We may be many centuries beyond the age of the Puritans, and yet Puritanical views on everything from how much we should work to what we should do with our free time persist. Nowhere is this more apparent, however, than in all the small ways we shame girls and young women every day. From an early age, we teach kids that girls should look a certain way, like certain things, and behave a certain way — and that to deviate from these expectations is wrong. What’s more, we often teach these lessons through shame, which justperpetuates the whole vicious cycle.
You know what the really bananas thing is? Shame is not an effective tool. Studies have found that fat shaming doesn’t make people anymore likely to cleave their bodies to specific beauty standards; psychologists have written that shaming kids doesn’t work as a behavior modification technique; and, indeed, shaming kids can have some lasting psychological effects — not necessarily good ones. Shame doesn't do anything but make people feel bad. And what's the point of that?
Really, though, these aren’t the kinds of lessons we should be teaching at all — either through shame or through other methods. What all of these small ways we shame young women daily have in common is that they prevent growth, rather than foster it. No matter how hard I try, I just cannot figure out why we would want to do that— why we would want to set kids up for failure from such an early age. And yet, we keep doing it anyway — through these and countless other daily habits:
1. Making Fun Of Them For Being “Fangirls”
Fan communities can be hugely influential for people no matter what age they are, but they’re often particularly important for tweens, teens, and young adults. They foster a sense of belonging, allowing people to connect with others who share their interests, and can be instrumental in explorations around things like sexuality and gender identity. And yet, while many fandoms are considered socially acceptable — think sports — others are squarely mocked.
What’s more, Kaya Mendelsohn observed in her paper “Gender in Fandom” not only that “fan-based communities are often highly segregated across genders,” but — and this is key — that “females tend to identify with many of the more marginalized fandoms, while males comprise a fair amount of the more socially accepted groups.” This means that an awful lot of that mockery is directed specifically at young women — who, thanks to our culture’s antiquated views on gender, are already marginalized. By making fun of them and the fandoms they participate in, we’re just further marginalizing them and teaching them that the things they care about — and, by extension, they themselves — are worth less than those of their male counterparts.
2. Policing Their Interests
This problem isn’t just limited to fandoms, either. Whether it’s teasing girls for being “boy crazy” or loving lip gloss, or whether it’s telling them that superheroes are for boys or that they don’t need to worry their pretty little heads about learning to code, or whether it’s telling them that they can’t be love lip gloss and learn to code — that they have to pick one — we police young women’s interests all the time, often in ways that lock them into specific gender roles.
But here's the thing: girls are allowed to love lip gloss. They’re allowed to love coding. They’re allowed to love both; they are not mutually exclusive. They are allowed to love neither, and instead love something else entirely. They can follow traditional gender roles if they like, or eschew them, or take the ones they like and discard the ones they don’t like. They can be interested in whatever they’re interested in — and they deserve the space to explore those interests without anyone else judging them for them.
3. Calling Them “Fake”
It’s OK to explore your personality at any age, but childhood and our teenage years are literally made for it. That’s the time when we’re freest to try on different personalities and identities, and making sure that kids have the opportunity to do just that is tantamount. Just because a young woman is wearing fishnets and black nail polish one day and rejecting them the next doesn’t mean they’re “fake.” They’re figuring out who they are. And they’re free to be whoever they decide they want to be — and to change what that means whenever they decide, too.
4. Dress Codes
When enforced equally for everyone, dress codes aren’t necessarily problematic. It’s become clear in recent years, however, that dress codes frequently target young women. When girls are pulled out of school because the shirt they chose to wear on that hot summer day or the dress they picked out just because they liked it is "too distracting” for the boys in their class, we’re teaching them that boys’ education matters more than theirs does. We’re teaching them that boys can’t be held responsible for their actions. We’re teaching them that they are to blame for boys’ actions instead. We’re teaching them that their bodies are shameful, and that they need to “cover themselves up” if they want to be taken seriously — a view which, sadly, is still true for many adults, as evinced by the amount of appearance-policing women deal with in the workplace. We’re teaching them that they can be penalized simply for being who they are.
Confession: I am a former selfie-shamer. For a long time, I considered excessive selfies the pinnacle of selfishness, the clearest indication of how narcissistic and self-absorbed our society had gotten. (Yes, I am something of a misanthrope.) But somewhere around the time that group of sorority sisters were publicly shamed for taking selfies at a baseball game for a campaign that encouraged people to take selfies, I started to change my tune.
