What Rush Limbaugh, Chris Brown and Modern Family All Have in Common
Nine Disturbing Messages That Will Perpetuate the Self-Esteem Crisis Among Girls and Women Unless We Collectively Speak Up
Most people are stunned to learn that according to recent studies, the self-esteem of the average girl in our society peaks at the age of 9 and then plummets. What’s worse is that many (and I dare say most) women will tell you that their 9 year-old self-esteem never fully returns and that they have spent the better portion of their adult life trying to find and reclaim the confidence and self-value they knew as little girls.
Why do we all need to know about what effectively constitutes a crisis of self-esteem among girls and women in our culture? Because multiple studies have drawn strong correlations between low self-esteem and eating disorders, drug abuse, depression, risky sexual behavior, low academic performance and general performance levels that are well beneath one’s potential.
For those of us who have daughters, it’s a no brainer that this is cause for great concern. For those who don’t, you might want to get concerned because the consequences of this reality can be dire and costly, on many levels, particularly given the reality that 51% of our population is female. Indeed, at a time when this country needs all hands on deck, we should be figuring out how to support girls and women in reaching their highest potential so that as a team we are as strong as possible.
Unfortunately, in the midst of Women’s History Month, a harsh reality is being pulled into sharp focus: in spite of more than 100 years of dedicated efforts to create a collective awareness of the innate, sacred value of women, everywhere a girl turns she hears messages to the contrary. In fact, over the last few weeks alone, girls and women have gotten the message loud and clear about how little valued and respected they actually are.
Here are just a few of many recent messages that will continue to perpetuate the devastating lack of value collectively held for girls and women and that which they hold for themselves. My hope is that these will inspire you to become fierce and determined to challenge and actively counter these messages. As women, we must embody our power and speak up. If you are a man who truly loves, values and respects women, you must speak up. It is the only way to ensure that our daughters will know their extraordinary value, in spite of all the messages they hear to the contrary and it is the only way we will be the strong team we need to be.
- Men in positions of authority have ultimate authority over women’s bodies. Although this is by no means a new message, the reality of a predominantly male congress and an all-male panel of religious leaders and professors making decisions and testifying at a hearing on women’s access to contraception (and abortion in other legislative discussions) makes it one of the most blatant examples we’ve seen in a while. The message, as Elijah Cummings appropriately criticized, is that ‘the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, or worthless, or irrelevant to this debate.’ It is little wonder that so many girls defer to what boys want or need in a variety of contexts rather than being their own authority on everything from the smallest daily decisions to those directly related to their bodies and well-being.
- Speaking up on behalf of yourself and other women will lead to shame and ridicule of the highest order. It should have been a no brainer and a powerful example of democratic citizenship when Sandra Fluke attempted to speak at the House oversight committee hearing on the requirement that health plans provide contraception coverage with no co-pay. Instead, she was initially denied the right to speak before an all-male panel and when she was allowed speak at a subsequent hearing, she was punished with being called a ‘slut and ‘prostitute’ over the course of three days of attacks by Rush Limbaugh. This kind of behavior is not new and is intended to shame women so harshly that other women will take note and choose to remain silent rather than protect themselves, thus maintaining the status quo. It may help a little to make your daughter aware of the multiple sponsors who have pulled their advertising dollars from Limbaugh’s show in protest. However, you will still have to address the fact that three of the presidential candidates who were asked for their thoughts on Limbaugh’s behavior all but blatantly condoned it and the Missouri House Speaker has declared he will move forward with plans to erect a bronze bust of Rush at the State Capitol.
- It is shameful for women to be sexual creatures. On the ignorant assumption that Fluke’s testimony about access to oral contraceptives had anything to do with frequency of sex or number of partners, Limbaugh took it upon himself to make a statement, via Fluke, about women who do have sex. He called Fluke ‘a woman who is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her life woman…[who] wants all the sex in the world whenever she wants it, all the time, no consequences. No responsibility for her behavior.’ And so our daughters hear that a woman who desires sex and chooses to have sex (part of being a healthy human being, by the way) is baseless and immoral. Please see Deborah Tolman’s Dilemmas of Desire for an excellent analysis of and assistance with this one.
- Women who serve in the military should expect to get raped. Somehow it seems even more egregious when messages like this come from women. Fox News contributor, Liz Trotta’s ‘what do they expect?’ response to the question of the increase in rapes in the military sends a strong message to girls and women about rape being acceptable in certain contexts. In fact, it perpetuates the notion that at least some of the time, rape is a woman’s fault and that women are not valuable enough to make rape abominable under any circumstances. On top of the hit to her sense of value within her culture, a message like this one will deter girls and women from reporting rapes when they do happen and with this mentality, they most certainly will.
