Women get mixed media messages all of the time. Women are given an invisible tightrope to walk. We’re told if we want love, we need to “Act Like A Lady, But Think Like A Man.” Be straight forward, not a bitch. You have the right to dress how you want to, but don’t go out on the weekend looking like you’re “asking for it.”
If you hate the way you look, you’re having an identity crisis. If you love the skin you’re in, you’re labeled “less classically beautiful” than your peers as in the recent case with award-winning actress Viola Davis.
Entertainment likes to push that agenda as well by telling us that men are in power and anytime that role is reversed, the woman’s power is in sex.
For every Beyonce fan who loves her all-woman band and take-charge stage presence, there is another woman shaming her risqué performances and sexualized lyrics. ABC’s “Scandal,” puts actress Kerry Washington into the spotlight as the first African-American woman to lead an American network drama series since 1974. Yet, the role could not escape backlash as it raised questions of what her role as the President’s mistress means in in the scheme of things when it comes to the image of black women in the media.
You take a character such as Tony Soprano, with all of his murdering, side affairs and vulgarities and the conversation is usually kept to the character and its made for TV world. Men don’t necessarily assume his character speaks volumes about men. Why is that? It could be because women are not often placed in the lead and every occasion when it occurs raises a question in the larger debate about our progress. Then women are divided as we are forced to choose whether we agree with the portrayal or not.
So what do we tell our daughters? How do we raise and encourage more young women to go after their dreams and desires without compromising who they are? And when I say compromise, I mean the morals and values they’ve constructed for themselves. A larger part of the internal fight amongst our sisters starts with the fact that we all come from a varied background of cultural norms. It’s easy to knock one another for exuding behaviors that we deem unacceptable.
The conversation starts at home. The greatest gift my parents gave me was telling me I could do whatever I wanted to do, if I put my mind to it. And it was told to me so often, with such sincerity, that I believed it. It is about creating an atmosphere for your children to explore who they are with your support. It doesn’t matter if you’re a biological parent, a grandparent or a teacher. Children need surroundings that reinforce them with confidence.
When I was a youngster, in our bathroom on Breckwood Blvd in Springfield, Massachusetts, we had this huge mirror that spanned the length of the wall and I would pull a dining room chair up to the sink and practice reading the nightly news. I was about nine years old when my uncle caught me one time in the bathroom and I was mortified. But instead he told me I should consider doing that for a living. That he thought I would be good at it. His words gave me a boost of confidence and I went back to pretending with renewed vigor.
A good friend reminded me the other day of how messy my room would be as a child (it’s a tad better now. A tad). My mother would tell me to get up there and get down to the business of cleaning, but it would take me hours upon hours to finish the job because I could never focus on it long enough to get it done.
I’d pick up a notebook and get lost in stories I’d written that week or find a pen and start crafting a new one. Before I’d know it, time had lapsed and I was deep in character development and the clothes on my floor hadn’t moved an inch. What others assumed was me goofing off was to me time “in my zone.”
All I cared about was reading and writing. Anything else seemed like a huge waste of time. On Sundays my father would read the USA Today at the kitchen table and I remember mimicking him and holding up the broadsheet in my hands and thinking how amazing it would be to see my byline in a newspaper. You see, I wanted to do something important. I wanted to tell people “stuff” that was happening in the world.
And so I kept my head buried in books so that I could learn and be able to recite the knowledge I gained. My father treated me often to trips to the bookstore. One month I might be addicted to learning about dinosaurs, the next about fairytales and ogres. He didn’t criticize my book choices or the hours I spent indulging in them, rather he fed my curiosity.
I share this to say that we must take the time to recognize the gifts in our daughters. Not what we perceive to be their strengths but what they show a natural magnetism toward – whether we love it or not. If you have a daughter you need to read this: The greatest reward we can give our daughters is reassurance – that they’re loved, respected, accountable, valued and special. Especially because there will be hundreds of situations that attempt to tell them the opposite. There will be boys that will tell them they aren’t special, corporate structures where their skills won’t be valued or rightfully compensated and messages in our society that easily make them feel worthless.
As parents we must stop thinking about our short-term game and start parenting for the long-term. We are not raising girls, we are raising women. Keep that in your mind as you have conversations. We all know that sometimes it can just be a simple off-hand remark that can hurt and stay with us well into our adulthood.
Think about it? I’m sure there is something your parent has said to you in passing that still cuts like a knife when you recall it. And we’re not perfect. We’re going to screw a lot of things up (I joke with my son all of the time that it’s my parental obligation to give him a few things to complain about in therapy. Ha!)
As we work to move the needle on women in leadership, entrepreneurism and the like, it is our duty to prep the next generation of women to pick up where we left off. Let’s just make sure we are pulling them in a direction that is worth following.