be an inspiration. Remind her that another girl's GPA or extracurricular achievements don't undermine her own accomplishments. This insecurity is something plenty of us struggle with well into adulthood, so it helps to send a positive message from an early age.
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