girls and self-identity

Sisters

Text by Becky.  Photos by the Eleven O’Clock Dad.

Shakespeare didn’t think too much of Ophelia.  The way he tells the story, she’s merely a lovely waif with a too-fragile mind–a casualty of her father’s crazy plotting and Hamlet’s crazy . . . craziness.  If you’ll remember, she lies down in a nearby stream and dies, just like that.

Or maybe not just like that.  Sidelined by the father who should have been her ally and the young man who should have viewed her as the main subject of his life, she loses her mind and ends her own life.  It’s a tragic conclusion to a story that never really got to be told.

And that’s precisely the point:  Ophelia never got the chance to be the author of her own life.

When I got home from Spain, I started rereading Mary Pipher’s 1994 landmark book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls, and the premise seemed proportionately more important to me now that I have one daughter preparing to exit adolescence and one daughter parked smack in the middle of it.  How do we teach our daughters to know, to embrace, and to own themselves?  How do we set them up to successfully author their own lives?  These are the questions Pipher takes up, and her extensive research underscores the need for parents–especially moms–to shepherd their daughters through the rocky years during which girls too often lose their sense of self.  Reviving Ophelia is a must-read for moms invested in their girls’ journeys toward a vibrant sense of self-identity.

So what are the answers?  One is giving a daughter an opportunity to go deep into the machinery of a particular talent or aptitude, not just so she can develop it but also so she can benefit from the surge of confidence and empowerment that comes from having a distinct strength she can legitimately own.  Sports, music, leadership endeavors, the arts . . . whatever a girl desires to lay claim to as “her thing” can help offset the pain of those blistering middle school years, especially, when the game changes and girls begin to buy into the messed-up message that how they look, or seem, is infinitely more important than who they are.

A story.  Knowing that Miss Zinnia was about to enroll at a new high school a short month ago, I worried and wondered.  Would she feel comfortable socially?  Would she find her Clan? Would she have opportunities to blossom?  Having collided once again with Pipher’s book and its crucial message, I decided to start a conversation with Miss Z. about its themes.  We were in the car one day, heading through Provo Canyon, in Utah.  “So what do you like about yourself?” I asked, to start things off.  Right away she told me she liked the color of her eyes.  But that was the “outside of her,” I pointed out, and I told her I wanted to know what she liked about the inside of her, at which point she confessed that she liked her singing voice.

And there it was.  Her voice.  Something she herself resonates to everyday.  What a boon, that not only does she like to sing, but she likes the sounds she makes.  And I found myself silently rejoicing that a few years ago, we committed to taking her and her voice and connecting her with some unique choral music opportunities and some extraordinary voice instruction.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road, either for Miss Z. or for any young woman eager to feel known and valued.  The trick?–not giving in to the abundant temptations to efface yourself as a means to acquiring value in the eyes of peers.  Pipher describes young women who, as girls, were bright, energetic, adventurous, self-assured, their journey into adolescence suddenly becoming treacherous as they quickly gain a sense of how the currency has changed.  In other words, while they might once have felt valued for who they were, they now begin to absorb messages from a society that values women for how they look, among other things.  As Pipher points out, girls too often go from being the subjects of their own lives to the objects of other people’s lives–like Ophelia.

Sisters

Sure, Miss Z. sings, but that doesn’t mean her walk through her middle school years wasn’t fraught.  A group of (not-nice) boys used to tease her, calling her “Peggy Sue.”  Back story.  When she was a sixth grader at a new middle school a few years ago, Miss Z. had a friend who told this cluster of bothersome boys that her name was Peggy.  The reason:  Miss Z. didn’t want them to know her real name.  In the moment, she felt that she and her friend had put one over on them.  What she didn’t bank on was the way the name would stick.  To that particular group of boys, she became Peggy Sue:  the girl who stuck out because of her old fashioned–read “outdated”–manners.  Sure, teachers loved her.  And her likeminded peers followed along when she started her own service club, for example, an effort that included making tray favors for kids in the hospital over Thanksgiving break, and selling mustaches during a “mustache madness” drive to raise money for cancer research.

But if you ask her today whether she enjoyed middle school, she’ll shrink a little, and her expression will go sour, and that’ll be your answer. Striving to be her own person during those years positively wore her out.

We encourage pre-adolescent girls to think, run, climb, jump, explore, discover, and conquer, while in a few short years they’ll be bombarded with another message:  that the shape of their faces and bodies matters more than the shape of their thoughts.  And too many of them, like Ophelia, will become confused by the very wrong but nevertheless predominant idea that as you grow up, being an object of desire trumps just being.

Back when Miss Z. and I had that conversation a month or so ago?  Well, I reviewed what I felt were the basic rules for social “efficiency,” but I framed it as a question of learning a new “language,” the successful mastery of which would help her move around gracefully among peers . . . then free her to be whoever she wanted to be in the meantime.  Sort of like learning the rules to a complex game and then figuring out how to selectively abandon them in favor of self-invented tricks that fast-track you to a decisive win.  “You don’t ever have to apologize for yourself,” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t be confused by my attempts to affirm her even as I was arming her with tricks for navigating the tricky social terrain of high school.

Sisters

Perhaps one of our most important jobs as Moms of teenage girls:  guarding the door to the gym, so to speak, so that our daughters can have some uninterrupted time to bulk up their identities in healthy, defined ways, without anyone storming the place and spreading crazy ideas about how all that matters is how they look in their workout gear.

Ophelia’s mom?  She’s curiously absent from the story of Hamlet.  Maybe if she’d been around, her daughter might have had a fighting chance.

Sisters

That conversation with Miss Zinnia in the canyon ended with her simple declaration that she liked herself.