- Religious freedom trumps a woman’s right to personal freedom. The recent diligent efforts to pass legislation that would reinstate restrictions on the rights of a woman to make decisions related to her own body and well-being send a profound message – that the decision-making abilities of women cannot be trusted nor respected and thus, they are not worthy, as full citizens, of the right to personal freedom. These efforts have been driven predominantly by the religious beliefs of some. Fortunately, the law of the land provides for individual freedoms (liberty), including the freedom of religion. The two can co-exist as long as everyone is committed to making individual choices that do not restrict or infringe upon the freedoms of another. One’s religious beliefs are one’s own. They are not to be imposed on others. Period. It’s just not that complicated. As Thomas Paine, one of this nation’s Founding Fathers said, ‘Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself – that is my doctrine.’
- The word ‘vagina’ is too shameful to be spoken – even by those passing legislation that relates to VAGINAS. In something that resembled casual banter between guys in a locker room, Virginia Politician Dave Albo shared his experience of how his plan to seduce his wife was thwarted by a television spot discussing the proposed bill that would have required women who want an abortion to first be subjected to a transvaginal ultrasound. However, although a supporter of the legislation, Mr. Albo couldn’t once bring himself to say the word ‘vagina.’ There are many aspects of this example that are problematic, including the fact that this man is co-creating legislation related to something he is so disconnected from he can’t even name it. But the most blatant and damaging message is the message that is sent when something is so shameful that it is unmentionable. Having a vagina is one of many basic defining characteristics of being female. It also happens to be the entrance to the world for most human beings and thus deserves absolute reverence, not shame. Until this, and not Mr. Albo’s message lives solidly in the minds of our female population, our self-value will continue to suffer.
- Men beating the crap out of their female partners just isn’t that big a deal. As if all the messages in the political realm weren’t enough, equally damaging commentary on the value of women was presented via the music world when Chris Brown was featured with not one, but two performances at the Grammy’s, a Grammy win and days later his latest musical collaboration with Rihanna was released. In case a re-cap is needed, in February 2009, on the way home from a pre-Grammy party, Chris Brown brutally beat his girlfriend Rihanna and was subsequently charged with felony assault. To be clear, this beating included excessive punching to her head and body, biting and threats to kill her. The good news is that some actually expressed their disdain for the message it was sending to have Brown featured at the awards show. The bad news is that most people clearly have no issue at all with what he did. They’ve continued to listen to and purchase his music and even the victim herself has invited him back into her life both personally and professionally. The most obvious statement about how trivial it is perceived to be for men to beat women and how little young women value themselves? Multiple tweets they sent from all over the country in support of Brown. This one from Sarahleighlove says it all: ‘I’d let Chris Brown beat me up anytime #womanbeater’.
- Menstruation is evil. Although it breaks my heart to include ABC’s Modern Family as a perpetrator of negative messages about girls and women, I have to. Last week’s episode made my stomach sink when Phil Dunphy refers to his wife and two daughters, who are experiencing the magic of entrainment and thus all menstruating at the same time, as ‘Satan’s Trifecta.’ REALLY?! This trailblazing, courageous show driven by apparently conscious writers is going to perpetuate the myth of ‘the curse’? The sooner we stop communicating to girls and women that menstruation, the powerful cycle that is uniquely female (and by the way, allows for the continuation of our species), deems them evil, crazy and fear-inspiring, the sooner they will begin to value themselves as extraordinary beings who are worthy of respect and I dare say reverence.
- Women are not to be trusted. While we’re on the topic of menstruation, I have to include the disturbing ‘gem’ that is still ringing in my head, courtesy of TNT’s seemingly real cop drama, Southland. Keep in mind that I consistently tell the girls and women I work with that the ability to bleed for 7 days and not die is part of what makes them magical, powerful creatures and is that which led many ancient cultures to revere women as the closest thing to the creator. So…you can imagine my dismay when I witnessed a scene in Southland with a group of cops sitting around the lunch table talking about women and one of them says, ‘Never trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die.’ With statements like this one swirling in their heads, girls and women will continue to internalize shame, self-disgust and a lack of trust for themselves. Disempowered people do not function at their highest potential. Period. Let’s stop the madness and collectively work to become a stronger team.