Our culture likes to police women’s appearances in an extreme way: They’re supposed to wear makeup (if they don’t, they’ve clearly “let themselves go”), but not too much (then they’re “high maintenance”); they’re supposed to be pretty and feminine (if they’re not, they’re lazy slobs), but not too pretty and feminine (then they care too much about how they look); they’re supposed to be thin, but not too thin — and also still eat giant burgers all the time, but only if they're thin (god forbid you eat a burger while being fat — that way lies lots of people telling you you're a moral failure)… it’s exhausting, and it is BS.
But selfies? Selfies are a way to take charge of our own narratives. We get to present ourselves how we like, to who we like. And yes, there are people who have definitely chosen to take selfies at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places, so maybe, uh, don’t do that if you can help it. But otherwise? Let people take their dang selfies if it makes them happy to do so. There’s no need to shame anyone for digging how they look.
6. Teasing Them About Their Crushes
Our culture fosters an awful lot of toxic ideas about relationships, love, and sex — and a lot of girls and young women learn those toxic ideas early on. When we tease them about their crushes, we teach them to associate their desires with embarrassment, which in turn teaches them that these desires are something of which they should be ashamed.
A common refrain in answers to relationship questions from advice columnists like Captain Awkward and Doctor Nerdlove is this: Use your words. Not sure if someone you like likes you back? Ask. Trying to figure out if someone you dig wants to try dating? Ask. Feel like you’re getting mixed messages? Ask. It sounds so simple — but when we teach your people to be embarrassed about not only who they like, but the fact that they like anyone at all, we teach them that other people finding out about these crushes is The Worst Thing In The World. This, in turn, teaches them to do the opposite of using their words: Clamming up.
Communication is key to healthy, happy relationships — but when we teach young women to stay silent about their wants, needs, and desires out of fear that they’ll suffer unimaginable shame for it, we teach them expressly not to communicate. We’re setting them up for failure before they even start dating.
7. Commenting On Their Bodies
“Wow, you’ve really… grown!” “It’s OK, you’re just a late bloomer.” “I bet you’re a real heart breaker.” “You’re not leaving the house in that.” “Are you sure you want to eat that?”
Young women frequently experience others — often the adults in their lives — saying these and other similar comments to them. They’re usually unsolicited — and they all do the same thing: They comment, either overtly or subtly, on their bodies in ways that teach
If someone is labeled a “late bloomer,” the implication is that they’re not conventionally attractive, that it’s a problem not to be conventionally attractive, and that conventional attractiveness is something to aspire to — the only view of beauty worth having. If someone is called a “heart breaker,”or that they’ve “really grown” (with a loaded pause between “really” and “grown”), it teaches them to expect sexual objectification — and that their value is based on their appearance. If someone is told they’re absolutely “not leaving the house in that,” they learn that their bodies are shameful and should becovered up. If someone is asked, “Are you sure you want to eat that?”, the implication is that they shouldn’t eat that—that to do so would make them “fat,” and that “fat” is “bad.”
None of these things are true, of course. It’s fine to be conventionally attractive, but also fine not to be. Your value is not based on your appearance, and you are more than just a sexual object for other people to consume. Your body is not shameful. Fat is not bad, and your body is not indicative of your moral success or failure. And yet, every time we say these comments to young women, we are teaching them otherwise.
8. Being Secretive About Common, Everyday Things
Periods happen. People have sex. Consent matters. These —and other related topics — are all basic facts, and yet our culture so often treats them as “shameful” or “not for polite company.” But when we do an enormous disservice not just to young women, but to everyone by being secretive about them. Doing so just contributes to and perpetuates period stigma, slut shaming, rape culture, and so many other issues — issues which, by rights, we should not have to worry about.
But what if we stopped being so secretive about these topics? What if, instead, we started having open, frank conversations about them? What if we fostered healthy relationships with them from an early, rather than demonizing them? I imagine that world would be pretty great. I'd like to live there myself.
Here's the thing: All these ways that we regularly shame young women? They're easy to fix. Just let people be who they are — even if you think you "know better" than they do. (Spoiler: You probably don't, because usually, the person who knows what's best for anyone is that person themself.) It's as simple as that. It's worth giving a try, don't you think?