I was lucky to have parents who filled our home with strong heroines. My role models flew into my life on the backs of books, films, and boisterous aunts and cousins who danced barefoot at the stove and pruned fruit trees with summer sweat dripping from their brows.
From my first memories onward, I never doubted I could do anything. My parents watched me march confidently through school, grade after grade. In old photos I see myself, see my little girl friends, see all of us somehow inextricably linked.
Childhood is comprised of those beautiful little bodies not quite understanding how they are gendered. Then, one day, puberty strikes. Suddenly, students are thrust into health classes to learn about their changing bodies, enigmatic alphabet prodigies turned science lecture snooze-to-the-bell drones. Our minds and bodies interact daily, shouldn’t classes concerned with our relationship to our bodies reflect that intense connection?
We were separated from our male peers to discuss uterine wall linings and ova, but I didn’t understand a penis and a vagina had to meet to result in pregnancy. I was instructed by my school’s nurse on which office door to knock when I had “an accident” in history class. There were no discussions of masturbation, of pleasure, of sex acts that didn’t constitute penetration. In fact, there weren’t any discussions at all. They talked, we listened. That was the way.
I understand how this happens. The current mainstream education system in the United States is predicated on lecture-based learning. Overpopulated schools can’t afford more teachers, so too many students are shuffled into already over-crowded classrooms with underpaid teachers who lecture just to keep from choking on the pressure of preparing their charges for standardized tests. The overloading of bureaucratic curricula requirements on educators defines the educational experience for all parties and prevents real conversations from being had in classrooms.
And let me tell you, I could have benefited from having a real conversation in the classroom. You know who else could benefit? Our girls. You know, those bright-eyed, knobbly-kneed pre-teens who are so prepared for tough conversations you can’t even comprehend the greatness that is before you?
How do I know this? I’ve worked with them. For four wonderful years, I’ve mentored girls in local public middle schools on issues of leadership, empowerment, and critical thinking. I started as a volunteer mentor and was eventually promoted to coordinate the entire operation. If I did my math correctly, in that time, I worked with at least 300 girls. Every single one of them was thoughtful and observant, and precocious to varying degrees.
They’d come in on their first day and sit quietly without meeting anyone’s eyes and wait to be taught. That’s not what our program did. Our aim was to facilitate a discussion started and finished by girls. But we always found on that first day that starting discussions was something they weren’t encouraged to do, because what do kids know? A lot, they know a lot.
When our body image and health discussion days rolled around they couldn’t wait to dive in, armed and ready with quips about stereotypes and humorous drawings that ended up being such complex commentaries on the (mis)representations of women and girls in the media, that I would burst at the seams with pride every time. They cared about their bodies, how they could love them, protect them, and make them strong. And they wanted to talk about them.
Our bodies are the only things we have with us our entire lives. We live, work, play, think and love in them. Our bodies should be the most relevant conversation around the globe, and everyone should partake. Unfortunately, youths (particularly, girls) are constantly overlooked when it comes to having these important conversations.
The problem is, without spaces for girls to discuss their bodies (after all, their bodies are THEIR bodies), there won’t be spaces for girls to discuss other equally important, though less obvious, issues, either. Acknowledging that girls should be part of the discussion of health, and should even have the option to lead these discussions themselves, is the first step to articulating a revolutionized rhetoric of the girl in our society.
As female-bodied individuals, we argue that the current war on our reproductive rights should include us, because if we aren’t seated at the table, one can be sure we are on the menu. This same logic applies to girls. And who can understand what its like to be a girl better than girls? Let’s not just defer to women’s memories because we once were. Let’s welcome these girls in because they’re clamoring for seats and a moment to be heard.