Several posts ago, I wrote about the awkwardness (which sometimes turns into shame) women begin to feel around that critical age of adolescence. My daughter is going through that time now. I try to keep our house as open as possible…and I know for a fact that she tells me everything. Yes…everything…and while I may not like or am frightened by what she shares with me…the only way we can work through the fear, the frustrations, the anxiety, we BOTH feel, is to get it out, talk about it, get real.
When I started this project, there was a yucky feeling in my gut that accompanied the liberation I knew I would feel in getting it out. I couldn’t have told you what it was…but yesterday after speaking to a group of 7th graders…I think I know what is is.
I do feel that it is important for me to clarify the entire context of this conversation. If you’ve seen the movie “the Help” then you know my upbringing. I was born in the South in 1960. I lived in an middle upper income neighborhood. I was an accomplished student, athlete and person. I lettered in four sports, was the first female president of the student government at my high school and won the senior of the year award, went to college and majored with a degree in Chemistry. Despite my attempts to prove (I wonder who I was really trying to prove this to) I was a strong empowered young woman, I still felt valued primarily for my appearance. I was a dubutante, in 1978, joined a sorority in 1979 and partied my way through college. In 1982, I moved to Atlanta, without knowing a single soul and began my career as a teacher. Fell madly in love with the handsome Biology teacher…followed him to Charleston while he went to med school, moved back to Charlotte when my heart was aching…and so the story goes.
I had virtually no female friends.
When I started Girls on the Run, I had no idea how amazing women-friends could be. I had never really had any.
When I was in sixth grade, my best friend developed breasts. I didn’t and never have, frankly. Not much of them, anyway. The attention I had previously received on the playground from the boys, began to wane (from my perspective)…at least in comparison to the attention my friend was getting. Popping bras was the activity of the hour and because I wasn’t wearing one…I was rarely chased, chosen, “liked.”
Now leap ahead seven years. I worked at a summer camp on the coast of North Carolina. That summer I started running, worked in the sun, sailed everyday. Tanned, toned and with a new hue of golden hair, I returned to college. Suddenly the attention I had longed for, came to me like I had never known. I wasn’t invisible anymore…not at all. The talk was everywhere that “Molly had finally grown into her body” and questions were asked, “Where did Molly go? You are so pretty now.”
In 1971, sixth grade, I was invisible. I wanted to like my friend, but the truth was (and thanks to the comments from my 7th grade friends yesterday, who just unabashedly threw this conversation into the ring) a tension between the two of us arose. We drifted apart. Playing “girl” came to her much faster than me and it’s like the two of us were living in two very different worlds…and because I suddenly felt invisible, like any little girl just trying to make sense of it all, I blamed my good friend…for caving…for giving into “being popular.” I blamed her, rather than our culture, for my feeling less than, invisible, unloved. As if she was intentionally pushing me away. And when you are 11 and feeling “yucky” the easiest way to relieve yourself of all that unexplained angst…of not feeling loved, liked or accepted, you speak unkindly of what you think is to blame…and in this case it was my good friend.
The year after my summer camp experience, my social life in college went from absolute zero to richter scale 10…and if you know anything about the richter scale…that isn’t a ten fold increase, it’s exponential. And while I was receiving the attention I had always wanted, I still felt invisible. The strong, intelligent, empowered, girl who could run fast, out talk you on any political debate, speak of esoteric philosophies and converse on William Faulkner’s works of Southern Literature wasn’t of interest…or at least not in the world in which I currently lived…or perceived as the world I was in.
I had only a handful of girlfriends who really knew me and some of the others…well, I think they may have said really mean things, gossipped about my apparent “social escapades” and generally minimized who I was in their secret talk and social circles. It hurt…a lot.
This kind of circular, never-ending, never being okay starts in 7th grade. Maybe even earlier. Yesterday I could literally feel the air in the room change, when we got the big Pink Elephant out into the middle of the room. This unspoken desire to love our sisters and “be as one” with our gender…something I’ve longed for, prayed for, dreamed of…simply can’t happen until we are willing to admit that somewhere underneath all of the combined strength of our wisdom, are these competing forces that pit us against each other.
The spotlight for women on the world’s stage…is so small (women make up 51 percent of the population but only 11 percent of elected officials) we all clamor even just to get our toe in it…and when one of our sisters is fully exposed in the spotlight, we nudge her out by harshly judging her.
I supposed I should position this whole conversation, speaking solely for myself and reword this entire document with the word “I” instead of “we”, but I think if we want to get anywhere…as a gender…as an empowered group…we’ve got to get honest about our fears of being invisible…unheard…un-valuable and take a really hard look at how we perpetuate this culture of separation.
I know I’m not alone. The temptation to hit the link to a story on Jessica Simpson’s latest :weight conversation” or Demi Moore’s current “mental status” is not only strong, but so easy to access. Skipping over the “Housewives of….” series where women are pitted, one against the other, is difficult. Putting away the pop-culture magazines that question whether Sarah Palin has breast implants or Hilary Clinton looks old and haggard is tough…I mean this stuff is everywhere!
But talking to my 7th grade friends…I look into their eyes and they look into mine and I realize that the only difference between the playground they play on and the playground I play on…is our age. We really all are the same…wanting to be heard, valuable and loved.
I realize that the only way to shift this culture rooted in appearance, competition, harsh judgment of one another, reality shows, advertising gone haywire and our anger…yes anger and fear…that I believe started as early as 7th grade… is to realize we are all valuable, worthy and important to society…every last one of us…me, you, Hilary Clinton, my good friend, my daughter, Sarah Palin, Demi Moore, Lindsay Lohan, Snookie, my mom, the girls I serve …we are all human, just trying to figure it out, brave in the attempt and worthy for simply being here.
It’s going to be hard, but for Chloe who is a great runner, Savannah who is an amazing artist and Sarah who loves to write…I’m going to do my best to put aside anything–magazines, television, music–that continues to pit women against each other and shift the spotlight onto things that elevate them…my little sisters, our sisters…each other and ourselves…
My sixth grade friend…was an amazing young girl. She had a sense of humor that would light up any room, could write a creative story like nobody’s business and really helped me through some tough times…she was a good friend and important to me…
How does this post hit you…what feelings does it provoke? Let me know. If you don’t want to post it here…email me at firstname.lastname@example.org