May that never change!  And may the reason for her straightforward self-acceptance always be something close to what it was that day:  a realization that what she valued about herself was, in her eyes, worth valuing, whether anyone else ever put a premium on it or not.

Moms:  your thoughts about Pipher’s book (if you’ve read it)?  About raising strong girls?  What are your traditions?  How do you set your daughters up to own their lives with confidence?

(Photo: the Petals, in Avila, Spain, sporting their own handmade flower chains.  Distinctly Ophelia-like, but only because of the headware . . .)

 

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CA

So a few weeks ago, I piled Miss Lavender into the car, along with her considerable cache of Crucial-for-college Stuff, and off we went. To college. Miss Lavender, that is. I was merely the ride. Well, not “merely.” I mean more to her than that. (A smiley face emoticon would fit nicely here.)

A few things I miss about my big girl, who used to be a little girl, like, about ten minutes ago. No, really: it happens that fast. One minute, you’re a New Mom, a blue-eyed baby dollie in your arms; and the next, you’re making that one last mondo Costco run, so that your dollie won’t starve during her march toward mid-terms.

To what I miss, then. Definitely the very distinct furrow of concentration on her face when she’d be deep in conversation with me. She’s a good listener, that one. And her delectable smile. And her equally delectable laugh–good and loud, with her head thrown back sometimes. I miss her stylishness: Miss Lavender is a walking lookbook. I miss haunting whatever vintage spot we might have decided to call our new favorite. (At the moment, that would be Decades, in Salt Lake City.) And I always deeply appreciated her take on the world and its happenings. Nothing gets past her. Ah, and I miss her hands, their long, elegant fingers, and their expressiveness. And of course . . . of COURSE her dry sense of humor.

CA

I miss my spirited Petal.

But I’d sell the shirt off my back for her to be able to do what she’s doing. There might not be anything more essential to a young woman’s sense of self-identity than a university education.

So go take the world by storm, Miss Lavender.  You’ve earned the right to.

CA

Un fuerte saludo de tu madre . . . y los dos besitos muy necesarios, claro.

(Soon:  Miss Zinnia blossoms.  And what that has to do with Shakespeare’s Ophelia.)

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Millay in vintage_7956

The petals and I love all things vintage. If you happen to be in Los Angeles, then the only vintage place that counts is Shareen Vintage, a store-slash-warehouse so unimaginably fabulous it needed its own Eleven O’Clock post.

We discovered Shareen’s place a couple of years ago when we ran into a young woman wearing a vintage dress so truly (say it with me . . .) fabulous, we had to stop her so we could tell her what we thought of it. It was this little brocaded number, very fifties, a buttery yellow.  As we were dying over it, she thanked us for our compliments, then told us we had to check out Shareen’s.  “It’s girls-only,” she clarified.  “No men allowed!”

I love Shareen’s for more than just the amazing vintage finds, though.  You see, Shareen herself is Someone Special.  Here’s the story.  Miss Lavender and I made the trek into L.A. one day with the express purpose of talking with Shareen, who, once we had her attention, was so fully present, so in the moment with us, you would have thought we were the oldest of friends.  To my surprise, she looked right at Miss L, took her by the shoulders, and pushed them back.  Gently but firmly, she said to my five-foot-ten inch daughter, now standing straight and tall, “Don’t . . . ever . . . slouch.”  As Miss Lavender processed this injunction given from the Vintage Maven of Los Angeles (and New York, for that matter), Shareen continued.  “Your shoulder blades–they’re your wings,” she explained, “and you want them to touch.”  Then she illustrated, showing us the way Miss Lavender, with her shoulders back, could have been touching her imaginary wings together.

I loved the metaphor:  shoulder blades as wings, always meant to be touching.  But I loved other things, too–the way Miss Lavender had instantly become not just a customer but the Pupil Of The Moment.  And the way drawing herself up to her full height seemed to give her a vision of herself as someone strong, elegant, empowered.  Do you know what that kind of carefully given–and poetic!–advice is worth to a mother anxious to give her daughter reasons to believe she can all but fly if she chooses?

When they fell deep into conversation about vintage, another side of Shareen’s character revealed itself.  As she talked about her passion for helping every woman find exactly the right dress, no matter her age or body type, she recounted how a woman who had decided to throw herself a quinceañera party for her fiftieth birthday had left the store just a few days earlier–before Shareen could properly attend to her.  “She left discouraged,” Shareen remembered as she explained that this woman had decided there was no point in trying to find a party dress that would flatter her.  “We could have found the right dress,” Shareen said with conviction, “but the store was busy that day, and I didn’t get to her in time.”

In the year and a half or so since our visit with the proprietress of L.A.’s most beloved vintage store, I’ve thought about how much she gave my petal:  a charge to stand up straight, always, and–equally important–an expressed belief that every woman deserves to feel beautiful when she decides she wants to dress up.  That’s part of what makes clothing exciting, after all:  the opportunity to play a part, and to make a statement about who you understand yourself to be.  With vintage, every piece already has a history that the new wearer often consciously deploys as part of an effort to communicate her sense of identity.  When Miss Zinnia dressed up for her “Gatsby” shoot on our terrace in Barcelona one afternoon several months ago, she saw herself as a character right out of a book or a film.  Her dress:  Shareen’s, of course.

Millay in Shareen vintage_7938

After our afternoon with Shareen, I wrote her, to thank her for her words of wisdom.  And she wrote back, telling me she’d wondered about me, about who I was.  “And here you are,” she said in her reply, thanking me for acknowledging the gift she’d given a clothes-loving teenage girl.  That’s what makes Shareen a force not just in the vintage realm but also–and probably more important–in the realm of Girl Power.  At Shareen’s place, every woman learns quickly that she deserves to stand up straight and to feel at ease in her own skin.

(Photo:  a Gatsby-esque Miss Zinnia, in BCN.)

 

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