Recently, a memory of an experience I had made me think about how we can empower our girls and young women in a culture that is wrought with many obstacles to do so. A number of years ago I saw a new male doctor for some medical issues I was experiencing. He was warm and friendly, but instead of putting me at ease, something didn’t feel right. In his brief exam (with my clothes on) he lingered in a way that gave me an uncomfortable gut feeling. He asked me questions about my sex life that seemed irrelevant to my issues. He sat unusually close to me and gave me a hug when I left, which no other doctor had ever done.
I began to question my own experience. Am I giving off some signals to bring this on? Maybe I’m crazy — this is all in my head, I’m just imagining this. He is just being friendly and concerned. He is a reputable doctor, so it must be me. Despite my better judgment I continued to see him on several more occasions, and on each time I felt a similar gut feeling of something not being quite right. It was not until years later, when I found out that he had lost his medical license (for undisclosed reasons) that I felt some validity for my own gut feeling of something not being right after all.
This situation was a relatively minor one in comparison to some of the far more severe issues that girls and women face on a daily basis in a culture that has historically disempowered women. But as the memory of it surfaced recently, I began thinking a lot about my teenage and young adult female patients, who have been victim to unwanted sexual advances and worse, and to all of the woman who have had the courage to stand up and say “me too” after enduring sexual assault and harassment of all kinds. If, as a psychologist and person trained to help people validate their emotions, I could not trust my own gut feelings, felt some shame for what happened, and doubted myself all the while, I could only imagine how impossible it would feel to be anything but immobilized in the face of strong, unwanted sexual advances, and verbal and physical harassment.
Thanks to the courage of those behind it, the #MeToo movement is raising awareness and calling out for desperately needed global and systemic changes at all levels to address this disturbing and widespread problem. Most importantly, we need to stop explicitly and implicitly blaming and shaming women who are victims of sexual harassment. We as a society need to give a clear message to girls that the victim is never to blame, and that this kind of behavior will never be tolerated under any circumstances.
But as the parent of both a young adult daughter and son, this all leaves me unsettled, and raises the question as to what I can do personally to empower my daughter to stand up to abuses of power that she may encounter, and to make sure that my son never engages in such behaviors. I had a few thoughts about what we can do in our own backyards, so to speak, as parents, teachers, and relatives of young children, to help empower girls to find their voices and stand strong in their own strength and conviction, and to teach our boys how to value and respect girls and women.
First of all, we can be more aware of the subtle messages that we give to girls at an early age, and we can work to validate, not invalidate, their feelings. We want girls to be able to trust their own emotions and body signals, yet even the most well-meaning of us (myself included) at times inadvertently undermines this by some of the things we say. Some examples might include saying, “Stop being angry, just calm down”, “don’t be so sad”, or “Cheer up… I just want you to be happy.” In our effort to take away our kids’ pain, we often miss the opportunity to validate what they are feeling, and instead, give them the message that they need to push their feelings away in order to please us or make someone else feel better. Saying something like, “you look angry/sad, I wonder if you want to talk about it?” can help validate what they are feeling and give them permission to let these feelings have a voice.
Comments such as “you can’t be hungry, you just ate two hours ago”, or “what do you mean you’re not feeling well, you look fine to me”, or “why are you putting on your jacket, it’s not cold in here” are seemingly minor comments, but can carry the subtle message that girls can’t trust their own body signals because we, the adults, know better. We can help girls to sense into their own body signals from the inside out, by teaching them simple mindfulness skills of being aware of their own body sensations. If a girl is expressing hunger but just ate, it might be helpful to ask, “what are you noticing in your body? Does it feel like a signal of hunger, or might you be worried, bored, or something else? Listen inside and sense what you might most need right now.”
If a girl is expressing not feeling well it could be helpful to validate that her body is giving her important information, and suggest she notice and describe the feelings in her body. You might explain that our bodies can feel “not good” for lots of reasons, including sickness, but also sometimes if we are fearful or worried, sad, lonely, etc. What kind of “not feeling good” are you feeling right now? What do you think would most help?”
Most of us at a young age have an innate ability to sense our own “personal space” and know when a boundary is being violated, but it can be quite difficult to verbalize this feeling, and to know it is all right to do so. One way of teaching young children to learn to listen to and respond to this “gut” feeling is to play a simple game. Have the child stand in one spot, and walk toward the child. Encourage them to pay attention in their bodies to what they are noticing, and have them call out “stop” when they feel you are just the right distance and closeness from them, and not too close. You might do this with different friends or family members to illustrate that this personal space may get bigger or smaller depending on who is walking toward them. Their personal space bubble with their mother may be quite different than with their brother or father or friend that they just met.
We can also empower girls by giving them opportunities to advocate for themselves, even at a young age. As parents and caregivers, we often want to swoop in and make it all better or “fix it” for our children, and sometimes this is called for. But other times, we miss the opportunity for our children to learn to speak up for themselves, and develop their own inner strength in doing so. It can be helpful to sit with them and encourage them to problem solve when an injustice feels like it has been done, to give them the message that it is okay to speak up, be involved in a solution, and assert themselves.
When my son was in fourth grade he suffered from a terrible case of Tourette’s, with uncontrollable body movements that made other children look strangely at him and tease him. With the help of his teacher, he decided that he would get up in front of the class and explain to the class about Tourette’s, and answer questions the kids might have. This was enormously empowering for him in terms of handling a very difficult situation and helping to head off further potential bullying. While this example involved my son, we can work to help our girls advocate for themselves in this and other ways. Girls need permission to speak up, and we can be by their side and support them as they do.
Finally, we need to talk with our boys, at all ages, to explain to them what true informed consent means. Many well meaning adolescent and young adult boys do not understand what this actually means. We can start at a young age. “You need to ask your little sister if she wants to be hugged, OK? Just because it might feel good for you, she may not want to be hugged right now.” Or, “when you two are rough housing and she says ‘stop’ you need to respect her and leave her alone immediately.” (All too often, this kind of thing can be taken too lightly by parents.)
For older boys and even young adults, these conversations are critical, and need to be stated clearly and with concrete examples, leaving no room for doubt. Boys often assume that girls will speak up if they are uncomfortable, and that if a girl is “going along with it” and not protesting or saying anything, it means she is okay with it. Boys need to understand that consent is about asking directly, not about making assumptions. This is not well understood in our culture, and it is our job as parents and teachers, aunts, uncles and grandparents, to have these explicit conversations, over and over again, at all ages with our boys. We should not make the assumption that boys understand this concept. They likely will need specific examples. I just had such a conversation with my college son, despite that I believe he is a very good person at heart and very respectful of women.
The recent courage of so many brave female voices is helping to raise awareness for all of us. This can offer us an opportunity to look for ways to be part of the solution, and perhaps one place to start might be in our own backyard.