The other day a little thing on Facebook started a big discussion, and not surprising really, it's an important topic and it's a big topic. In fact it's too big for one blog. I am going to split it up into several, and continue over the rest of the week.
The original issue was over an article where a man objected to Victoria's Secret selling underwear aimed at girls of under 13 which had slogans or styles that he felt were inappropriate for the age group.
I think we all agreed that this is very much a supply and demand thing, if nobody was going to buy them, they wouldn't be selling them. So, obviously there are parents who will buy these for their daughters. Perhaps we should aim our objections at them. Still, I do consider it optional for a company to sell a product, and I do believe in such a thing as business ethics. After all, other articles going round the internet demonstrate J. C. Penney's defiant support of LGBT rights, this is a calculated decision on their part to choose one customer base over another, based on ethics. We can infer whatever we want from such decisions.
Nothing I do or say here will have any impact on the vendor, so I'm not even going to bother.
I'm going to begin by looking at the girl of 11 or 12. I've been one, and I've raised two of them. I've known quite a few. This is not a foreign creature, by any means.
The pre-teen girl is in a very strange place. The usual thing to say is that she is confused by the changes taking place in her body. That may be so, but what she feels may or may not be confusion. It may feel very straightforward and certain. But it isn't going to stay the same. It's a step towards maturity, it isn't maturity. At the time, it may feel like maturity, because it's new and because she has no idea how the next stage, and the next, will feel. This is true of every stage in our lives. As we are today is what is familiar, and we may think we've finally got a handle on it, but in ten years time we'll look back and realise we were still learning. The difference at 11 is that this process is happening much faster.
Everyone blames hormones, which is partially fair. They directly affect the brain, which itself is developing. Thought processes at 11 are not the same as those at 13, or 16, or 25. Decision-making is based very much on immediate wants and needs, less on plans and caution.
However, no matter what is going on inside her, the girl is affected powerfully by outside forces. Everything she sees and hears affects her decision-making processes. Peer pressure, media and advertising, parental advice, and so on, all filter in, and depending on how important they are to the individual girl, they have a greater or lesser effect. Her own self-esteem is already in place, based on experiences so far. Her own set of role models are around her, and therefore in her head. Each girl is different, but none of them are immune to the opinions, actions, and direct intervention of others.
Some of this is cultural norms. I grew up in a society where girls and boys were allowed to mix freely without supervision. We had no chaperones. In other societies it would be very different. A million years ago it would have been different again. All of us have expectations, which may be tacit or explicit. I knew at 11 that I was not supposed to show certain parts of my body to strangers/boys/the public/cameras. It wasn't hard to work out what was and wasn't supposed to be shown - it was easily guided by the bikini I wore swimming. In another culture there might be far more restrictions, but I grew up in that one, the norm for the modern west, and it was pretty straightforward.
But I had definite advantages. Culturally, it was a permissive time, but a much simpler time. There was no pressure by the media or advertising to force me to grow up faster than I was ready to. I had a good sense of who I was, and good self-esteem from a stable homelife, a wise mother, good people around me generally, all the right messages really. The only bad message that still lingered in the early seventies was that of women being somehow not quite as important as men. We still haven't quite conquered that one, but at least I didn't believe it. Neither did my mother, and THAT is very important.
When a girl believes, and is raised by people who believe that women are equal to men, it makes a massive difference in attitudes, and therefore decisions. Above all it means she does not define herself by her value to men.
There are still girls today being raised to believe that all you need to be is a pretty thing, and then men will take care of you. That attitude is at least 100 years out of date, and was never, actually, a good thing. It was perpetuated by women as much as by men, and let's not forget that. It is mostly mothers who pass this on. It keeps women in bondage, effectively, it keeps them scared, it keeps them down. It causes them to make bad choices, and ultimately it causes great unhappiness. The emancipation of women was not about voting. Here's a statement from the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive of Sexology:
The emancipation of women, i.e. their liberation from religious, legal, economic, and sexual oppression, their access to higher education, and their escape from narrow gender roles is not easily achieved. The struggle for sexual equality has a long history and is likely to continue for some time. Even if it should soon be won in the industrial nations, it may well rage on in many "underdeveloped" countries.
In traditionally patriarchal societies any improvement in the status of women has far-reaching consequences and produces fundamental political changes. Therefore it is always resisted by the established powers. However, it seems certain that they will ultimately have to relent, because the emancipation of women is both necessary and desirable. It will provide for a greater degree of social justice and thus benefit everyone. Indeed, from the beginning, the great "feminists" or champions of women's rights have always insisted that they worked in the interest of the whole human race. The feminist movement therefore has always been a humanist movement. Some of its representatives were reformers, others revolutionaries, but virtually all of them worked for a better, more equitable, and more humane world. Much can be learned from their experiences. They often suffered ridicule, persecution, and defeat, but also won admiration, support, and victory. Gradually, they achieved many of their goals. Their opponents, on the other hand, learned that a just cause cannot be suppressed forever. Where needed reforms are consistently blocked, revolution becomes inevitable.
I can't add to that.
A woman is not emancipated if she believes (because she is taught) that her role is subservient to men. No matter what freedoms her society give her, legally or culturally, if deep inside she feels that her place is to be at the beck and call of a man, she is in bondage. It really is that simple.
I'll continue tomorrow.