My daughter is turning 7 this weekend. Psychologists and religious figures have long considered 7 to be the age at which a child begins to be able to reason. 7-year-olds are viewed as being mature enough to navigate the world using logic instead of just intuition. Their fears change from fantastical worries of monsters under the bed to anxiety over not fitting in with their peers. With this shift in thinking comes accountability. 7-year-olds have a much clearer understanding of “right” and “wrong,” and are expected to make good choices.
The problem is that the expectations for females are often different than those of males. The recent rape case perpetrated by a Stanford Olympic swimming hopeful has shed even more light on these discrepancies. Girls are not only responsible for their own choices, but often for the feelings, desires, or abusive actions that their mere existence in the world invokes.
As my daughter moves into older childhood, and later to the teen years, I want her to understand that, no matter what society tells her, there are some things that are NEVER her fault.
Here are seven things that my daughter should never feel responsible for:
1. Looking happy all the time.
Traditionally seen as nurturers and peace keepers, women often feel pressure to put on a pleasant face, no matter the circumstances. Even women in the public sector, such as Serena Williams and Hillary Clinton, have been criticized for not smiling. The problem is that asking a woman to smile sends the message that her facial expressions are up for discussion, that it’s not her true emotions that count, but the feeling that she gives to other people.
What I want my daughter to understand is that she is entitled to all of her emotions. She is under no obligation to manipulate her feelings or expressions to make other people feel better.
2. How people respond to her clothing choices.
My daughter is still at an age where she feels comfortable romping around the backyard in her underwear. She talks about how fast her legs are and how strong her arms are. She still doesn’t know what it means to “show too much skin,” or “not enough leg.” She still doesn’t understand that one day her body will be critiqued and judged, often by complete strangers.
What I want her to know is that these judgements speak more about the person saying them than they ever will about her. Her body is hers. She is free to cover it up as much or as little as she sees fit. She is never responsible for other people’s reactions to her clothing choices.
3. Sacrificing her own needs.
So much of being a woman is about making other people feel good. We are expected to take care of our children, parents, significant others, and friends. It can be a wonderful feeling to nurture others, especially if they give us back that same loving care. But, too often we end up spending so much time taking care of other’s needs, that we forget to think of ourselves. This is especially true when we become mothers.
But, no matter how difficult it may be to find the time for it, self-care is crucial to our own wellbeing, and even to our ability to be helpful to others. What I want my daughter to know is that it is not her responsibility to be a martyr in order to tend to the needs of the people in her life.
4. Keeping quiet.
Historically, women have been valued more for their ability to support the opinions of their fathers and husbands than for having their own thoughts. While this is changing, there are still lingering expectations for women to “be seen but not heard.” Women who have too many opinions are often considered “bossy” or “bitchy,” while men with similar demeanors are thought of as leaders. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Madeleine Albright, and Sonya Sotomayor are just a few of the powerful women who have been criticized for being too opinionated.
Right now, my daughter is a strong, well-spoken little person. As she gets older, I hope that she is able to keep that engaging personality and desire to be heard.
5. Not being attractive enough.
There are so many factors involved in being beautiful. Cultural standards, lifestyle, and genetics are all things that are used to assess appearances. Women who are considered beautiful generally make more money. Recent studies show that less attractive women can earn as much as 11% less than their more beautiful peers. Although I can’t control how society judges my daughter’s appearance, I hope I have some influence on how she sees herself.
I want her to know that, no matter what her external appearance may be, confidence and good self-esteem are things that she has the power to develop.
6. Being beautiful.
While being attractive can open up many doors, not all of them are doors that we want to be opened. Unfortunately, a pretty face is often seen as an invitation to verbally or sexually abuse women. I want my daughter to understand that no one ever has the right to objectify her or treat her disrespectfully. Her beauty belongs to her, and she is not responsible for the desires or actions her appearances may evoke.
7. Being sexually abused.
There are so many dangerous messages being sent to young girls about their sexuality. The media tells them that it’s important to look desirable while schools send them home for dressing “inappropriately.” Prominent politicians, like John Kasich, tell girls that, in order not to be raped, “Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol.”
Rape victims are still blamed for “asking for it” while public figures like Bill Cosby are allowed to prey on women for years. The National Institute for Justice sites that only 36% of rapes were reported, largely because the victims felt guilt, shame, or fear.
What I want my daughter to understand is that no matter what she says, how she looks, or what she wears, she is never NEVER responsible for being sexually abused. Blame for abuse lies squarely on the perpetrator.
Right now my daughter isn’t thinking about any of these things. She is too busy celebrating her 7 turns around the sun. But, it won’t be long before she begins to understand what being a female in our society entails. I hope, when that time comes, she is able to embrace all the beauty of being a woman and shrug off the unfair blame and restrictions.